Best Of 2020

Best $10 Lunch Deal
Photo: Hailey Bollinger

Chef Jose Salazar opened Goose & Elder, a sort of comfort food destination with self-described “Midcentury grandma” décor, adjacent to Findlay Market last year. It’s the third in the local favorite’s restaurant portfolio, which includes the eponymous New American Salazar (opened in 2013) and the Spanish/Latin American Mita’s (opened in 2015). Sydney Fisher is chef de cuisine here but Salazar himself greets patrons and puts finishing touches on just about every plate coming out of the kitchen. Though it feels more casual or at least more affordable than Salazar’s other eateries, Goose & Elder’s menu is just as creative, boasting fun takes on easy eats. Chicken wings are covered with Calabrian chili sauce and served with parmesan dip; the baked mac and cheese is infused with pickled jalapeno; fall-off-the-bone duck leg confit is served over grits; and the fried bologna sandwich comes topped with American cheese, pickles, coleslaw, an over-easy egg and potato chips. Retro cocktails like the Harvey Wallbanger and White Russian add a fun twist. And if you stop by for lunch during the week — specifically between 11:30 a.m. and 3 p.m. Tuesday through Friday — don’t sleep on the burger deal. You can get a Royale Goose burger, featuring grass-fed beef, American cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion, pickle and Dijonnaise on a sesame bun, plus crinkle cut fries and a soft drink for $10. Pretty sweet because usually all of those options come a la carte. Goose & Elder, 1800 Race St., Over-the-Rhine, gooseandelder.com.

Tucked away in a strip mall along Dixie Highway and helmed by a former U.S. Army Sergeant and family (look for veteran and service member discounts), Sake Bomb in Erlanger is a staple of sorts among Northern Kentuckians. Serving up Korean and Japanese grub — including sushi, bento boxes, ramen, stone bowls and more — the restaurant also touts items that cater to a variety of dietary needs, from vegetarians to those who need or want to go gluten-free. Sake Bomb has also developed dishes that cater to those with diabetes, including a bowl made with barley/brown rice and a medley of veggies: bean sprouts, spinach, lettuce, carrots, beets, zucchini, mushrooms, pickled radish, broccoli and kimchi — all topped with an egg. In another quirky turn, you can also feast on goetta fried rice here and green tea ramen. Bonus: Sake Bomb keeps the kiddos entertained with DIY sushi classes. Sake Bomb, 3072 Dixie Highway, Erlanger, sakebombcatering.com.

Best Alternative to Totino’s Pizza Rolls
Photo: Hailey Bollinger

In 2014, Sarah Dworak quit her real estate job in favor of full-time pierogi making, pressing out the little Eastern European potato dumplings by the dozen to sell to customers at her Findlay Market storefront and grocers and restaurants throughout Cincinnati. By 2018, her Babushka Pierogies business occupied a late-night window on nearby Main Street at the future home of Wodka Bar, a homage to all things vodka and traditional Slavic delicacies. Between flights of house-infused spirits, guests can snack on bites of caviar in puff pastry, pickled fish and vegetables, smoked meats and cheese and butter on dense, dark rye bread. Of course, there are also plenty of pierogies and kielbasa bowls to scarf down — get them for dinner or a happy hour snack or get comfy for Sunday pierogi brunch in the luxe bar, finished with all the intricacies of Eastern Orthodox architecture. And fear not: The walk-up window is still open for dinner and late-night bites (and lunch on the weekends) with a streamlined menu of what one could consider “drunk food.” There’s a Polish sausage sandwich (like a fancy hot dog), your choice of four pierogi, a vegetarian 4-way pierogi stuffed with lentil chili and topped with cheddar cheese, sour cream and Frank’s Redhot and the crown jewel: Pizzarogies. Pizzarogies are the Totino’s Pizza Rolls of the pierogi world — deep fried and full of pepperoni and provolone, served with dipping sauce. And you don’t even need to turn on your toaster oven. Wodka Bar, 1200 Main St., Over-the-Rhine, wodkabarotr.com.

Vogue magazine and Food & Wine both released a list of their “most anticipated” American restaurant openings of 2020 and, surprisingly, a forthcoming Queen City eatery popped up on each: Khora. Khora is slated to open in spring 2020 in downtown’s new Kinley Hotel (the one going in the building where the old Payless shoe store was) and will be helmed by chef Edward Lee and executive chef Kevin Ashworth. The Vogue round-up — which includes restaurants in cities like Boston, L.A., New York and Chicago — highlights Khora in its list of 27 eateries from some of “the country’s most iconic cooks” and other international big-name chefs. Food & Wine has it called out in its gang of 16. And both mention Ashworth’s plan for his inspired menu. “Ashworth, who worked alongside Lee for over a decade in Louisville at 610 Magnolia, MilkWood, and Whiskey Dry, is from the Cincinnati area, and is plotting fun twists on regional classics — including a pasta inspired by Cincinnati chili,” says Food & Wine. The pasta-driven operation will be a play on the restaurant name, which apparently comes from the word “khorasan,” an ancient grain. Khora, 37 W. Seventh St., Downtown, vhghotels.com.

Best Baby Cheezus
Photo: Hailey Bollinger
click to enlarge Best Baby Cheezus
Photo: Hailey Bollinger

Mikey’s Late Night Slice is an Instagram-feed feverdream of a pizza parlor that serves a blend of Ohio/New York-style pizza by the slice (or pie) and “unpretentious classic cocktails.” With glowing neon signs, ’80s music videos, boldly patterned wallpapers, an entire wall of record covers and retro industrial décor, it’s a pulsing TGI Fridays reimagined to meet the needs of modern millennial diners. It’s fun, it’s weird and it’s attached to its sister bar — Oddfellows Liquor Bar — via an electric bathroom grotto. The Columbus-based operation offers options for vegetarians, vegans and gluten-free diners, plus drunk people as a nice nod to the “late night” in the name. Order one of the Sacraments, a list of outrageous pizza bastardizations, for a decadent experience. The Pizza Dawg is a butterflied hot dog stuffed with pepperoni and cheese and served with a pizza as the bun. The Cheezus Crust is a grilled cheese sandwich with pizza instead of bread. And if you’re feeling naughty but not that naughty, the Baby Cheezus is slightly less overwhelming in size but “every bit as blasphemalicious.” We’re calling it the best, but we can’t really think of any other grilled cheese pizzas... Mikey’s Late Night Slice, 2014 Elm St., Over-the-Rhine, latenightslice.com.

At the end of 2018, Covington favorite walk-up bagel window Lil’s Bagels abruptly closed. But after a long hiatus, the “Windough” reopened in April 2019 with a new concept. The menu had been expanded — with several kinds of non-bagel sandwiches and more spreads — and they introduced the Fam Club, a fee-based program in which members receive discounts on food and coffee and invites to special events. Some of those events included movie nights on the patio, all-you-can-eat latkes, pizza bagel Friday and LGBTQ nights. And in mid-February, after a fundraiser and much community support, Lil’s officially opened an indoor café. The restaurant offers a full deli, boozy brunch cocktails and seating for more than 20, plus a gold-framed TV screening throwback sitcoms or cartoons. “We truly see Lil’s as a community-owned space, and hope everyone uses it as an extension of their own dining room,” owner Julia Keister told CityBeat. Lil’s Bagels, 308 Greenup St., Covington, lilsbagels.com.

Want to get some highly allocated wagyu beef in your kitchen? Check out Wyoming Meat Market, which has been serving its community’s hungry carnivores for decades. The market is a great spot to purchase locally raised meat, eggs and dairy, or, if you want to stop in on your lunch break, phenomenal sandwiches that showcase their mastery of all things meat. The market also hosts demos on how to fully break down half a cow. This past winter, they gave a step-by-step class on how to butcher an Ohio-raised carcass from Sakura Wagyu Farms to a full house. Wagyu is a breed of cattle prized for its exceptional tenderness and fat distribution. Meat connoisseurs consider it the champagne of beef thanks to tightly regulated guidelines on the animal’s breeding and diet. A lot of work is needed to process wagyu cattle into steaks but the end results are deliciously worthwhile, as those in attendance at the Wyoming Meat Market’s ticketed event found out. Starting with the forequarter of the cattle, market owner Jim Gelhausen and apprentice Shelbi Nation began to cut it down into individual cuts such as brisket, chuck and ribs. And then provided excellent examples of how to best savor each different one (with a bonus Wagyu tasting menu complemented by wines from Charles Krug Winery and dessert pairings made with dairy from Indian Creek Creamery). Wyoming Meat Market, 513 Wyoming Ave., Wyoming, facebook.com/wyomingmeatmarket.

When Kroger on the Rhine opened in September, it was the first Kroger location in downtown Cincinnati proper since 1969. The multi-floor concept — and we’re just talking about the Kroger here, not the attached garage or the market-rate apartments — brings to mind the food halls of larger American and even European cities. Food halls are not quite market houses, grocery stores or food courts, they’re a mix of all three and On the Rhine Eatery is Cincinnati’s first. It’s a trend that allows patrons to wander while snacking and drinking in a community space. Located on the second floor of the grocer, the food hall is home to five favorite local concepts: Eli’s BBQ, dope! Asian Street Fare, Django Western Taco, Queen City Whip and Kroger’s 1883 Café & Bar. You order from each restaurant independently and then bring your food to the tables at the center. There’s also a full-service bar so you can grab a glass of wine or cocktail while you dine. If there’s space on the outdoor patio — there are only a few coveted tables — it’s an excellent, elevated spot to watch the world go by. Kroger on the Rhine, 100 E. Court St., Downtown, ontherhineeatery.com.

Best Boujee Way to Eat 24K Gold
Photo: Hailey Bollinger

With a mission “to continue sweetening life in urban Cincinnati” the Harkins and Grear families opened The Bold Face Dairy Bar, a whippy-dip-style walk-up window in East Price Hill in 2018. Their extra rich and extra velvety creamy whip includes elevated and epicurean flavors ranging from chai tea and pistachio to cardamom, coffee and bourbon barrel stout. But their crowd favorite, The Bold Face Cone, demands all the attention. Served in a waffle cone lined with caramel syrup, this decadent treat is filled halfway with creamy whip, loaded with a pocket of chocolate sauce, topped with more creamy whip and then adorned with chocolate sprinkles, mini chocolate chips and a real 24K gold leaf — that’s right, you can have your gold and eat it, too (for only $12). For a down-to-earth neighborhood treat, Bold Face also has soft serve, orange soda and root beer floats, shakes and malts, gourmet ice pops, smoothies and flurries. There’s even a “baby” cone for only $1. The Bold Face Dairy Bar, 801 Mount Hope Ave., East Price Hill, boldfacedairybar.com.

Best Brunch Spot Turned Dinner Hub
Photo: Hailey Bollinger

Nestled behind the bright windows of a garage-door-style front in an unexpected corner of Newport, The Baker’s Table has been serving local, seasonal cuisine to the masses since December 2018. This little gem of a restaurant offers such a cozy, inviting décor and ambiance that one immediately feels at home. And the menu adds to that sense of well-being. With a focus on the titular baker’s table, the brunch offerings read like a love letter to biscuits and brioche and sourdough sandwiches. Options run the gamut from breakfast pastries, like the raved-about Italian ricotta donuts, to biscuits and gravy with Eckerlin pork sausage. After attracting national praise from food and dining website Eater and USA Today, husband-and-wife ownership team chef David Willocks and designer Wendy Braun announced they’d expand their Newport breakfast, brunch and lunch spot offerings to include dinner. Dinners demonstrate that the kitchen has gone way beyond bread as a mainstay of the menu, rotating in pastas, vegetarian main courses and meat, poultry and fish entrées while still keeping a few baker’s choice breads. Hungry guests can always expect inviting interiors, housemade everything and excellent service, no matter the time of day. The Baker’s Table, 1004 Monmouth St., Newport, bakerstablenewport.com.

Nestled at the intersection of Delta and Linwood avenues in Mount Lookout Square (hence the name), Delwood is a family-friendly and dog-friendly Peruvian-inspired gastropub. Delwood’s kitchen is small and so is the restaurant, but what it lacks in size it makes up for in worth-the-wait flavor. The petite food menu offers six different sharables and eight sandwiches and salads, like their popular Delwood Burger, topped with salsa criolla (a sort of vinegary red onion and pepper mixture), avocado and huancaina sauce. But the thing that has people raving here is, surprisingly, the Brussels sprouts. These charred and crispy green balls of goodness are served with a garlicky, spicy verde aioli — and that’s it. There’s no bacon or over-easy egg or anything else to distract from the veggie itself. The cocktail menu also includes a taste of Peru via the pisco sour, made with the titular South American liquor, egg white, lime, simple syrup and bitters. Delwood, 3204 Linwood Ave., Mount Lookout, delwoodcincy.com.

Best Bull Cartoon
Photo: Hailey Bollinger

Maury’s Tiny Cove has been packed full of flavor and West Side tradition since 1949. The dimly lit supper-club vibe backdrops an extensive menu consisting of all the classic steakhouse options: tender, juicy filets, seafood and chicken cooked just right, plus pasta, retro sides (shredded lettuce salads; a complimentary ramekin of pickles on every table) and a perfect martini. And in 1995, CityBeat writer Steve Ramos paid tribute to this comforting stalwart, comparing it to Shangri-La with a baked potato on the side: “Maury’s is a culinary temple to permanence. Dining fads come and go, health trends constantly change. But Maury’s stays the same: red meat, baked potatoes, salads. We’re not talking about some retro diner a la Johnny Rockets that tries to recreate an old-fashioned eatery with a ’90s twist. This is the real thing.” And you can’t forget Maury’s iconic sign, featuring a kitschy cartoon steer holding a martini. The restaurant is still a staple and was immortalized on screen in the Oscar-nominated, Cincinnati-filmed movie Carol. Maury’s Tiny Cove, 3908 Harrison Ave., Cheviot, maurys-steakhouse.com.

Best Cafe to Get a Taste of Honduras in Northern Kentucky
Photo: Hailey Bollinger
click to enlarge Best Cafe to Get a Taste of Honduras in Northern Kentucky
Photo: Hailey Bollinger

Unataza Coffee was born from owner Alejandra Flores’ desire to bring together two places she loved dearly: Northern Kentucky and her native country of Honduras. Flores initially opened up her business as a pop-up shop and facilitated coffee origin trips to her home country to show the process behind the beloved beverage. In fall of 2019, Unataza Coffee opened a brick-and-mortar in Dayton, Kentucky. The shop may be well-known for its delicious caffeinated drinks using Honduran coffee, but they also offer a petite menu of Honduran-inspired dishes, including their Sopa de Res and the popular Tacoma Taquito. They also host seasonal nightly events including Spanish lessons and salsa dancing classes. Unataza Coffee, 620 Sixth Ave., Dayton, Kentucky, unatazacoffee.com.

Best Charcuterie on a Cafeteria Tray
Photo: Hailey Bollinger

With the nostalgic flair of Atomic Age cocktail parties out in full force, Los Angeles transplants Julia Petiprin and Catherine Manabat opened HomeMakers Bar in summer 2019 to the glee of the inner retro enthusiasts and dance party fiends in all of us. Beverage variations spin contemporary twists on cocktail menus of the 1950s and ’60s and fall under “A Stiff Drink” or “Keep It Light:” sip on something strong or let the team introduce you to their favorite aperitifs and low-proof spirits. Their stellar spritzer hour and late night Disco parties are reason enough to pop into this playfully designed corner of East 13th Street, but HomeMakers’ bar snacks deserve accolades all their own, even earning a shoutout from The Wall Street Journal for their ham salad sandwiches, Hanky Pankys and dressed up salami roll ups. (If you know, you know.) Matched with a side of Ritz crackers, these grown-up versions of a kid’s cold cut paradise are served two ways: one with tarragon, lemon and garlic cream cheese and another with smoked paprika, cucumber and lime cream cheese. The Welcome Wagon charcuterie adds on manchego, drunken goat cheese and Urban Stead gouda with Sixteen Bricks bread, stone-ground mustard, garlic honey, pickles, spiced nuts and seasonal housemade jams — all nestled into their respective compartments of a cool, candy-colored cafeteria tray. Finger food of yesteryear, welcome to tomorrow. HomeMakers Bar, 39 E. 13th St., Over-the-Rhine, homemakersbar.com.

2. Gold Star

3. Dixie Chili   

Even though Xavier University graduate Patrick Kaple may not be a Cincinnati native, he really likes Skyline Chili. So much so that he created a challenge for himself: to eat 1,000 cheese coneys in one year. The challenge started in December 2018 after Kaple was inspired by an article he read in the Cleveland Scene, telling CityBeat at the time, “I decided to embark on this challenge mainly because I thought that I could do it. My friends and I stumbled across an article written by Cleveland Scene tabbed: ‘An Ohio Man ate 400 Skyline Chili Cheese Coneys this year and is still somehow alive.’ I have some friends who eat three coneys every day for lunch at work and we’re like, ‘Why is that something newsworthy?” I said, ‘I’m going to go for 1,000 and see what happens.’ If you love Skyline that much, 400 coneys is like second nature to you.” Kaple started a Twitter profile with the handle @1kconey, where followers could keep up with his journey and receive daily updates on his coney count. On Dec. 15, 2019, Kaple threw a party to celebrate his success and consume his 1,000th cheese coney surrounded by his friends and supporters at Norwood’s Dana Gardens. Skyline Chili retweeted a video of Kaple eating his coney, recognizing his devotion to the delicacy. “1k Cheese Coneys in 365 days. Safe to say Patrick is our #1 fan,” the post read. And that is how a legend was born. His first bite is also immortalized on a plaque his brother gave him with a photo, the date and the words, “Stay Golden Coney Boy.”

Best Creole Cream Pasta
Photo: Hailey Bollinger

From 2011 until 2018, owner Joby Bowman and chef Michael Shields ran BrewRiver GastroPub as a Creole and craft beer-focused eatery on Riverside Drive before the closure of longstanding Italian eatery Bella Luna opened up a bigger space nearby. The duo has now brought the spirit of New Orleans to that stately — and much larger — 150-year-old building on Eastern Avenue, changing their restaurant name to BrewRiver Creole Kitchen. Shields, who earned his chops under Emeril Lagasse, has added new items to the menu — broiled oysters, fried green tomatoes and jambalaya — but kept his focus on Crescent City cuisine. “People get confused by our restaurant because restaurants are usually Cajun if they are New Orleans-themed,” Bowman told CityBeat. “We called ourselves ‘Creole’ because it comes from the influence of French, Spanish, African, Italian, even Vietnamese in New Orleans food.” One of those Creole dishes is Pasta Monica, inspired by Crawfish Monica from the New Orleans Jazz Fest: plump shrimp are placed on spaghetti and generously coated in a spicy cream sauce; vegetarians can sub in mixed vegetables for a flavor-packed entrée. If the weather’s nice, try to snag a spot on the small patio and sip a Hurricane or Sazerac. BrewRiver Creole Kitchen, 4632 Eastern Ave., East End, brewrivercreolekitchen.com.

Social OTR in Findlay Market has two spaces: a main restaurant and a back bar. At the main Elm Street entrance, you’ll find a couple of sidewalk patio tables and a sunny front room with a mirrored bar and communal tables. The back room — also known as The Alley at Social…because you enter from Campbell Alley — has a darker, cozier feel where the bartenders double as servers. It is here where you’ll find the 5-1-3 Happy Hour, named for the city’s area code, boasting $5 house wines, $1 oysters and $3 drafts. It happens 4 to 6 p.m. every day they’re open aka Tuesday through Saturday. And this isn’t the only special at Social. On Tuesday, you can get a pound of mussels and a bottle of house white for $20, then come back on Wednesday for burger night. (They also have a special brunch menu on the weekends.) A nonprofit venture, Social OTR nails its ambitious New American menu full of snacks and shareables while aiming to fill a multitude of societal and business needs. In partnership with CityLink Center, a faith-based nonprofit organization that works on multiple fronts to combat poverty, the restaurant offers an internship for students involved in the Findlay Culinary Training program. Students participate in a workforce development program before getting hands-on training in the restaurant to prepare them for a professional career in kitchens around the area. Social OTR, 1819 Elm St., Over-the-Rhine, socialotr.com.

When Glier’s Goettafest took to the Newport riverfront last summer, it did a full Coachella (minus the ultra-expensive musical lineup and plus lots more goetta), and encompassed two weekends and eight days, running July 25 to 28 and Aug. 1 to 4 at Festival Park on the Levee. That was the first time the annual celebration has expanded in its 18-year run. Goetta — a log of pork and beef, whole-grain oats, onion and spices — is our city’s most popular regional dish after Cincinnati-style chili. And chances are high that you’ve been ordering Glier’s brand goetta from local restaurants; the Covington-based company claims to sell the most goetta in the world and has played a large role in maintaining goetta’s popularity since the sausage kitchen and smokehouse opened more than 70 years ago. Not unlike scrapple, livermush or haggis, the meat was made to stretch and is generally considered a breakfast dish. But Goettafest makes its vendors think outside the omelet by requiring each of them to have an entirely unique menu. That means the food variety at the festival is incredibly diverse. You’ll find goetta fudge, goetta pizza, goetta Rangoon, ice cream topped with crumbled goetta, goetta on a sick, deep-fried goetta balls and the ever-popular grilled goetta donut sandwich. In addition to eats, there are carnival games, live music and even a refrigerated goetta vending machine on-site in case you want to take goetta home. So why the double dates? The only complaints Glier’s says it ever received about Goettafest are that it is always too busy and people with strollers or wheelchairs can’t easily navigate the crowd, so the solution was to stretch the party out longer with the hope that attendance wouldn’t be so heavily concentrated. It must have worked because they’re doing it again this year: July 30 to Aug. 2 and Aug. 6 to 9. Glier’s Goettafest, Festival Park on the Levee, Newport on the Levee, Newport, goettafest.com.

For more than 30 years, Fred & Gari’s has been a bustling favorite of the downtown lunch crowd, with its ’80s-throwback neon sign, house-roasted meats, pizza and homemade dessert — the fresh cookies are to-die for and have been a staff favorite since we gave them a Best Of Cincinnati pick in 1999 (and if it’s your first visit, you may get a free one). The deli also specializes in a damn good soup-and-sandwich combo and the egg salad option is a nostalgic throwback, full of mayonnaise-y goodness and topped with lettuce, tomato and onion. While you wait for your sandwich to arrive in its Styrofoam container, enjoy the lighthearted banter between Fred, Gari and the slew of regulars. Fred & Gari’s, 629 Vine St., Downtown, facebook.com/fredgaris.