Best Of 2023

Chef Jeff Harris brings a taste of New Orleans to Over-the-Rhine with his restaurant Nolia, which recently garnered a James Beard nomination for the best new restaurant in the nation. Located in the space that formerly held another James Beard-recognized eatery, Please, Nolia’s shotgun-style, open kitchen puts out a seasonally changing menu that reflects Harris’ childhood. Tapping into the cuisines of the Big Easy — specifically the Ninth Ward — as well as Texas and the Carolinas, diners will find the chef’s versions of classics like hush puppies and skillet cornbread, plus entrees like duck and oyster gumbo, an amazing vegetarian hoppin’ john and beef grillades with grits. And in true Gulf fashion, there’s also a raw bar. Get an order of oysters with tasso mignonette, marinated crab claws or peel-and-eat shrimp with cocktail sauce — or combine all three in the Ba Kri Twa. No matter what you order, make sure you ask for a side of the housemade hot sauce. noliakitchen.com.

A fixture on the Ohio Buckeye Candy Trail, Haute Chocolates in Montgomery has been crafting its signature buckeyes — a confection named after the famous Ohio nut — and bringing delight to gift-givers’ loved ones since 1979. While many places just use milk chocolate for the outer layer of the buckeye, Haute Chocolates enrobes their creamy peanut-butter centers in milk, dark and white chocolate for a perfect assortment of flavors that will add an extra sweet touch to birthday, holiday and just-because presents. Buy boxes of mixed buckeyes or a full carton of just your loved one’s favorite. haute-chocolate.com.
Goose & Elder's Big Salad
Photo: Hailey Bollinger
Goose & Elder's Big Salad

It’s really hard to find a good salad. A lot of restaurants are lazy and just toss some mixed greens at you with a sprinkling of cranberries and goat cheese, or a wedge of iceberg and bacon. Are these technically lettuce-based dishes? Yes. Are they exciting or fulfilling as a meal? No. But Goose & Elder’s Big Salad — inspired by Elaine Benes’ order on the Seinfeld episode of the same name — is. It’s just a really good, fresh, hearty salad infused with a variety of flavors and textures, and it will fill you up. There’s a base of farm greens topped with seasonal veggies (generally something crunchy), sliced hard-boiled egg, cherry tomatoes and green olives. There’s no cheese on the salad, which is typically a travesty, but you can opt to add everything from avocado to grilled chicken, local tofu or housemade falafel. It automatically comes with house vinaigrette, but we recommend you swap that out for the buttermilk ranch. And order a side of crinkle-cut fries. gooseandelder.com.

Do you eat birria quesadillas while sizzling tequila planes fly overhead, or are your dinners boring? El Asadero’s menu is drool-worthy — there’s something for everyone on each and every page, and it’s all packed with juicy, rich Mexican and Tex-Mex flavors. The best part, though, is the atmosphere. From the commotion created with every tequila flight, frozen margarita and birthday to simply the truly hospitable spirit of the staff, El Asadero is a must-visit Mexican restaurant. elasaderombg.com.

A little bit of sweet and a lot of spicy, W Bar + Bistro’s red-pepper bisque will keep you warm during the long Cincinnati winters. Red bell peppers are blended into a thick soup with bits of green apple to add just a touch of sour to the peppers’ sweetness. But that’s not all — the spices in the soup kick it up several degrees on the Scoville scale, leaving you with a pleasantly spicy burn to balance out that sweet-sour flavor. If you need something to cool off your meal, pair the bisque with W Bar + Bistro’s Nut + Berry Salad. wbarbistro.com.

Housed in Revolution Rotisserie's old location, Milkman's mix of new and old-school styles creates a cheeky and fun atmosphere.
Photo: Courtesy of Milkman
Housed in Revolution Rotisserie's old location, Milkman's mix of new and old-school styles creates a cheeky and fun atmosphere.

Best known for serving a side of nostalgia with your hamburger and boozy milkshake, MIlkman in Over-the-Rhine has perfected its spin on the classic cookies & cream flavor. Their Cookies & Irish Cream milkshake is whipped up with vodka, Oreos and Buffalo Trace bourbon cream, which makes this drink rich with just the right amount of smoothness. Top it off with some whipped cream and a side of fries for Frosty-style dipping. ​​milkmanbar.com.

Is it a hearty breakfast or a sweet treat? Trick question — the Piggy Pancakes at Cincinnati brunch champion Sleepy Bee are both. A little bit of salty and a lot of sweet, Sleepy Bee adds bacon right into the batter and then tops off the pancakes with whipped cream and candied pecans. You can get the pancakes made two different ways: as super fluffy buttermilk pancakes or as the gluten-free bee cake, which is made from bee-pollinated flowers. For some extra protein, add an egg, thick-cut bacon, sausage or goetta (including vegan goetta!) to your order. sleepybeecafe.com.

Cackleberry
Photo: Provided by Cackleberry
Cackleberry

It’s a crime that Cackleberry is only open on the weekends, but we’ll let it slide, because their Lola breakfast sandwich is un-fucking-believable. SPAM® is crisped to salty perfection and nuzzled next to a soft tamagoyaki-style egg while spicy mayo and chives bring it home on a brioche bun. Cackleberry operates as a pop-up, so check their ultra-stylish Instagram to find out where they’ll be setting up their iconic camper. eatcackleberry.com.

Chocolate chip cookies from Em's Sourdough Bread
Photo: facebook.com/emsbread
Chocolate chip cookies from Em's Sourdough Bread

Not only does Em’s Sourdough Bread make bomb buns, bread and hot made-to-order sandwiches, but their chocolate chip cookie is reason enough to make a trip down to Findlay Market. It has the perfect ratio of chips and dough with a soft center, making this a fan favorite you don't want to skip over. If you're looking for a refreshing beverage to wash your cookie down with as you stroll through the market, grab some of their fresh-made lemonade for the perfect afternoon pick-me-up. emsbread.com.

Real-deal coffee lovers don’t give up in the summer, they just switch to cold brew, but even purists need to switch it up sometimes. Enter Mom 'n 'em Coffee & Wine’s coconut cold brew. The smooth-but-not-so-sweet coffee is light and tropical, pairing great with a splash of your favorite milk and a sunny spot on the sprawling patio at their Camp Washington location. momnemcoffee.com.

Buckabee Brownies
Photo: facebook.com/buckabeebrownie/
Buckabee Brownies

Mondays can be tough. Buckabee Brownie, which claims it’s Cincinnati’s only bakery specializing in brownies and blondies, knows this, which is why each Monday they offer a treat featuring two start-of-the-week necessities: coffee and chocolate. The Blue Ash shop’s delectable, fudgy brownie is swirled with white chocolate and then infused with coffee for an intense, well-paired flavor. Mondays are no match for this perfect square of indulgence. buckabeebrownies.com.

If there’s one thing Chad Johnson said over the past year, it was “I’m lovin’ it.” The former Bengals wide receiver frequently gathered with football stars old and new during the team’s 2022-2023 season, posting his exploits on social media and eating his way through town. Sure, he continued his $1,000 tips for Cincinnati restaurant staff, and sure, he often ended up at Jeff Ruby’s Steakhouse just like many athletes and celebrities do. But Johnson also made no bones about his love for McDonald’s, particularly the location in Covington. In a genius move, he brought Mickey D’s to Jeff Ruby’s, proceeding to chow down on both $2 burgers and $250 Wagyu steak at a fancy-schmancy table. That combination just may be the city’s most expensive Happy Meal — no toy prize necessary. mcdonalds.com, jeffruby.com.

Sugar is great, but sometimes your sweet tooth craves something a little hotter. The solution? Dulce Pecado’s mangonada in Hamilton. It’s an authentic Mexican frozen treat that features blended mango swirled with chamoy and topped with chunks of fruit, more chamoy and a chili-lime seasoning. A tarugo, or tamarind candy stick, completes the sweet-yet-spicy dessert that looks like a sunset in a cup. Searchable on Facebook.

Known for its innovative, artisan cannoli creations, Del Gardo’s isn’t afraid to take this humble Italian pastry and fuse it with flavors from other cultures. The shop calls its crème brûlée cannoli one of its favorites, and it’s easy to see — and taste — why. The rich custard and caramel flavors of France’s crème brûlée marry perfectly with the classic Italian cannoli pastry shell and ricotta-based filling, giving notes of butterscotch and Madagascar vanilla. It’s an easy and delicious way of country-hopping across Europe without leaving Covington. delgardos.com.

It's easy to get swept up in the food, fun and history that is Findlay Market, but you're missing out if you don't stop by BanaSun Smoothie Bar for the most delicious smoothies and smoothie bowls made from fresh and real ingredients. If it's your first time in, go for their cocoa bowl, which is an irresistible mix of almond milk, bananas, dates, cacao, peanut butter and cacao nibs, and is best topped with the classic pack option that includes a sweet and savory mix of sliced bananas and strawberries, granola, almonds and chia. Though it's packed with nutritious ingredients, it tastes even better than ice cream. Not only are their smoothies and bowls absolutely delicious, but the staff is super friendly and helpful, making it a delightful experience every time. facebook.com/banasun513.

Nestled on Court Street between Downtown and Over-the-Rhine and housed within a single-story building with, appropriately, candy-striped awnings is the long-running candy shop Minges Candy. Opened in 1905, Peter Minges & Son Wholesale Candy and Confections — the name only adding to the charm — sells wholesale and individual candy classics spanning the decades. Inside the open, airy room, a long central counter with glass cases of housemade chocolates takes center stage in front of walls of colorful candies that pop. Stop in to take in the charm and taste a sweet side of Cincinnati history. facebook.com/mingescandy.

Mama’s on Main
Photo: Catie Viox for Zest Cincy
Mama’s on Main

Mama’s on Main is a pure delight for the tastebuds. Located along Main Street in Covington’s MainStrasse Village, you may have to place a reservation weeks (or months) ahead, but the food is well worth the wait. With pasta and entree selections like lemony aglio e olio, spaghetti and meatballs, eggplant (or chicken) parmesan, tagliarini with mushroom ragu and ricotta gnocchi, Mama’s lives up to its name. Prepared with high-quality ingredients, their Italian offerings are reminiscent of dishes your mom might serve up. Make sure to start with the bread service, a crispy helping of focaccia served alongside melt-in-your-mouth ricotta, olive oil and black pepper. And you’d be remiss not to indulge in their tiramisu. The restaurant’s baroque decor paired with stained-glass windows and plenty of natural light creates a cozy-but-inspired atmosphere sure to keep you coming back. And make sure to stop by on weekend mornings — from 9 a.m. until sellout on Saturdays and Sundays, Mama’s slings pastries and sweets along with coffee to wash it all down. mamasonmain.com.

Hot, spicy and full of surprises — it’s Joe Burrow (the sushi roll!). Kanji honors the Bengals’ fearless leader with this deep-fried roll packed with shrimp tempura, jalapeño, salmon, cream cheese, spicy crab and eel sauce. It’s the game-day food you didn’t know you needed, and it goes perfectly with a Rhinegeist Cheetah for the full local effect. kanjiotr.com.

Daylily Deli, an NYC-inspired bodega, is a welcome new addition to the Columbia Tusculum neighborhood, filled with locally made goodies and more inside. During one visit, enjoy a fresh cup of Deeper Roots coffee or grab a bag of coffee beans to make at home along with fresh bagels from the Bagelry, housemade sandwiches, alcoholic beverages and essential groceries like milk, cheese and canned pantry staples. Grab a seat inside, on their back patio, or take your food to go as you explore the rest of the sights on Eastern Avenue. Whatever you do, it's a good bet you'll keep returning for more. daylilydeli.com.

Pancit, a classic Filipino dish of stir-fried rice noodles mixed with meat and vegetables, may be a side dish at Christine’s Casual Dining in Western Hills, but it’s a culinary star in its own right. Mixed with chicken, beef, carrots, green beans and cabbage at Christine’s, it pairs wonderfully with the restaurant’s steamed rice and chicken skewers on the combo platters. Add a frozen lime margarita to the mix and some ube ice cream for dessert, and you’ll be in Filipino-food-inspired heaven. christinescasualdining.com.