November 27, 2019

25 Cincinnati Restaurants That Are Still Worth Writing About After 25 Years

The local food scene has been a cornerstone of CityBeat coverage since the beginning in 1994, albeit originally in slightly more obtuse ways — like we used to discuss the merits of baguettes versus rye and listed restaurant health code violations (a gross but informative early column). It wasn’t until later in 1995 that dining writer Polly Campbell — yes, The Cincinnati Enquirer’s Campbell did a stint as a CityBeat contributor — started regularly featuring and reviewing local restaurants. In that time, we’ve seen many establishments come and go — some good, some really good and some, honestly, kind of bad — and eaten at/written about most of them. Turns out, we’re pretty hungry and pretty opinionated. For our 25th anniversary, we thought we'd take a look at some of restaurants that have stood the test of time, including these favorite Queen City mainstays.
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Pompilios
600 Washington Ave., Newport
This restaurant, where the toothpick scene in Rain Man was filmed, has been offering classic family Italian food since 1933. You really can’t go wrong with any pasta dish. Play a game of bocce ball on the back court in the warmer months or grab a burger in the attached Colonel Pomp’s Tavern.
Photo: Hailey Bollinger

Pompilios

600 Washington Ave., Newport
This restaurant, where the toothpick scene in Rain Man was filmed, has been offering classic family Italian food since 1933. You really can’t go wrong with any pasta dish. Play a game of bocce ball on the back court in the warmer months or grab a burger in the attached Colonel Pomp’s Tavern.
Photo: Hailey Bollinger
Pompilio’s  
600 Washington Ave., Newport
Open since 1933, Pompilio’s is locally beloved for its family-friendly Italian fare and appearance in several motion pictures, including that toothpick scene in Rain Man and ’90s Rollerblading film Airborne (actor Shane McDermott who played relocated surfer Mitchell Goosen alongside the likes of Jack Black and Seth Green said Pompilio’s stands out as one of his favorite places in the city). Founder Colonel Pompilio was also the first to secure a liquor license in Kentucky after Prohibition ended, so they have a surprisingly extensive bourbon list. The menu is classic red-sauce Italian with dishes like homemade lasagna, manicotti and ravioli topped with Pompilio-family recipe sauces and served with a literal loaf of sliced white bread. The Pomp Salad (with homemade ranch dressing) and the killer cannoli are a must. The food is as casual and comforting as the surroundings, with a Sunday family dinner-vibe and a bonus bocce court. 
Photo: Hailey Bollinger

Pompilio’s

600 Washington Ave., Newport
Open since 1933, Pompilio’s is locally beloved for its family-friendly Italian fare and appearance in several motion pictures, including that toothpick scene in Rain Man and ’90s Rollerblading film Airborne (actor Shane McDermott who played relocated surfer Mitchell Goosen alongside the likes of Jack Black and Seth Green said Pompilio’s stands out as one of his favorite places in the city). Founder Colonel Pompilio was also the first to secure a liquor license in Kentucky after Prohibition ended, so they have a surprisingly extensive bourbon list. The menu is classic red-sauce Italian with dishes like homemade lasagna, manicotti and ravioli topped with Pompilio-family recipe sauces and served with a literal loaf of sliced white bread. The Pomp Salad (with homemade ranch dressing) and the killer cannoli are a must. The food is as casual and comforting as the surroundings, with a Sunday family dinner-vibe and a bonus bocce court.
Photo: Hailey Bollinger
Arnold’s Bar and Grill
1210 E. Eighth St., Downtown, arnoldsbarandgrill.com
Open since 1861, Arnold’s is the oldest continuously running tavern in town, complete with dark wood walls, vintage memorabilia and a big ol’ bathtub rumored to have been used to make gin during Prohibition. A Cincinnati classic, it serves up a nice range of lunch and dinner options — pasta, sandwiches and burgers, plus vegan and gluten-free options — at bargain prices, a concept instituted in the 1970s by then-owner Jim Tarbell. Enjoy a local draft in the outdoor courtyard, once used as a stable and carriage house, and almost daily live music. It was named one of the best bars in America by Esquire magazine and current executive chef, Kayla Robison, recently competed on Food Network’s Guy’s Grocery Games. 
Photo: Hailey Bollinger

Arnold’s Bar and Grill

1210 E. Eighth St., Downtown, arnoldsbarandgrill.com
Open since 1861, Arnold’s is the oldest continuously running tavern in town, complete with dark wood walls, vintage memorabilia and a big ol’ bathtub rumored to have been used to make gin during Prohibition. A Cincinnati classic, it serves up a nice range of lunch and dinner options — pasta, sandwiches and burgers, plus vegan and gluten-free options — at bargain prices, a concept instituted in the 1970s by then-owner Jim Tarbell. Enjoy a local draft in the outdoor courtyard, once used as a stable and carriage house, and almost daily live music. It was named one of the best bars in America by Esquire magazine and current executive chef, Kayla Robison, recently competed on Food Network’s Guy’s Grocery Games.
Photo: Hailey Bollinger
Zip’s Café
1036 Delta Ave., Mount Lookout, zipscafe.com
Open since 1926, Zip’s Cafe is an East Side institution and perennial Best Of Cincinnati staff and reader pick winner. The cafe’s claim to fame — besides the little toy train that runs along the ceiling — is having some of the best burgers in town: fresh, flame-broiled Avril-Bleh beef patties (sourced locally every day), served on a honey-egg bun. The fan-favorite Girth burger — named by former Bengal punter Pat McInally — features a classic Zip burger topped with a split, grilled Avril-Bleh mettwurst. With worn wood flooring and dark wood paneling, the small space is separated into a dining area and a bar by a saloon-style door. Zip’s owner Mike Burke says that years ago, the bar area or “code room” was where customers placed illegal bets on horse races. Today, head to the code room to grab a local beer on draft while you wait for space at a booth or a seat at one of the shared family-style tables.
Photo: Hailey Bollinger

Zip’s Café

1036 Delta Ave., Mount Lookout, zipscafe.com
Open since 1926, Zip’s Cafe is an East Side institution and perennial Best Of Cincinnati staff and reader pick winner. The cafe’s claim to fame — besides the little toy train that runs along the ceiling — is having some of the best burgers in town: fresh, flame-broiled Avril-Bleh beef patties (sourced locally every day), served on a honey-egg bun. The fan-favorite Girth burger — named by former Bengal punter Pat McInally — features a classic Zip burger topped with a split, grilled Avril-Bleh mettwurst. With worn wood flooring and dark wood paneling, the small space is separated into a dining area and a bar by a saloon-style door. Zip’s owner Mike Burke says that years ago, the bar area or “code room” was where customers placed illegal bets on horse races. Today, head to the code room to grab a local beer on draft while you wait for space at a booth or a seat at one of the shared family-style tables.
Photo: Hailey Bollinger
Scotti’s  
919 Vine St., Downtown, searchable on Facebook.
If you haven’t taken a selfie against the colorfully schizophrenic tiled dining room wall of Scotti’s, are you really a Cincinnatian? Run by multiple generations of the DiMarco and Scoleri families for more than a century, dining here is a real experience. The red-and-white checkered tablecloths, lit by dripping candles in old Chianti bottles, offer a bizarre portal into another time and place, filled with veal and pasta and the voice of early 1900s baritone Antonio Scotti (the restaurant’s namesake). Even in 1996, we loved this odd, historic gem for its singular ability to stand still while the world turned. “Scotti’s remains steadfastly anachronistic, evoking an old-fashioned view of Italy: Sicily, red sauce, opera singers. The cottage exterior is charmingly continental; inside, the narrow dining room was decorated by some kind of berserk tilesetter — the effect is halfway between the Watts Tower and your grandmother’s bathroom. Opera music plays, and the ancient cash register takes an amazing amount of banging and ringing to complete a sale. It’s all rather weird and wonderful and it’s impossible not to have a fondness for the place.” Grazie mille.
Photo: Paige Deglow

Scotti’s

919 Vine St., Downtown, searchable on Facebook.
If you haven’t taken a selfie against the colorfully schizophrenic tiled dining room wall of Scotti’s, are you really a Cincinnatian? Run by multiple generations of the DiMarco and Scoleri families for more than a century, dining here is a real experience. The red-and-white checkered tablecloths, lit by dripping candles in old Chianti bottles, offer a bizarre portal into another time and place, filled with veal and pasta and the voice of early 1900s baritone Antonio Scotti (the restaurant’s namesake). Even in 1996, we loved this odd, historic gem for its singular ability to stand still while the world turned. “Scotti’s remains steadfastly anachronistic, evoking an old-fashioned view of Italy: Sicily, red sauce, opera singers. The cottage exterior is charmingly continental; inside, the narrow dining room was decorated by some kind of berserk tilesetter — the effect is halfway between the Watts Tower and your grandmother’s bathroom. Opera music plays, and the ancient cash register takes an amazing amount of banging and ringing to complete a sale. It’s all rather weird and wonderful and it’s impossible not to have a fondness for the place.” Grazie mille.
Photo: Paige Deglow
Mecklenburg Gardens  
302 E. University Ave., Corryville
CityBeat contributor Felix Winternitz nicely summed up Mecklenburg Gardens’ status in local lore in a 1996 story: “Opened more than a century ago as a German biergarten, it evolved into a horse-gambling den, a source of illegal booze during Prohibition, a pizza joint, a billiard hall, a Mobil four-star restaurant and today a casual dining spot. Throw in some fires, at least one police shooting, plus the abductions and deprogrammings during the days it was owned by an ashram, and you’ve got the stuff of legend.” Mecklenburg’s also once served as a town hall for an imaginary German village — “Kloppenburg” — to help immigrants learn about American politics. And as much as the restaurant introduced Germans to American culture, today the beloved institution is a place to reconnect with Cincinnati’s Germanic roots. The grape-vine-laden arbors surround one of best biergartens in America (rated No. 1 by Travel + Leisure magazine in 2011). And while they do have a modern slant to some menu items, Mecklenburg’s excels at serving the best of the wurst: bratwurst, mettwurst and goettawurst on sauerkraut; wiener schnitzel; goulash; sauerbraten; spaetzle; soft pretzels with Düsseldorf mustard… all washed down with a hefeweizen or kölsch which, yes, you can get in a 1-liter glass boot. 
Photo: Hailey Bollinger

Mecklenburg Gardens

302 E. University Ave., Corryville
CityBeat contributor Felix Winternitz nicely summed up Mecklenburg Gardens’ status in local lore in a 1996 story: “Opened more than a century ago as a German biergarten, it evolved into a horse-gambling den, a source of illegal booze during Prohibition, a pizza joint, a billiard hall, a Mobil four-star restaurant and today a casual dining spot. Throw in some fires, at least one police shooting, plus the abductions and deprogrammings during the days it was owned by an ashram, and you’ve got the stuff of legend.” Mecklenburg’s also once served as a town hall for an imaginary German village — “Kloppenburg” — to help immigrants learn about American politics. And as much as the restaurant introduced Germans to American culture, today the beloved institution is a place to reconnect with Cincinnati’s Germanic roots. The grape-vine-laden arbors surround one of best biergartens in America (rated No. 1 by Travel + Leisure magazine in 2011). And while they do have a modern slant to some menu items, Mecklenburg’s excels at serving the best of the wurst: bratwurst, mettwurst and goettawurst on sauerkraut; wiener schnitzel; goulash; sauerbraten; spaetzle; soft pretzels with Düsseldorf mustard… all washed down with a hefeweizen or kölsch which, yes, you can get in a 1-liter glass boot.
Photo: Hailey Bollinger
Camp Washington Chili  
3005 Colerain Ave., Camp Washington, campwashingtonchili.com
In 1998, we ran a cover story on Camp Washington Chili asking whether progress could spell demise for the chili parlor. Nope. Opened in a former Kroger in 1940 by current owner Johnny Johnson’s uncle (Johnson, a Greek immigrant, started working there in 1951), the original Camp Washington Chili had to relocate next door during a road-widening project on Hopple Street. The new building, modeled after a 1950s-style diner and featuring the same iconic “chili” sign from the 1960s, carries on Camp Washington Chili’s 75-year legacy. Still helmed by Johnson and his family, the 24/6 diner is a James Beard Award winner, has been featured in a ton of national media and includes a menu of greasy-spoon breakfast offerings, double decker sandwiches, Cincinnati-style chili, coneys and even a few salads. “Chili is his passion, his first love,” Johnson’s wife Antigone said in the CityBeat story. “Everything else come(s) second. He’ll never retire.” It’s that devotion, plus the dependable sense of familiarity, family and neighborhood — and maybe a dash of that secret-recipe chili — that makes this parlor so iconic.
Photo: Hailey Bollinger

Camp Washington Chili

3005 Colerain Ave., Camp Washington, campwashingtonchili.com
In 1998, we ran a cover story on Camp Washington Chili asking whether progress could spell demise for the chili parlor. Nope. Opened in a former Kroger in 1940 by current owner Johnny Johnson’s uncle (Johnson, a Greek immigrant, started working there in 1951), the original Camp Washington Chili had to relocate next door during a road-widening project on Hopple Street. The new building, modeled after a 1950s-style diner and featuring the same iconic “chili” sign from the 1960s, carries on Camp Washington Chili’s 75-year legacy. Still helmed by Johnson and his family, the 24/6 diner is a James Beard Award winner, has been featured in a ton of national media and includes a menu of greasy-spoon breakfast offerings, double decker sandwiches, Cincinnati-style chili, coneys and even a few salads. “Chili is his passion, his first love,” Johnson’s wife Antigone said in the CityBeat story. “Everything else come(s) second. He’ll never retire.” It’s that devotion, plus the dependable sense of familiarity, family and neighborhood — and maybe a dash of that secret-recipe chili — that makes this parlor so iconic.
Photo: Hailey Bollinger
Dee Felice Café
529 Main St., Covington, deefelicecafe.com
Opened by Jazz drummer Dee Felice in 1984, this MainStrasse mainstay blends live music and Cajun flavor. In 1997, we wrote: “Entering the bistro you feel as if you’ve walked through some magic wall and into New Orleans’ French Quarter. You immediately encounter the smell of cayenne, Tabasco, crawfish and booze, and, if you concentrate enough, you can imagine a whispered ‘Throw us some beads!’ from the patrons.” The menu features all the classics — blackened catfish, jambalaya (with handmade andouille), po’ boys and an etouffee with a sauce so good they sell it by the jar — plus an iconic boll de neige dessert: basically a ball of chocolate cake and melted chocolate infused with rum, chilled and covered in whipped cream.
Photo via Facebook.com/DeeFeliceCafe

Dee Felice Café

529 Main St., Covington, deefelicecafe.com
Opened by Jazz drummer Dee Felice in 1984, this MainStrasse mainstay blends live music and Cajun flavor. In 1997, we wrote: “Entering the bistro you feel as if you’ve walked through some magic wall and into New Orleans’ French Quarter. You immediately encounter the smell of cayenne, Tabasco, crawfish and booze, and, if you concentrate enough, you can imagine a whispered ‘Throw us some beads!’ from the patrons.” The menu features all the classics — blackened catfish, jambalaya (with handmade andouille), po’ boys and an etouffee with a sauce so good they sell it by the jar — plus an iconic boll de neige dessert: basically a ball of chocolate cake and melted chocolate infused with rum, chilled and covered in whipped cream.
Photo via Facebook.com/DeeFeliceCafe
Blue Jay Restaurant
4154 Hamilton Ave., Northside, searchable on Facebook
In 2017, Northside’s Blue Jay celebrated its 50th anniversary. Of that anniversary, dining contributor Lauren Moretto wrote, “Near the corner of Hamilton Avenue and Medill Alley in Northside sits a piece of the American dream. Since its opening in 1967, the Blue Jay Restaurant has, for the most part, remained the same, boasting a nostalgic image and homestyle eats that keep regulars coming back and draws others in to experience the food for the first time.” Opened by Greek immigrants and still family owned, the diner boasts forest-green vinyl and vintage Formica and serves Cincinnati-style chili in bowls, on coneys and 3-ways, plus classics like all-day breakfast, double decker sandwiches and homemade pie. Its vintage appearance has also drawn the eye of Hollywood and the Blue Jay was featured in locally filmed movies including The Old Man & the Gun and The Killing of a Sacred Deer.
Photo: Hailey Bollinger

Blue Jay Restaurant

4154 Hamilton Ave., Northside, searchable on Facebook
In 2017, Northside’s Blue Jay celebrated its 50th anniversary. Of that anniversary, dining contributor Lauren Moretto wrote, “Near the corner of Hamilton Avenue and Medill Alley in Northside sits a piece of the American dream. Since its opening in 1967, the Blue Jay Restaurant has, for the most part, remained the same, boasting a nostalgic image and homestyle eats that keep regulars coming back and draws others in to experience the food for the first time.” Opened by Greek immigrants and still family owned, the diner boasts forest-green vinyl and vintage Formica and serves Cincinnati-style chili in bowls, on coneys and 3-ways, plus classics like all-day breakfast, double decker sandwiches and homemade pie. Its vintage appearance has also drawn the eye of Hollywood and the Blue Jay was featured in locally filmed movies including The Old Man & the Gun and The Killing of a Sacred Deer.
Photo: Hailey Bollinger
Sugar n’ Spice  
4381 Reading Road, Paddock Hills, eatsugarnspice.com
Back in 2016, we chatted with then-owner of Paddock Hills cult favorite eatery Sugar n’ Spice about the restaurant’s 75th anniversary. Opened in 1941 by Mort Keller — using a “wispy thin” pancake recipe he bought from an eatery during a trip to California — Steve Frankel took over the restaurant from a friend in 2010. In that interview, Frankel said, “It’s been here for so long at this point, everyone has a story here. …We aren’t considered an ‘East Side’ or ‘West Side’ establishment. We are just a Cincinnati establishment.” Now, almost eight decades in, it remains one of the city’s most popular places for people of all ages and socioeconomic backgrounds to grab breakfast. Earlier this year, Adam Mayerson — the sixth owner — bought Sugar n’ Spice from Frankel and has little plans to change the original location. But a second Sugar n’ Spice in the former Joe’s Diner in Over-the-Rhine is in the works (hopefully with more seating and the same rubber ducky toys to go).
Photo: Hailey Bollinger

Sugar n’ Spice

4381 Reading Road, Paddock Hills, eatsugarnspice.com
Back in 2016, we chatted with then-owner of Paddock Hills cult favorite eatery Sugar n’ Spice about the restaurant’s 75th anniversary. Opened in 1941 by Mort Keller — using a “wispy thin” pancake recipe he bought from an eatery during a trip to California — Steve Frankel took over the restaurant from a friend in 2010. In that interview, Frankel said, “It’s been here for so long at this point, everyone has a story here. …We aren’t considered an ‘East Side’ or ‘West Side’ establishment. We are just a Cincinnati establishment.” Now, almost eight decades in, it remains one of the city’s most popular places for people of all ages and socioeconomic backgrounds to grab breakfast. Earlier this year, Adam Mayerson — the sixth owner — bought Sugar n’ Spice from Frankel and has little plans to change the original location. But a second Sugar n’ Spice in the former Joe’s Diner in Over-the-Rhine is in the works (hopefully with more seating and the same rubber ducky toys to go).
Photo: Hailey Bollinger