You asked, we know: No doubt about it, I have a great job. For the past five years as a food writer and dining editor for CityBeat, I — along with our hungry team of chowheads — am paid to navigate the Greater Cincinnati area sampling the city's best (and on occasion not so great) culinary fare and then am provided the editorial space to ramble on in great length with flowery adjectives, unnecessary flourish, excessive enthusiasm and frequent rants.
Yes, it might even be the best job going (other than Derek Jeter's personal masseuse or host of NPR's Fresh Air).
In our weekly columns we've debated the merits of local barbecue, burgers and breakfast; feasted in dives, diners, urban bistros and fine-dining establishments; championed family-run restaurants and complained about cookie-cutter chains; wept in our Red Beans and Rice when we had to say goodbye to a local favorite such as Mullane's; and confessed our multiple foodie orgasms from the chef's table in Pigall's kitchen.
I admit, unapologetically, that it's bit of absurdist theater.
As food trekkies, we range far and wide in our search for what's new, different and unusual, but like everyone else — especially when we're paying our own way — we dine out to celebrate special occasions, to entertain out-of-town friends, alone, with family, for fun and simply just for sustenance.
As we did last year in the first "Where to Eat" guide (see issue of April 28-May 4, 2004), we're responding to readers' inquiries throughout the year of where to take a date, to take the parents or guests, to live the local legend or even to feel like you're someplace else. We don't award points or scores to fine-dining establishments — rather we're pointing you in the direction of experience because we feel that's what best represents Cincinnati's diverse culinary scene.
If you're operating under any delusions that the Greater Cincinnati area isn't a good place to wine and dine, think again. While the area has raised the culinary bar in the last 10 years with a feast of talented chefs serving gastronomic pleasures composed of exotic ingredients, we're perhaps even more fortunate to have an ever-widening variety of small, casual establishments serving serious homestyle food.
From Peruvian to Irish, Baltic to Latin, French to Korean and Cajun to, naturally, Midwestern — and more — these places are unbounded by rules or pretension, an ebullient reflection of heritage and community. If you still doubt, turn to the comments and thoughts in our annual "Where the Chefs Eat" section (see Cover Story 2)— nearly all of these recognized chefs choose the café tables and Formica counters of neighborhood diners, small ethnic restaurants and burger joints as their favorite spots to dine (other than their own places, of course).
And don't forget to grab CityBeat's annual dining guide inside this week's paper — we profile 190 of our favorite local spots. There's also the Web version of our dining coverage, which offers contact, cuisine and menu information on more than 900 places throughout Greater Cincinnati (check citybeat.com/current/diner.shtml).
Writing about food has been one of the great adventures of my life. The only thing better is cooking it, eating it and, most importantly, sharing it. It's in sharing when we repeatedly discover the power of food to connect people and that the ritual of dining out is really about the ritual of coming together, kinship and expression of self.
Now let's eat.
Where to Impress a Date
· Chokolate Morel (Mason)
The small, European-style rooms are intimate enough for you to steal some kisses and whisper poetic sighs while you enjoy the "twisted" Latin-fusion cuisine of Chef Dave Avalos and Pam Kennedy's scrumptious desserts. Its historic charm includes a resident ghost, which we take every opportunity to exaggerate so that our date holds on to us a little tighter.
· Daveed's (Mount Adams)
Go to a place where they are in love with food, and love is sure to follow. We have no doubt the extraordinary flavors coming out of this kitchen will light your fire.
· Nicola's (Over-the-Rhine)
An Italian meal is a story told from nature, and there's no better storyteller right now than Chef Cristian Pietoso, who's creating some of the most innovative Northern Italian seafood dishes in his father's eponymous restaurant. One bite of the creamy, dreamy Seafood Risotto or the exciting Black Squid Ink Tortelli amid the candlelit glow of the open, polished-rustic dining room and your date will be singing "amore."
· Tousey House (Burlington, Ky.)
The combination of rich, red walls and bourbon have always worked for us when we consider romantic settings, but add Chef Kristy Schlack's delicious uptown, down-home food like shrimp and pan-fried grits served on tables of crisp white linen in cozy rooms and you've got a recipe for romance, Southern style.
· York Street Café (Newport)
We like to think of York Street as the Pyramid Guide for Dating. While you're waiting for a table, cruise up to the third floor to stimulate the eye with the latest art exhibition; then to the first floor to satisfy the taste buds with good food and wine (and in one of the funkiest dining rooms anywhere); and then finally to the second floor to hear a variety of great live music.
Where to Dine Alone
· The Bonbonnerie (O'Bryonville)
The perfect place to keep yourself company. Order the most exquisite piece of cake they have, sit happily at a small table with a nice cup of tea and meditate on every delicious crumb. This is the foodie equivalent of a hot bath and is considered equally therapeutic by all the experts.
· Bronte Bistro (at Joseph-Beth Booksellers, Norwood)
Perch at the counter for breakfast, lunch or dinner with a New York Times or just chat with the regulars and friendly serving staff. Try a homemade scone, muffin or cookie or one of the selections prepared from the cookbook of the month.
· Habañero (Clifton)
For food that fits a college student's budget and the nice big tables. Spread out your homework while enjoying a Latin-inspired burrito the size of your head. Try the Mad Max (a package of batter-fried perch and pinto beans, white rice and cabbage) or the Arroyo Hondo (with flank steak, black beans, white rice, caramelized shallots and mint salsa).
Where to Go to See and Be Seen
· Bella (Downtown)
With high heels and plunging necklines, sky-blue tiled bar, très chic tapered stools and metronomic soundtrack, you'll see why the beautiful people come here to sip their martinis. While being seen, try the sautéed Bella crab cakes — two meaty patties served with a cumin-scented remoulade and a melon relish fit to lick off the plate. Every bit the voyeur, we've been know to hang out on the second floor getting a bird's eye view of the action (and cleavage) on the main level.
· Beluga (Hyde Park)
Put on your black clothes, mousse your hair and try to look nonchalant. Beluga continues to be an epicenter of cool for the Euro-chic of Cincinnati.
· Boca (Oakley)
With some of the most dramatic food in the city coming out of Chef David Falk's kitchen, a table in Boca's handsome main dining room is the hottest ticket in town to score. If you do, expect to hear the expressive moans of well-dressed, high-rolling food and wine connoisseurs extolling the virtues of Falk's signature dish of sea scallops with caramelized Brussels sprouts in brown butter truffle vinaigrette.
· JeanRo Bistro (Downtown)
For power lunching, the mirrors make sure you don't miss an entrance, and the meal makes the deal. Show your vast resources by buying an island — a floating island of meringue in a sea of vanilla sauce.
· Jeff Ruby's (Downtown)
One of the best places to spy local political sorts out on the town (we danced with the mayor, but we're certain he wouldn't remember). Filled with leggy, blonde servers and cigar-toting men, you'll be tempted to look for the poker game or boot-leg business in the back while you work on a 28-ounce dry-aged steak. If you come to gawk, don't forget the doggie bag!
Where to Live the Cincinnati Legend
· Camp Washington Chili (Camp Washington)
Forget about the Maisonette — this is the dead center of Cincinnati's culinary universe. Stand there and read all the news clippings that plaster the walls and you'll realize that when the world out there talks about food in Cincinnati they talk about Camp Washington Chili.
· Graeters (various locations)
If Cincinnati had its own currency, their Chocolate Chip would be the face on the dollar bill. If we were a famous, busty blonde with perfect teeth (and married to a Cincinnati native), we would develop a line of body lotion that smells (and tastes) like Graeters' Black Raspberry Chip ice cream.
· Scotti's Italian Restauarant (Downtown)
OK, so maybe you're not going to get the best Italian food in town, but you are going to experience a sort of Goth Italian theater with an interior right out of a movie set — crazy tiled walls, red and white checkered tablecloths, hundreds of Chianti bottles and an abrupt, gruff waitstaff. Make sure you check out the bathrooms in the cave-like basement. Our imagination has us wondering what's preserved in the huge, pad-locked deep freezer in the hallway.
· Skyline Chili (various locations)
We're sure to get a lot of mail that begins with "Dear Expatriate" if we don't include Skyline. You might eat Gold Star once a week, but when someone from out of town asks where to go for chili, admit it — we know you send them to Skyline. In the Cincinnati catechism, Skyline is sacrament.
Where to Go When You Want to Feel Like You're Some Place Other Than Cincinnati
· Andy's Mediterranean Grille (Walnut Hills)
Brothers Majed and Big Andy Hajjar are the ultimate hosts, inviting you to share their heritage as well as a meal. Let Big Andy talk you into a truly delicious Lebanese beer; add a falafel sandwich or kabob, an evening of belly dancing, finish off with a toke from a hookah pipe and you'll find yourself asking Andy if you can borrow his fez.
· Jo An (Erlanger)
The beauty of Jo An is that, although it's located in the middle of nowhere (how much more anonymous can you get than an office park in Northern Kentucky?), when you're there it really feels like somewhere else. The fantabulous sushi, subdued lighting, minimalist interior and tables full of Japanese businessmen in socks and dark suits will transport you to a culture of grace and elegance.
· Knotty Pine on the Bayou (Cold Spring)
From the slanted floors and the pastoral view of the Licking River to the 'gator stew and gumbo, we swear — if we squint just so — that we're actually in swampy, Cajun low country. This laid-back roadside inn attracts a share of local residents, but on weekends (or Thursday nights for Crayfish Boils) you'll run into swells of foodies lookin' to get their Creole on, so make sure to call ahead.
· Riverside Korean Restaurant (Covington)
Where else in the Cincinnati area can you eat fiery hot Kim Chee and Bi Bim Bab with chopsticks while sitting on the floor in your socks? And we can't say this enough: Beautiful men serving you on their knees is a definite attraction. More restaurants should try this — it could really catch on.
· Slims (Northside)
While there are many beautiful, well-designed dining rooms in Cincinnati, we still think there's none as unique as Slims. The angular room, handsome communal tables, bright windows, large sculptures and mellow, artsy vibe inspired our Californian guest to exclaim, "I wish we had a restaurant like this in San Francisco."
Where to Dine Outdoors
· Claddagh Irish Pub (Newport (Newport)
An oasis in the usual chaos that descends on Newport on the Levee on a weekend night. Sit on the patio overlooking the river while you enjoy some fine fish and chips, clam chowder or corned beef and cabbage. Claddagh also offers 25 bottled beers, 10 draft beers, 14 types of Irish whiskey, 19 single malt scotch choices and Irish coffee drinks. With this kind of menu, we could be on that patio for a long time!
· Indigo Casual Gourmet Cafe (Hyde Park)
Enjoy the white pizza in the charming, shaded courtyard while you can. It's so damn tasty the GOP is likely to sign a bill in the middle of the night to outlaw it soon. Our right-of-center friends would argue that anything that produces such evil, uninhibited sounds of satisfaction must be immoral.
· Ludlow-Bromley Yacht Club (Ludlow)
You might know LBYC for cheap drinks, but did you know they have some of the best ribs around? Served on Thursday nights, they come with plenty of unnecessary sides too, because all you really need is a huge slab of ribs, a three-inch stack of napkins, a bucket of ice-cold beer and time to watch the river roll by.
· Teak Thai (Mount Adams)
This top spot for Thai has some of the hottest outdoor tables in town, and for good reason. There's no place better to eat the delicious, spicy cuisine than in the cool breeze of this popular restaurant's multi-leveled outdoor courtyard. From favorites like Panaang Curry and Pad Thai to a full sushi menu, we love the combination of cold beers and hot food under the stars.
Where to Dive
· Anchor Grill (Covington)
We'd consider getting drunk just to go to "The Grill" and be part of the swaying, surreal 3 a.m. scene of happy lit-up people downing greasy biscuits and gravy, goetta and cheese omelettes while the jukebox plays on. Wait a minute, we've done that. A few times.
· The Loyal Café (Bellevue)
The ironic hipster alternative to nearby Newport on the Levee, the Loyal Café is frozen in time around the Andy of Mayberry era. But if you like simple no-frills food and reasonably priced, c'mon down. Wear suspenders, pants at your nipples and an old-guy hat to blend in with the crowd.
· Sugar 'N Spice (Bond Hill)
You'll find everyone from local lawyers to college students to factory workers here. The restaurant has been serving the area since 1941, and some of the employees have been there for almost as long. What it lacks in fresh paint and elbow grease it more than makes up for in friendly service and good breakfast food like the Popeye Omelet or wispy thin blueberry pancakes.
· The SpeakEasy (Crescent Springs)
Not for the faint of heart, but if you can get past the stale smoke (dining out on the deck is an option) the cheeseburgers here are The Best. They'll actually serve you a cheeseburger medium rare, the way God intended a cheeseburger to be — greasy, juicy, dripping with fried onions, served with a side of damn good fries. The onion rings rock, and the fish sandwich is fantastic.
· Tuckers (Over-the-Rhine)
Tuckers has the feel of a hash joint, but the food is a cut above. In addition to some traditional diner favorites, they serve the best vegetarian omelet and hash browns (made with fresh herbs from Findlay Market) in the city and even vegetarian sausage and goetta. We declare Joe Tucker breakfast king!
Where to Go for Chain Restaurants That Don't Feel Like Chains
· Bonefish Grill (Hyde Park and Crescent Springs)
Bonefish is known for fresh fish grilled over oakwood, but the bread alone — a large, warm chunk with a side of pesto olive oil — will make you question its chain status. The service is polished but casual without silly hats or clever buttons. Check out happy hour for interesting wines at $2 a glass.
· Mitchell's Fish Market (Newport on the Levee and West Chester)
The fresh fish counter is a nice display of Mitchell's commitment to fresh seafood. The menu offers many of the usual seafood options, but for an interesting twist try the seared Salt 'n Pepper Tuna with Wasabi and Apricot Ale Sauce appetizer; the crispy Kung Pao Calamari with chopped peanuts, scallions and red chilies; or Smoked Salmon and Deviled Eggs
· Redfish (Downtown)
The service makes the difference. From the flamboyant maitre d' to the low-key barkeeps, these folks are veterans of downtown dining, not kids from the Production Line School of Chainsville. When you ask what looks good tonight, they'll tell you, not sell you. Trust them.
Where to Take Your Parents
· Biagio's Bistro (Clifton)
Biagio's might convince your parents that the Olive Garden isn't the only game in town. With homemade pasta dishes and desserts, it's a great place for the folks — nothing too exotic, just good, simple, homestyle Italian food. Tell them that they won't even have to change out of their sweatpants to dine at this unpretentious little bistro.
· JeanRo Bistro (Downtown)
Just because your parents have completely white-bread palates is no reason for you to have to endure a bad meal. Bring them here, tell them they're getting chicken and order the Coq au Vin. It's delightful and so tender it falls off the bones. They'll love it. Order it for yourself, too.
· Hofbr#228uhaus (Newport)
We're a city with German heritage, so just give in and let the family feast on pork and sauerkraut while you indulge in German-crafted beers. As they raise their glasses and sing "Edelweiss" with their new best friends at the long beer-hall tables, you can quietly pretend you're not related.
· Maury's Tiny Cove (Cheviot)
Maury's feels like another time — 1949 to be exact. A table that's pre-set with a bowl of pickles will delight your parents. Try an order of deep-fried mushrooms or shrimp cocktail, followed by an iceberg lettuce salad with French dressing and blue cheese crumbles. There's The Bobcat for Mom (a 5 ounce petite filet mignon) and the Cavalier for Dad a 12 ounce New York strip steak with onion strings). Leave the 3-inch heels at home or you'll graze your head on the ceiling.
· Pomodori's Pizza (Clifton Heights and Montgomery)
Pomi's has something for everyone. From pepperoni to prosciutto and beyond, the pizza toppings range from traditional to trendy. And with the small, wood-fired pizzas, families can do what they do best — disagree! There are pastas, plain or with pizzazz, and salads with toasted croutons or gently slivered goat cheese. You get the idea.
· The Phoenix (Downtown)
The food and white tablecloth service harkens back to a simpler time when your parents went to cocktail parties and dinners instead of doctors. The opulent, historic building sets the stage for a nostalgic evening out with drinks, lobster bisque, Oysters Rockefeller and crab-stuffed trout. Put in a request to the singing server to croon a tune for Mom. ©