Over-the-Rhine might get more attention as a hip neighborhood, but I would nominate the intersection of Walnut and Sixth streets downtown as one of the best parts of Cincinnati — it’s got everything. Expand the geography by a couple of blocks and you wouldn’t have to go anywhere else in the city to find a plethora of delights.
The renaissance there began in 1995 with the opening of the Aronoff Center for the Arts. Headlined by the Broadway in Cincinnati series and joined by several other resident performing arts groups, the Aronoff provided an anchor that eventually made this quarter arguably one of the most vibrant sections of the city. Nearby “destination” establishments now include the Contemporary Arts Center, Jeff Ruby’s Steakhouse and the super-popular Boca and Sotto restaurants. In 2012, the 21c Museum Hotel opened directly across the street from the Aronoff and quickly became one of the premier hotel accommodations in the metro area.
The first 21c (for 21st century) was launched in 2006 by an art-loving Louisville couple in their home city. They wanted to share their personal, contemporary art collection in an upscale, innovative hotel environment — part lodging, part gallery. And not at all as an afterthought, the property included a cutting-edge restaurant: Proof on Main. It was an immediate sensation and although the couple hadn’t intended to grow into a chain of hotels, 21c Cincinnati became the second location. As of this writing, there are eight hotels, each with its own farm-to-table bar and restaurant facility.
Metropole is Cincinnati’s edition of the 21c food approach, and it has been one of my favorites in town since its opening. The name comes from the original use of the building: the luxury Hotel Metropole that dates back to 1912. The hotel lasted until the 1970s when developers converted it into apartments, leading to its renovation and reopening as 21c.
As a hotel restaurant, Metropole serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, and most of my experiences here have been at dinner. A few years ago, my husband and I spent New Year’s Eve in their dining room and although we arrived alone, we hit it off with a couple at the next table and made a party out of it.
I’m a fan of the bar scene at Metropole, too, both the main one adjacent to the ground-floor restaurant and the seasonal cocktail terrace on the rooftop. A talented staff of mixologists serves fresh, innovative libations along with solid versions of classic cocktails. Downstairs, you can sit in lounge chairs by windows facing Walnut Street or at the bar itself in a separate space. I love to get there in the late afternoon for an easygoing drink while reading a novel or fiddling with my phone.
The hotel’s wonderful spa shares the rooftop level with the outdoor cocktail lounge. The spa is small — only three treatment rooms — but provides a degree of luxurious pampering not found anywhere else in town. A treatment includes free valet parking, and there’s no reason not to cap off your relaxing afternoon with a drink, upstairs or down.
The restaurant has gone through some upheaval recently after executive chef Jared Bennett left to help open Karrikin Spirits Co. in Fairfax, taking a few Metropole staffers with him. I’ll have to admit that I was a little worried that the quality might decline after Bennett’s departure. On board since early this year, new executive chef David Kelsey has been with the 21c company for several years and brings continuity rather than change, which is a good thing when what you’ve got is mighty fine to start with.
A few signature items remain prominent on the dinner menu, such as the charcuterie option and the burnt carrot salad (our server said that one would never go away). You still finish your meal with a complimentary bowl of lemony cotton candy, even if you’ve already scarfed down the famous house dessert, the Metropole candy bar. And the hotel’s iconic big plastic penguin statues remain available to join your table, upon request.
The dinner menu has just a few sections. (The menu has been updated since this review; see the latest menu at metropoleonwalnut.com/menu) Along with the charcuterie bar listings, your choices include six starters, seven or eight entrées and three vegetables and grains. I loved the smoked cauliflower soup topped with a sprinkling of chopped walnuts, a dribble of chili oil and a dab of crème fraiche. The smoky vegetable purée and all those flavorful toppings completely masked the taste of cauliflower — in a good way. Charred pear and beet salad on watercress made a light, fresh beginning to the meal. A dinner companion ordered roasted Brussels sprouts as a starter, too. They were rich and cooked to a creamy consistency and accented with chopped dates and some of Metropole’s unforgettable smoked butter, which also comes with the complimentary Blue Oven bread basket.
I ordered charcuterie as a starter but was a bit disappointed. Having taken our server’s advice on which cheeses to try with my meat selection — a few quite satisfying slices of duck breast ham — I found both of his suggestions too salty and fairly bland. It probably was just a bad decision on my part; should have had that burnt carrot salad, which I know is fabulous.
We didn’t try one of the most interesting-sounding new items on the dinner menu: wild mushroom toast with mushroom gravy. But we all liked our entrées — pan seared monkfish with a mélange of unusual veggies, duck breast with crispy wild rice and rapini, and grilled salmon with lentils and snap peas.
Nobody had much interest in dessert, but I wanted to try something from the sweet side. From a short dessert menu, the Metropole candy bar seemed too heavy. That left coffee cheesecake or something called biscuits and cream. We split an order of the latter but it was a mess of a dessert; the biscuits were oddly shaped and brightly colored bits of tasteless dough scattered haphazardly around a bowl of various creamy piles. The server took it off our tab.
All told, Metropole remains one of the best — if not the best — hotel restaurants and bars in Cincinnati. Guests rave about the breakfasts, and the crowds will flock upstairs when the cocktail lounge reopens. Just perfect to enjoy the heart of our city.
Metropole, 609 Walnut St., Downtown, metropoleonwalnut.com.