Bragging Rights

Nine local, independent restaurateurs describe what they do best


incinnati has 320 reasons to be proud of its dining scene — that’s the number of local restaurants in CityBeat’s annual Dining Guide. We’ve got amazing Asian cuisine, bodacious burger joints, fantastic fine dining and even delicious dives. You name it, we’ve got somebody who does it, and does it well.

So we asked some of our best local places to brag a little. Tell us what you do best. Tell us why we should dine with you. What are you proud of?

Max Monks, Habanero Latin American Fare



We came before the chains, before the billboards. We’ve been here since November of 1999, so I’m gonna say we were ahead of our time. But what makes us a success? We’re unique. We serve food that no one else has. Mango jalapeno salsa? The chains aren’t doing that. You can’t get a fish burrito at a chain, or a vegetarian burrito with cinnamon roasted squash like we make ourselves. You don’t get food made from scratch there, but you do here. And we’re part of the Clifton community. We belong to the Clifton Arts Council. Local musicians play here. And the neighbors appreciate that. That’s another reason why Habanero’s been here for almost 12 years. (358 Ludlow Ave., Clifton, 513-961-6800.)

Ronda Androski,

Arnold’s Bar and Grill:


At Arnold’s, we brag a lot! Our age — that gives us bragging rights. Arnold’s has been in continuous operation since 1861, and 150 years is a heck of a heritage. People say that a visit to Arnold’s is like a taste of the distilled essence of what they like best about Cincinnati: it’s old, it’s diverse and it’s a little bit quirky (hey, there’s a bathtub in the upstairs), but it’s also got unexpected beauty hidden within it — that’s our courtyard. I put my heart and soul into our food, and the courtyard is the perfect place to eat it: a bowl of my homemade soup or a big turkey, avocado and bacon salad, or a bowl of Greek spaghetti, a cold Christian Moerlein beer and red-hot live local music. A night out there tells you a lot about us, about Cincinnati, who we are and what we do best. (210 E. Eighth St., Downtown, 513-421-6234.)

Harry Stephens,

The View and Bella Luna



What we do, it used to be what everybody did. We understand that we’re not in the restaurant business. We’re in the people business. At any restaurant you can expect good food and good drinks. Our strong point is hospitality. We train our people, and we run our hiring process based on that. You can’t teach people personality and common sense. We hire on personality. When customers come here, if they don’t feel that we cared that you were here, then we failed you. I worked for a large chain. I saw managers do the “shooting gallery” walk, looking straight ahead. I know their motivation. The corporate office is directing them to get the numbers right, and that’s what’s on their mind. If you want an old-fashioned restaurant experience, then you need to go to an independent restaurant. (Bella Luna: 4632 Eastern Ave., Columbia Tusculum, 513-871-5862; The View: 2200 Victory Pkwy., Walnut Hills, 513-751-8439.)

Gary Zakem, Rascals’ NY Deli



We brag about our authenticity. Our knishes, our noodle kugel; people go nuts when they eat ’em because it’s the real thing. Our reubens — we serve more reubens than anything else, and our pastrami, our matzo ball soup. This isn’t imitation New York deli food, definitely not. It’s the real thing. Our blintzes are homemade. We even make our own pickles, because we want them to be the way they should be. Our brisket is first class, our rye bread is, too. “New York style” might be overused, but to us it’s true. It’s genuine. I can taste the difference, and my customers can, too. (9525 Kenwood Road, Blue Ash, 513-429-4567.)

Matt Buschle, Virgil’s Cafe



At Virgil’s, we make food. Real food. Cooked in-house. That’s what’s lost in chains, where you’re just reheating or rehydrating what someone else made. Cooks are creators. Our creativity and our craft is constantly evolving. We have a new menu that started this week, but we’ll have another new one next week. It’s not pre-prepared. We actually cook, and anything’s possible. And we’re not the only ones in town doing this. Mayberry, JR’s Table, Melt, Take the Cake — this is what’s going on. It’s passionate people working at the highest level of their craft. (710 Fairfield Ave., Bellevue, Ky., 859-491-3287.)

Paula Kirk,

Paula’s Cafe



It’s quality. Big chains can’t do what I do. They don’t get to choose, like I do, to use fresh meat, fresh bread from Bill (Pritz at Shadeau Bakery). They have to use proprietary bread — some corporate guy decides it, based on accounting criteria. I decide what we’re using, based on my criteria: Would I want to eat that? Because I only serve what I want to eat, which also is what my customers want to eat. My turkey breast is fresh. It’s like a Thanksgiving turkey. It’s $3.19 a pound. So what? It’s what I want. I eat what I cook. This is hands-on ownership. A friend of mine bakes the cakes. That’s all she does, is those two cakes for me. It’s personal. It’s more than a sandwich shop. It’s a small business, and I want to make a difference. (41 E. Fourth St., Downtown, 513-381-3354.)

David Falk



: Blowing people away

The single thing that I’m the most proud of is our staff. We have a philosophy — we want to blow people away, BPA. That’s what makes people come back. And it wouldn’t work if our staff didn’t believe in it. Having great people enables us to give our guests a world-class dining experience, and having great people, people who are passionate, that allows us to BPA. I am so proud of my staff. You know, if your kid’s teacher sends a note home praising your kid, well, you’re happy for the teacher, right? But you’re proud of your kid — that’s the big thing. Our success is the success of our team. We live it. We breathe it. We believe it, and I think it has made Cincinnati love us and embrace us. Being independent, that gives us the flexibility to spontaneously create an amazing experience — to run out and get something to surprise and delight our guests — and we encourage that. We give our staff every tool imaginable to make that happen, and we celebrate it. We have BPA awards for the best “blowing people away” moments, and we make the awards really personal, because we’re trying to blow our own people away with the award. That energy, I just love it. (3200 Madison Road, Oakley, 513-542-2022.)

Terry Carter,

Terry’s Turf Club



I only use the best ingredients. Everything is over the top. Could I leave some of it out? Yes, but I don’t want to. I want the best. Some of my food cost is so high, it’s twice as high as a normal restaurant margin, but the quality of the food brings people in, so that makes it worth it. For my truffle oil, I use fresh truffles. That’s crazy, right? But all my ingredients have to be top of the line. I use a pepper, it’s called Grains of Paradise. I brought it back from the Amazon. It’s $79 an ounce. But it has these floral ginger overtones that make a difference in the sauce. In my burgundy wine sauce, I use seven different demi-glazes — and this place is a burger joint, you know. I use red wine, fresh truffles, grains of paradise, marsala wine, shitakes, portabellas. It takes me three hours to make — well, usually four, because I’m usually multitasking. But people love it, and I wouldn’t do it any other way. (4618 Eastern Ave., East End, 513-533-4222.)

Angela Wong-Miller, Oriental Wok



We brag about our food, of course, but we love to brag about our customers. Seriously, my dad (Oriental Wok owner Mike Wong) even came up with a wall where he puts up a Hollywood star for the customers who come here all the time — we call it the Wok of Fame, pun intended! They’ve become like family to us, like Wongs once removed. And my dad loves to bang the celebration gong when it’s somebody’s birthday — that’s the Chinese version of making someone wear the sombrero at a Mexican restaurant, right? But it’s our way of saying that we treasure our customers, the people who are loyal to us, who choose to dine with us. Some of them have been coming since we opened in 1977. And we put up messages on our sign outside on Buttermilk Pike for the special occasions that people share with us — birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, graduations, bar mitzvahs, whatever! It’s an excuse to party, so we’re all about that. My mom rolls her eyes, but secretly she likes it, too. Right, Mom? (Multiple locations; go to for more info.)

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