Hearing a Boogie-Woogie tune on the piano while sipping a craft cocktail on a brightly furnished patio with a magnolia tree in view — you wouldn’t even have to squint to think you were in New Orleans. The atmosphere and cuisine at BrewRiver Creole Kitchen brings the spirit of the Crescent City to Cincinnati in a stately 150-year-old building on Eastern Avenue.
From 2011 until 2018, owner Joby Bowman and chef Michael Shields ran BrewRiver GastroPub on nearby Riverside Drive before deciding to branch out in two directions at once: BrewRiver became a taproom food provider at Sonder Brewing in Mason at nearly the same time they made the transition from a smaller gastropub location in the East End to a larger building in Linwood (previously occupied by Bella Luna).
“No sane human being opens two restaurants within two months of each other, but the universe and time decided what was going to happen,” Bowman says. “Many of my guests said, ‘Things happen for a reason and you are in the right place now.’ That’s how I choose to look at it; yes, it was hard, but it pushed us into a good direction.”
The transition has created expansive opportunities; by growing from a 97-seat restaurant with a 45-seat patio to a 200-seat restaurant with a 35-seat patio, BrewRiver has the chance to serve far more guests and, in the future, offer private parties and receptions.
“Ultimately, we picked (the Eastern Avenue space) because of the location, the beauty and the history of this building; it was always a restaurant since 1862,” Bowman says. “It already has that New Orleans feel because it is a 19th-century building.”
Opening two places in two months last fall, though, was no picnic; as the timing had it though, BrewRiver at Sonder opened first and was a good place for employees to work while the Creole Kitchen got up and running.
The Creole Kitchen location has opened up options for chef Shields to add new items to the menu — broiled oysters, fried green tomatoes with a pecan cornmeal crust and bread pudding for dessert. And the duo envisions more and more seasonal and New Orleans-inspired dishes, given the larger kitchen.
“With this space, we can do things that we couldn’t do before: a steak dish as a special, jambalaya, muffuletta,” Bowman says. “We had jambalaya as a special for Mardi Gras, and it was on practically every table.”
One factor that the name change allowed Bowman and Shields to emphasize was the special connection they have to Creole cuisine; Shields worked with chef Emeril Lagasse for six years, three in New Orleans and three at Lagasse’s Atlanta restaurant.
“People get confused by our restaurant because restaurants are usually Cajun if they are New Orleans-themed,” Bowman says. “We called ourselves ‘Creole’ because it comes from the influence of French, Spanish, African, Italian, even Vietnamese in New Orleans food. Cajun is one of those influences, but Creole food is all these people landing in the Port of New Orleans and bringing their cultural background to their cooking; it’s more like fusion.”
One example of a Creole-influenced dish is the Pasta Monica; it’s inspired by the wildly popular Crawfish Monica from New Orleans Jazz Fest. The plump shrimp are generously coated in a Creole cream sauce, which manages to pack a major flavor punch without burning one’s tongue off. This spring, Brink Brewing Co. made a limited-run King Cake beer — a good accompaniment to the pasta, served in a glass with a brightly-colored sugar rim.
The menu also contains a wide variety of recognizable dishes, from short rib poutine to fish and chips.
No New Orleans theme would be complete without tunes and BrewRiver Creole Kitchen brings in music of all kinds almost every night of the week. “We have Blues, Boogie-Woogie, Jazz, the New Orleans classics,” Bowman says. “On the weekends, we also some acoustic duos, ’70s, oldies, all with great harmonies.”
New Orleans and Cincinnati, in Bowman’s opinion, share some of the caring and character that she wants to reflect in the service and ambiance of the restaurant.
“We (Cincinnati) are the most northern Southern city,” she says. “There’s a type of hospitality in Southern cities where people look at you on the street and say ‘hi,’ and I feel like we do that here.”
A few months after opening, BrewRiver Creole Kitchen has begun to settle into its niche: upscale fusion dishes in a historic setting.
“We are family-owned, through and through,” Bowman says. “This restaurant is a letter of love, an expression of the passion that we have for what we do.”
BrewRiver Creole Kitchen, 4632 Eastern Ave., Linwood, brewrivercreolekitchen.com.