Collective CAC (Review)

Collective CAC offers a respite from downtown inside the Contemporary Arts Center

click to enlarge Collective CAC’s menu features all-day breakfast, plus a lunch menu and light bites in the evening.
Collective CAC’s menu features all-day breakfast, plus a lunch menu and light bites in the evening.

Before the Contemporary Arts Center renovated its Kaplan Hall lobby and installed the new Collective CAC café, it was probably the only museum in town that didn’t offer food in a dining setting. The Taft Museum of Art, the Cincinnati Art Museum and Cincinnati Museum Center all have cafés, but the advent of the CAC’s eatery — a partnership with local craft coffee shop Collective Espresso — is a breath of fresh air to downtown and museum dining in general. 

Helmed by Collective Espresso owners Dave Hart and Dustin Miller, Collective CAC opened in March. Hart and Miller’s two other Collective Espresso locations in Northside and Over-the-Rhine do not have a food menu, so while the duo has previous experience with serving quality coffee, this is the first time they’re delving into housemade cuisine. 

When you walk into the lobby, Collective CAC is to the left of the museum welcome desk. The dining area is comprised of two large angular, birch-colored communal tables and a few smaller round tables with white modernist wingback chairs. 

While you eat or drink, you’re surrounded by both local and international artists and their installations: Fans placed next to LED lamps generate scattershot blips of light and buzzing sounds in “Cincinnati Swing” by Erwin Redl, Matt Kotlarczyk’s fiber optic “Chandeliers” hover above the tables and collaborative Assume Vivid Astro Focus’ colorful vinyl decal lines the lobby walls. The six-seated bar shows off a row of shiny chrome espresso arms and espresso machines, with welcoming stacks of coffee bean bags, beer cans and liquor bottles behind the bar.  

The high-quality food and coffee has been a success so far, although the café did eliminate its dinner hours earlier this month. The current menu features all-day breakfast, with sandwiches, salads and snacks available until 2 p.m. daily. But if you have a hankering for a cortado in the evening, the café offers light bites and coffee service until close — which isn’t until 9 p.m. Wednesday through Friday. 

Just as other Collective Espresso locations rotate their craft coffee beans — from Seattle’s Kuma Coffee to Denver’s Huckleberry Roasters to permanent offerings from local roaster Deeper Roots — Collective CAC’s food items are also in seasonal rotation. When the café opened this spring, it offered a double grilled cheese sandwich with goat cheese melted on the inside and Tillamook cheddar cheese crispified on the outside of the bread. The idea to double cheese the bread is a genius move. 

In May, the café started weekend brunch, which has a similar menu to the all-day breakfast menu — options range from a healthy farro grain bowl with egg, shallots and kale ($9) to housemade biscuits and vegetarian gravy ($9). I was torn between the farro and the biscuits, but I chose the latter. A good amount of milk gravy — made with Wooster, Ohio’s excellent Hartzler milk, flecks of herbs, mushrooms and pepper flakes — was slathered over two biscuits. The biscuits sat in my stomach like bricks, but the splurge was worth it. 

My dining companion ordered the breakfast ciabatta ($7), with scrambled eggs, cheese and bacon. None of the dishes come with sides, but for less than $10, you can have a hearty brunch. And whenever possible, the café uses local ingredients and local vendors. 

Besides the breakfast dishes, there’s a salmon salad, a Weisenberger flour mill grit cake and a caramelized onion tart. Because Collective is known for its coffee, we ordered a cappuccino ($3.50; it came with latte art) and Deeper Roots’ Guatemalan beans brewed in a Hario pour-over device. As we ate, a few people trickled in, but they all seemed to be ordering coffee, not food. If you don’t want coffee, you can order one of the Rishi iced teas ($2), a bottle or can of local or national beer ($5), wine ($6) and spirits such as OYO vodka and Kentucky Gentleman bourbon, with brunch cocktails ($7) available on weekends. (On Wednesdays, it’s happy hour — the museum serves $3 beer and $4 wine, with free admission to the galleries 5-9 p.m.)

With the tranquil ambiance of music from Air and Four Tet playing on the PA, the soft whirring of the light installation and the overall minimalism of the lobby, Collective CAC acts as a refuge from the scuffle of downtown. The café is not only a quiet place to read, surf the Internet or absorb art; it’s also a great place to grab a cup of fancy coffee and food without the hurriedness of a typical weekday lunch or weekend brunch.


Collective CAC


Go: Contemporary Arts Center, 44 E. Sixth St., Downtown
Call: 513-345-8400
Internet: contemporaryartscenter.org/visit/caf
Hours: 7 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Tuesday; 7 a.m.-9 p.m. Wednesday-Friday; 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday-Sunday


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