This story is featured in CityBeat's April 5 print edition.
If you haven’t been to Ludlow, Kentucky, recently, you’re missing out. Less than five miles from downtown Cincinnati, this little river town is the area’s best-kept secret, with scenic views of the Ohio River and lively bars and restaurants that bring family and friends together. Challis Hodge, owner of Taste Food & Wine Group and the newly opened Conserva, is ready for the secret to get out.
Conserva isn’t Hodge’s first business in Ludlow; he and his wife, Lauren, opened Taste On Elm in 2020 to much success. For Hodge, food has been a passion for as long as he can remember, but it wasn’t always his profession. Hodge worked as a designer and engineer before switching to the restaurant industry. “Food has always been that nagging sort of passion in the background since I can remember,” he says.
Planning for Conserva was two years in the making, but Hodge says that focusing on Spanish tapas returns to the foundation on which he builds all his businesses. “It’s about my core belief that sharing food cultivates community, and that’s really what I look to do every day of my life,” says Hodge. “It’s why I love making food for people: bringing them together around food and wine.”
Traditionally, tapas can be found throughout Spain. In their simplest form, they’re small plates and appetizers meant to be shared. “We just feel closer to people when they eat the same food as we do and when we share that food,” says Hodge. “That’s where relationships are built.” To Hodge, they’re about gathering and community. “The Spanish tapas culture is probably, in my mind, one of the most amazing art forms in terms of bringing people together around food.”
Conserva officially opened in November with Hodge as head chef. Before opening, Hodge studied Spanish tapa cuisine to recreate an authentic experience. In Spain, a given town would generally have multiple tapas restaurants, each specializing in particular dishes. But since most cities in the U.S. don’t offer a full array of tapas eateries, Hodge knew Conserva needed to represent various Spanish regions and offer a medley of options.
One popular dish on the menu is a Spanish national favorite, Tortilla Española, made using potatoes, egg, olive oil and salt. “It’s such an amazing, simple dish, but if it’s done well, it’s really delicious,” says Hodge. Another Spanish classic on the menu is the patatas a la riojana, or chorizo potato stew, seasoned with onions, paprika and garlic. “It’s kind of a comfort food that people just want more and more of,” Hodge says. And if you’re a fan of dips, the gambas al ajillo, or Spanish garlic shrimp, is made using sherry and guindilla pepper and served with dippable crostini.
The menu includes vegetarian and gluten-free options, which Hodge says is important, as he suffers from gluten intolerance. The primary bread, pico, is gluten-free and a recipe Hodge worked hard to perfect. The menu also offers an extensive list of wines and cocktails, including seasonal sangria and sparkling and red wines.
Along with the menu, creating a welcoming and cozy environment was top on Hodge’s list. When you walk in, you’ll hear a mix of tango music, Spanish classical guitar, and café music, all adding to the relaxing aesthetic. “There’s something about music that really just tops off the experience,” says Hodge. The space also features an outdoor eating space that Hodge looks forward to using when the weather gets warmer.
Hodge also hosts educational events at the restaurant, including a sherry dinner that focuses on the fortified Spanish wine, how it’s made, and what to pair it with, as well as Tapas 101 and paella classes. “We love to share, learn and teach; that’s what it’s all about,” he says.
Hodge is excited that the restaurant is getting more people to visit Ludlow. “It’s funny how you have to train people to get off the bridge and turn right instead of going left to Covington,” he laughs. But food lovers are starting to learn. “We’re getting so many people, not just from three or five minutes away from Cincinnati, but the suburbs, who have heard of us and are coming down.”
And though Hodge is often in the kitchen cooking up dishes for patrons, he can feel the positive and electric energy from the dining room all the way to the back of the restaurant.
Conserva, 225 Elm St., Ludlow. Info: conservatapasbar.com.
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