Early Sunday evening, downtown Cincinnati. Except for several groups returning from The Black Family Reunion at Sawyer Point, downtown appears to have rolled up its sidewalks. Ample parking spots and darkened windows surround me as I make my way toward the center of town, and I can't help but feel a mix of sadness and frustration regarding the recent civil unrest and the inertia of the city's leaders.
I'm anticipating a rather subdued atmosphere at Carol's on Main and wonder how they and other downtown restaurants are economically surviving. My melancholy lifts when I open the door. Laughter and Reggae music spill out onto the street; the near full house of Carol's is undeterred by the neighborhood lull. Groups of friends are squeezed into booths, with tables of couples and even some solo diners filling the restaurant with an air of conviviality. Many of the patrons seem to know each other; table-hopping and hugging abound. "Be Sociable" is Carol's mantra and, indeed, the atmosphere has almost a clubby feel to it, although never exclusive or discriminating. A booth of five sings along with The Mamas & The Papas' "Monday, Monday" as we peruse the menu.
The menu is Eclectic American Bistro with variety of appetizers, soups, salads, sandwiches and entrées ranging in price from $2.95-$17.95. In addition, a list of daily specials boasts another five interesting entrées, reasonably priced.
One of my guests — a frequent diner at Carol's — insists that we all share the Calamari ($7.50) and Idaho Fries ($5.25) to start. I'm usually hesitant to order calamari in most restaurants as I've had more than one experience of enduring a mouth full of greasy rubber bands. However, Carol's calamari is tender, light and crispy, and I found myself consuming considerably more than my portion of the plate. The Idaho Fries consist of a pound of french fries, topped with melted cheddar — a heaping mound of delicious decadence. I hear that 'The Deal' ($6.95), a pound of fries with cheddar, bacon, sour cream and scallions is heart-stopping heaven.
Soup was next: a creamy cup of Roasted Red Pepper Corn Chowder ($2.95) that elicited moans from all who tried it. As delicious as it was, I didn't quite get the corn or chowder part. No corn kernels or potato chunks indicative of chowder were anywhere to be found. The predominant flavors were roasted red peppers, cream and salt. We didn't care though: It was tasty.
We thought perhaps they were understaffed that evening since the chef was delivering food to the tables directly from the kitchen. Whether they were or not, I thought it was great: It gave the impression of teamwork and a personal touch to the food. (Later in a phone interview, the GM told me the chef often expedites for those very reasons.) In fact, all the service was personal, attentive and genial: The servers really seemed to enjoy their jobs and the clientele.
We did not have to wait very long for the chef to prepare and deliver our entrées: a main salad, sandwich and pasta dish, plus a plate of fresh fruit for our 5-year-old guest. MaliBleu ($8.75) was a generous bowl of spring greens, Granny Smith apples, raisins, sundried tomatoes and gorgonzola, tossed with a raspberry balsamic vinaigrette. A superlative balance of flavors, light and delightful, it was the favorite of the table. Fettuccine Carbonara ($9.95) arrived in a bowl cooked Al Dente and enfolded in a rich cream sauce made with white wine and parmesan, tossed with peas and pancetta. The sauce was nice and not too much of it, with the pancetta (an Italian ham) lending a distinctive smoky flavor.
Black Jack ($6.50) is a black bean veggie burger with Monterey Jack cheese, guacamole, chopped tomatoes and alfalfa sprouts. I replace the potato chips with a side of Grecian Orzo Pasta Salad ($2.50). I understand that this sandwich is one of Carol's biggest sellers and has been on their menu in some form for years. I wanted to like it more than I did, but I thought that the chef had a heavy hand with the salt in the burger and too much lime in the guacamole, so that I kept reaching for my glass of water after every bite. Another diner at the table declared that she liked the amount of salt in it, so I admit it may just be personal taste. The orzo salad, with feta cheese and lemon dill vinaigrette was scrumptious. We finished with coffee and a single dessert with several spoons: a variation of strawberry shortcake made with cinnamon pound cake. The strawberries could have been fresher (probably over-ripened by the addition of sugar), but, other than that, it was Gone In 60 Seconds.
I really liked Carol's: the big city feel in our mid-size city, the diverse clientele and, most of all, the good food available even late at night. Carol's seems to be thriving in the midst of Downtown Sloth. But I made a vow anyway to be part of the solution and support more downtown business. So get the jukebox jumpin', scoot over and order me a martini. It's time to "Be Sociable."
Go: 825 Main St., Downtown
Hours: Monday-Wednesday 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.; Thursday-Friday 11:30 a.m.-1 a.m.; Saturday 4 p.m.-1 a.m.; Sunday 4-11 p.m. Bar remains open 90 minutes after the kitchen closes.
Prices: Inexpensive to Moderate
Payment: Most major credit cards
Red Meat Alternatives: Chicken, fish, shellfish, corned beef, pork chops and vegetarian dishes.
Other: Great party room available upstairs.