One of Cincinnati's most celebrated chefs, Anita Hirsch-Cunningham, once told me her dream restaurant would be an "urban pub like Behle Street Café." My mentor and former business partner was highly regarded for her innovative cuisine in fine dining establishments such as the four-star Palace Restaurant, The Waterfront and our own surly love child, Arboreta.
While giving birth to Arboreta in 1995, we often medicated the pains of labor with an Amstel Light (Anita's fave) and a Belvedere martini (mine) at Behle Street Café in Covington. Sure, we could have kicked back at a watering hole closer to our Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, but Anita loved the atmosphere and double-decker burger at Behle Street. She thought all the place lacked in perfection was a pool table. When we handed over Arboreta to others a few years later, we said our good-byes over martinis and Amstels at Behle Street.
So it was with a flood of fond (if a bit martini fuzzy) memories that I walked through the door of Behle Street Café recently. It was Mother's Day, a busy day for most restaurants, so the hostess greeted us with a slightly tired but nonetheless cheerful request to have a seat in the bar for 20 minutes to "give the kitchen a break." We appreciated her amiable honesty and were happy to oblige.
While my boyfriend ordered drinks, I was drawn to the curio cabinet in the entrance, filled with dozens of kitschy salt-and-pepper shakers the Behles have been collecting for several years.
I particularly liked the reclining nudes with removable salt-and-pepper breasts.
Even though the outdoor patio looked inviting, we were content to sit indoors listening to some swingin' tracks of Sinatra, Ella and Anita O'Day. Tommy Behle's affection for the 1940s and '50s is evident throughout the pub, with black-and-white glossies of movie babes hanging on every wall.
We were seated 20 minutes later beneath Tommy Hume's framed No. 47 jersey: The Behles are enthusiastic supporters of the Reds and display quite a few donated jerseys. We took a liking to Nick, our server, who despite four consecutive double shifts and an extra lean staff on a busy day, maintained a sense of humor (albeit a bit of a dark one) and provided us with good service throughout our stay.
The menu is an appealing variety of standard pub-grub appetizers, soups, salads, pasta, ribs, fajitas, seafood and meat entrées. We began with the Portabella ($8.79), grilled and seasoned with lots of garlic. We thought it was delicious but overpriced for eight small, thin slices of a mushroom and garnish of chopped tomato.
In many restaurants, side salads are an afterthought of a few greens, tomato wedges and croutons. Not so at Behle Street. Your choice of Caesar, Spinach or Greek salad is served before your main course in a large 12-inch, shallow bowl. My Greek salad with "Tommy's Famous Greek Dressing" was so good that I shined the bowl with my equally delicious French loaf. Even my salad-is-not-real-food boyfriend expressed lip-smacking delight over his spinach salad.
I was MIA when our entrées arrived, mesmerized for several minutes by a large, stunning photograph of Marilyn Monroe in the restroom hallway. I returned to my Capellini Vegetarian ($13.99) with broiled shrimp and scallops (for an additional $4.79) still piping hot, even though, according to my boyfriend, I had been gone for an eternity (Marilyn's eyes are hypnotic). The pasta was perfectly cooked with a variety of vegetables tossed in a simple but absolutely fabulous blend of garlic, olive oil and seasonings. I did not care for the additional shrimp and scallops, which were tiny and suffered from too much time under the broiler. My boyfriend ordered his N.Y. Strip Steak ($19.99) with a bit of hesitation, since he believes that no one besides he — the Deity of the Grill — and The Precinct can cook a strip steak to his satisfaction. His steak was a quality cut, well-seasoned and medium-rare as ordered, and he reluctantly admitted that it was nearly as good as his.
Upon Nick's recommendation, we ordered the warm Cherry Pie ($4.89) à la mode ($.99). Even though the menu claims that all desserts are "prepared and baked fresh daily," the pie had a bought frozen and par-baked taste and look to it. Not bad, but not a memorable finish.
As the Northern Kentucky riverfront rises around them with upscale hotels, residential living and business centers, the Behle family should continue to do well with a sound formula for longevity in the restaurant industry: Uncomplicated, consistently good food in a great location. ©