Diner: Food Chain

The more things change, the more they remain the same

The Year In Review

As the clock winds down on 2005, the CityBeat dining section travels back in time to take measure of the culinary comings and goings of the past year. Probably too much ink has already been spilled about the demise of the MAISONETTE (formerly 114 E. Sixth St.) and its faithful subterranean sidekick, LA NORMANDIE, but this institution's vanishing act certainly merits the top of the list of this year's local restaurant necrology. Years of rumbling about the five-star establishment's departure from downtown became real in April when the owners announced they would move to Kenwood. By July, this second act had unraveled too. The Maisonette, after 54 years of operation downtown, was a memory. Walking along Sixth Street the other day, I stopped in front of the place: no more sign, no awning, no planters out front, no trace of the grandiosity that it stood for in its day. Don't get me wrong. It's not like I was soft on the place (I've never actually met anyone who really loved the Maisonette). It's just hard to accept that it's really gone.

A lot less highbrow and with a happier ending is the saga of Main Street's longstanding living room, KALDI'S COFFEEHOUSE (1204 Main St.), which closed in April after 12 years.

Fortunately for Over-the-Rhine, Kaldi's re-opened in July, with new owners committed to keeping alive the bohemian, bookish vibe of the original.

Another important bit of local color also disappeared when CAROL'S ON MAIN (825 Main St.) closed in September. The pioneering gay-friendly establishment that opened in 1990 (as Carol's Corner Café, at Eighth and Main streets) was a funky place where people of all races, genders and socioeconomic status comfortably mixed. Carol's has been replaced by a restaurant/video bar, UNION STATION, with outlets in Columbus and Cleveland. Like Carol's, Union Station tends to attract a diverse crowd.

After sitting eerily closed for a couple years — it looked like a time capsule, with all the glasses and ketchup bottles still lined up on the shelves — THE DINER (12th & Sycamore streets) briefly rallied in 2005. After reopening in January, it limped along, struggling with management problems and alienating eager returning patrons with poor service and inconsistent food, before going dark again in May.

The northern end of Main Street took another couple hits with the closure of artsy neighborhood coffeehouse/art gallery/retail store CAFECITO (1335 Main St.) in July. I personally know several caffeine-heads who have been going through Cafecito withdrawal, sorely missing this café's winning combination of strong coffee and warm, welcoming owners. Nearby, RAFFIE'S CAFE (1210 Main St.) also disappeared in 2005, leaving behind memories of a few good lunches there with friends, the table crowded with affordable, flavorful, Cuban dishes served by the smiling and friendly owner. They say change is good, but this is starting to get depressing (I think it's open).

The big news at FINDLAY MARKET this year was the introduction of Sunday hours. Although stiffly resisted by many vendors, the change appears to have had a positive impact, making the market more of an all-weekend shopping destination. Much of the flap was about businesses at Findlay that are family-run operations. With Sunday hours requiring them to cut into family time and the Sabbath, the whole thing prompted a red-hot, family-values vs. commerce debate.

And these are just the highlights. There were more disappearing acts — Mason's delectable CHOKOLATE MOREL (101 E. Main St.) vanished in June, GRAETER'S downtown on Fourth St. location will close at year-end, and many new places: Paul and Pam Sturkey launched another ENCORE CAFE (776 North Main St., Springboro), HONEY opened in the old BOCA space (4034 Hamilton Ave., Northside), the HOMESTEAD TAVERN & GRILL opened in the former home of the HERITAGE (7664 Wooster Pike, Mariemont. And the list goes on.

"Study the past if you would divine the future," Confucius once wrote. If he was right, one thing is sure: 2006 will bring change, and lots of it.

With renovations underway on Fountain Square and condos popping up everywhere downtown, there is a lot of positive evolution going on there. Simultaneously, however, the outer suburbs of Cincinnati keep growing at a torrid pace, shifting the economy and balance of the city in a way that's sure to continue to reshape the city's culinary landscape. ©

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