Located at the epicenter of Covington's restaurant scene, across from Scalea's, Donna's Diner occupies an underserved segment in Cincinnati's restaurant scene — the small, neighborhood restaurant/watering hole, dishing out good food at good prices.
Run by a local company, the Queen City Restaurant Group, which also owns Teller's, Scalea's, Watson Bros. Bistro and Brewery and Bella, Donna's offers hearty, comfort food in a casual yet chic setting. Ben Castle, general manager at both Donna's and Scalea's, says the focus at Donna's is on home-style cooking. Named in memory of the owner's mother, the restaurant has an eclectic menu that's a fond throwback to long-ago boyhood meals in Kansas.
We started out with two appetizers, the Hot Spinach and Artichoke Dip, served with tortilla chips ($6), and the Chicken and Cheese Quesadilla ($7), stuffed with Sriracha sour cream (Sriracha is a spicy Vietnamese hot sauce), onion and jalapeno and topped with barbecue sauce, tomato salsa and guacamole. The Spinach and Artichoke Dip was tasty and fresh — way better than most. I didn't care for the Quesadilla as much. The menu description conjured up an amply stuffed item, but there wasn't really much inside. The filling was ground up and a bit rubbery, with a bitter aftertaste, and the strongly flavored barbecue sauce was overwhelming.
Donna's Daily Dishes are the heart of the menu.
At only $11, served with two side dishes, these home-style favorites are a bargain. My companion ordered the Friday special, Uncle Mo's Breaded Catfish. The catfish was tender and tasty but a bit greasy. I ordered the Blackened Chicken Pasta ($12), with linguine, tomato and scallions in an Alfredo cream sauce. Although the chicken pieces were moist with a nice blackened flavor, the sauce was more tomato and olive oil than Alfredo cream. I enjoyed it nonetheless.
The side dishes were interesting, varied and inexpensive. The Sour Cream and Onion Mashed Potatoes ($2) were light and fluffy, and the Sautéed Mushrooms ($1.50) were tasty. However, the highlight was Sweet Potatoes with Spiced Pecans ($2): This chunky puree of sweet potatoes garnished with pecans disappeared quickly.
Desserts were excellent. Although already pretty full, we pushed on to order the Apple Pie a la Mode ($6) and the Banana Cream Pie ($5) — both made on the premises and served as individual mini-pies. The Apple Pie was full of tasty, very fresh apples, in a light cinnamon accented sauce, served warm with a dollop of vanilla ice cream. The Banana Cream Pie was even better. In all my adult years, I have never had a Banana Cream Pie that matched my mom's. She would make her own crust then layer freshly cut bananas in, topped with a custard and homemade whipped cream. Mom, I'll try to break it to you gently: You now have serious competition. Donna's Banana Cream Pie is world-class, and I am betting that the Chocolate Cream Pie ($5) is just as good.
Also on the menu are burgers and sandwiches, ranging from $4-7. The brunch menu looks very appetizing. (How about stuffed strawberry French toast, Belgian waffles, country fried steak, a breakfast burrito, as well as eggs and omelets with more than 20 toppings, including chorizo and avocado?).
Part of Donna's appeal is that it is as much a neighborhood bar as a restaurant. Decorations inside are quirky, with vintage Cincinnati photographs matched up with eBay and flea market finds. A game room upstairs is decked out with pool tables, dartboards and a vintage shuffleboard table.
As you can imagine, reviewing restaurants I get to eat out a lot, but Donna's Diner has really stuck with me. I find myself talking it up a lot to friends, and am already planning my next visit. I'll go on a Monday so I can order the daily special of Chicken and Dumplings — saving room, of course, for that Banana Cream Pie that so reminds me of my mom's.
Who says you can't go home again?
Go: 315 Greenup St., Covington
Hours: 11 a.m.-midnight Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-1 a.m. Friday, 10 a.m.-1 a.m. Saturday-Sunday. Brunch available 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday-Sunday
Prices: Reasonable to Moderate
Payment: Major credit cards
Red Meat Alternatives: Numerous entrées, salads and sandwiches
Accessibility: Poor — front door has steps without ramp