Diner: Meals After Midnight

Where to be when the clock strikes 3

Mar 31, 2004 at 2:06 pm
Woodrow J. Hinton

Listen up, homebodies: Catch a nap, skip dinner, leave your glass slippers at home and don't even think about setting that alarm clock. We're heading out for some serious, post-midnight bottom feeding. Prepare yourself: It's a different world out there, and it sure ain't Mason. Allergic to cigarette smoke, grease or orange cheese? Run for your life. We're bound for late-night hangouts, joints that never close, places that dish out artery-clogging food to cops, college kids, insomniacs and party animals, while you and I are usually home snoring in our flannel PJs. I'm talking about real places, the kind that slap you in the face when you walk in the door. Restaurants that are vital, proud and coursing with energy and humanity — accretions of individuality and tradition that lure folks in with the promise of hearty, cheap food, good company and a healthy dose of attitude.

At Pleasant Ridge Chili and Restaurant (6032 Montgomery Road, Pleasant Ridge; 9 a.m.-4:30 a.m. Monday-Saturday; 513-531-2365), there's a decades-old photo of a young, svelte Muhammad Ali taken in front of the restaurant.

Judging from the hairstyles, clothes and that smolder in Ali's eyes, a lot has changed in the world since then. But I bet the restaurant still looks pretty much the same inside.

White glass globes hang down over booths. A horseshoe counter in the back draws solitary diners, elbows on the counter, cigarettes jabbed at the ceiling. A pair of cops alternate between talking trash about March Madness and flirting with college girls. A couple with matching dreadlocks talks softly while their kid plays with his cheese coney.

Plates clank, police radios squawk, the jukebox grinds out Steve Miller. The waitress is telling war stories about St. Patrick's Day: "It was worse than a bowling alley in here, they were falling down drunk..."

I order a Cheese Omelet and Toast ($4) and a half-order of Home Fries with Gravy and Cheese ($1.80). The omelet has a generous wad of orange cheddar inside and more on top as a garnish. The home fries are comfort food to the max — real potatoes cooked until crispy and smothered with gravy and more orange cheese.

The Pepper Pod Restaurant (703 Monmouth St., Newport; open 24 hours; 859-431-7455) offers even grittier time-warp action. It's almost 2 a.m. on a Friday night, and Monmouth Street is desolate. But inside there's hardly an empty seat. And the bars haven't even emptied yet.

The wall-to-wall fluorescent lights are really bright, the kitchen is a whirlwind and friendly waitresses are doing laps around the center island to get to tables filled with couples and smokers and drunk clubbers in belly shirts and too-tight jeans. Specials are magic-markered on paper and stuck to the wall.

I opt for the Huevos Rancheros ($5.60). Alert Hans Blix: I've located a weapon of mass destruction. Fried tortillas glistening with grease are covered with a layer of hash browns (questionable diner-meets-Mexican fusion), scrambled eggs, lots of orange cheese and salsa. I haven't seen this much oil since the Exxon Valdez.

A medal for valor goes to a buddy along for the ride, who downs the very manly Meatloaf Dinner — a gigantic slab of meatloaf with mashed potatoes, green beans and brown gravy ($5.50) — while his girlfriend watches in awe.

On to Anchor Grill (438 Pike St., Covington; open 24 hours, closed Christmas Day; 859-431-9498) with its proud motto: "We may doze but never close." This place is surreal.

There's a tall dude dressed all in black with a long ponytail and a full-length leather overcoat, swaying and dancing, mouthing words softly in front of the jukebox. A gaggle of gussied-up, inebriated, Britney wannabes stuffed precariously into their clothes tumbles through the door and piles up against each other, giggling. All the tables are full, the grill is sizzling, smoke is rising. A nautical theme prevails; models of ships line a shelf, and one of them is swaying like something out of Master and Commander.

My friend orders Biscuits and Gravy ($2.75). Another first for moi. It's a whitish, fragrant steaming mass flecked with chunks of gray. I've definitely seen things like this before in my life, just not in a restaurant. Shocking, but it tastes damn good. The biscuits are moist and tasty. The gravy is smooth, cheesy, peppery and vaguely meaty.

I order a Grilled Cheese sandwich ($2). Dripping with grease, orange cheese melted between foamy bread, this is diner food at its finest.

Ah, the legendary Camp Washington Chili (Hopple Street and Colerain Avenue, Camp Washington; open 24 hours, except 4 a.m. Sunday-6 a.m. Monday; 513-541-0061). There's no doubt that this is a class act. The walls are covered with glowing testimonials from magazines and newspapers. The menu sports a James Beard award proclaiming it an "American Regional Classic."

The place is clean and brightly lit, still looking fresh from its re-opening a few years ago in '50s-retro-styled quarters. Camp Washington definitely has edge, though. Any restaurant with a police officer stationed behind the cash register on a Saturday night probably gets more than its fair share of excitement.

It's 12:30 a.m., in the calm before the hardcore partygoers arrive. I look at the menu and decide I'm ready to take the plunge — after five years in the 'Nati, it's time to give it up. What am I keeping myself for anyway? Besides, everybody else is doing it.

I order a 5-Way Chili (half pint, $2.80). Ecstasy? Not exactly, but worth repeating. My companion, indulging a small-fry food fantasy, orders one Cheese Coney ($1.25) and Toast and Jelly ($1.25).

Shanghai Mama's (216 E. Sixth St., Downtown; 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m., Monday-Thursday; 3 p.m.-3 a.m. Friday; 4 p.m.-3 a.m. Saturday; 513-241-7777) is positively upscale compared to the rest of the late-night roster. Mama's is dark and atmospheric, with a good crowd going at 1 a.m. on a Saturday. Mama's pulls in hungry clubbers, barflies and restaurant workers who go to unwind after closing time. Serving a full menu until 3 a.m., it also has a small bar and serves wines by the glass.

We order the tasty Shanghai Dumplings ($5.95), steamed and filled with pork and Chinese cabbage, and a savory Vegetarian Cashew Chicken ($8.95) made from seitan (a wheat gluten meat substitute) with ginger sauce and vegetables.

Last but not least, the quintessential late-night food: pizza. There are two primary downtown options: Harry's Bar and Pizza (1207 Main St., Over-the-Rhine; serving slices 11 p.m.-3 a.m. Wednesday-Thursday and to 4 a.m. Friday-Saturday; 513-621-1391). The dough is a touch foamy, but it's a respectable slice, with ample amounts of cheese ($2).

My favorite, though, is Lucy Blue's Pizza (12th and Walnut streets, Over-the-Rhine; 10 p.m.-3 a.m. Wednesday-Saturday; 513-241-8350). Their slices ($2) have tasted great in the past after many cervezas, but will they hold up under more rigorous scrutiny?

I'm happy to report that Lucy Blue's definitely passes the sobriety test: Their pizza has nicely chewy, elastic dough and full-flavored sauce. The help is cheery, and there's something vaguely illicit about buying food out of a little window in the side of a building at 2:30 a.m. And, thank God, they don't put that orange cheese on pizza out here in Ohio. Yet.

Want some adventure? Put that bathrobe back on the hook, park those slippers and head out into the night to join the communion of sleep-deprived souls. There's a dynamic nocturnal life out there for the taking, edgy and vital, bubbling under the surface of an otherwise sleepy Cincinnati. ©