Diner: Same Place, New Face

A few favorite things are missing at Union Station

The tradition of food writing is to focus on the new. There is no obituary column for restaurants.

I'd like to pay tribute to Carol's on Main, which closed its doors in October after 15 years in business in downtown Cincinnati. But convention has me turning my attention to the new name above Carol's old doors on Main Street — Union Station Video Cafe.

A Columbus, Ohio-based franchise with an outpost in Cleveland and two more slated in Pittsburgh and Atlanta, Union Station carries on the spirit of Carol's. Like Carol's, USVC is gay-friendly. Like Carol's, a large portion of its business is the late-night bar crowd. Many former Carol's employees now work for Union Station.

The booths have been removed in favor of sprawling cocktail tables. There's a small stage for the popular karaoke night on Wednesdays.

TVs perch in every corner of the room, with flat screens behind the bar. They show Desperate Housewives (Mondays), Will and Grace (Thursdays) and music videos and comedy clips pretty much nonstop otherwise. The upstairs lounge, Crush, will reopen for special events and private parties, kicking off with an evening of cabaret on Jan. 27 hosted by Carol Sherman-Jones (Carol's founder back in 1990) and Sherry McCamley.

Food is one way that Union Station does not continue the tradition of Carol's, which offered a home-style menu of creative comfort food — pot roast, chicken salad, unforgettable meatloaf and plenty of healthy, vegetarian-friendly fare. Union Station's food is like the child of Applebee's and Chili's, with all the telltale symptoms of SYSCO inbreeding. (SYSCO is the largest food distributor in North America and the reason many chain restaurants taste exactly like chain restaurants.)

Union Station's menu offers salads, wraps and pitas, sandwiches and subs, burgers, pizzas and various entrées. It's the breadth of choice you get choosing a cell phone plan. From serving steaks only medium to well done to a 50-cent upcharge for Oriental Mandarin salad dressing, the menu is a turnoff.

In keeping with the video theme, I rounded up some friends for a Sunday afternoon Bengals game. The sandwich board outside read "Bengals, 1 p.m., Showtunes later." We ordered a round of pints — Guinness ($3.50) and Pabst Blue Ribbon ($2.75) — and appetizers and settled in with the respectable crowd of Bengals fans who had assembled by the end of the first quarter.

We started with hot Chicken Wings ($7.25 for a dozen), assuming "hot" meant "spicy" since the other option was mild. Well, they weren't cold, but our wings aficionado dubbed them comparable to BW3's "mild" and said they were "too classy for her" — that is, not messy enough. We also tried Fried Macaroni and Cheese ($6.95), which was disconcertingly the shape of chicken nuggets, with unnaturally yellow cheese oozing out of noodle cavities beneath a breaded exterior. These were accompanied by ranch dressing. We also shared an order of Chili Cheese Fries ($6.95), which drew one comparison to the old-school Coney Island version. These are served "seasonally," from September through March. (I guess that's when the crop of chili cheese fries is harvested.)

After a detailed discussion of Chad Johnson's atypically unenthusiastic first quarter touchdown dance and the Bengals, early lead, some of us picked up controllers to play National Trends Network (NTN) Trivia while waiting for the rest of our food.

I had a Turkey Reuben ($7.95) that did nothing to satisfy my craving for a classic Reuben. Besides substituting turkey, the kraut was replaced with weirdly chemical-tasting coleslaw, too runny for the Swiss cheese to melt into.

A cheeseburger ($7.95) elicited neither complaints nor praise. The same went for Tres Tacos ($8.95), crispy tortilla shells stuffed with fajita steak meat (tough), pinto beans, salsa and jalapeno cilantro salsa. Tuna Steak Caesar ($9.25) was the healthiest plate on the table. The tuna rested atop a generous portion of healthy looking Romaine, a little leafy and lacking in the crunchy stems of a typical Caesar. After extra dressing was requested — the standard bottled variety — the salad was the only plate cleaned. Steak Montreal ($14.95) was a thin, dry and tough rectangle of meat topped with excessively oily sautéed onions and mushrooms. Canned green beans and instant rice pilaf sat by expectantly, waiting, dying, untouched.

At 5 p.m., there was an abrupt transition from football to Liza Minnelli. The lights dimmed. Bengals sweatshirts and scarves disappeared. A drag queen took over at the end of the bar. One at our table commented, "It gets sexier here at 5 o'clock."

But Union Station's food left us feeling anything but sexy. We became downright dull. Even though the Bengals clinched the AFC North title, the beer we'd consumed was not enough to keep us in good spirits.

Meanwhile, Julie Andrews was onscreen reminding us to think of our favorite things.

Like Carol's meat loaf. ©

Union Station Video Cafe
Go: 825 Main St., Downtown

Call: 513-651-2667

Hours: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. for food (bar service until 2:15 a.m.)

Prices: Reasonable

Payment: All major credit cards

Red Meat Alternatives: Chicken, pizza, salad

Accessibility: Yes

Grade: C

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