Diner: The Old Spirit

Kaldi's remains a bohemian refuge against the 21st-century storm

Sep 28, 2005 at 2:06 pm

I entered Kaldi's on the eve of its official re-opening with one burning question in mind: Would the books still be there? For me, it wouldn't be the same if the books were gone — their presence was somehow necessary to the place.

When my friend and I passed under the goat head sign, my fears were quelled: The books were intact, and the place looked exactly the same — albeit cleaner.

Opening night had a carnival atmosphere. The Bockfest goat stood out front, and the Clif-Tones played Ragtime music on the sidewalk to entice Final Friday walkers. The BarrelHouse owners sat at the bar drinking some of their own brew, which Kaldi's now carries on tap, and the featured artist wandered through the crowd with electric, jangly nerves.

I hadn't been to Kaldi's in a while. In the early '90s I went almost every day when I worked at an archaeological company up the street. Each morning my boss circled the office picking up the caffeine-impaired, and Sonya would greet us with her serene smile and the elixir of life.

When my job took me out of the neighborhood, I found my way to Kaldi's less often.

But I knew downtown businesses were having trouble after the 2001 riots. When I read that Kaldi's sold its liquor license last winter, I was afraid I heard the faint strains of its requiem.

Even though it wasn't on my circuit lately, I didn't want Kaldi's to go anywhere. It's like your favorite band: You haven't seen them since college, but you want them to be exactly the same.

All of us knew this place wasn't just a restaurant or coffeehouse. Jeremy Thompson, the new owner, says, "I don't know what Kaldi's is. I think it's a big melting pot, whether it's on the walls or whether it's through music or food — that's what I think Kaldi's is all about. It's not about the coffee; it's not about beer; it's about the artists."

Kaldi's calls up the old spirit of the neighborhood when Over-the-Rhine was known as the Paris of America and residents gathered in the beer gardens to talk about the events of the day and celebrate life. The communal spirit rode high in those days and odd characters were welcomed with a laugh and a slap on the back.

This spirit has been in Kaldi's blood since its beginning. You could always find an artist or two at the bar, arguing art or politics and business people having meetings over lunch. In the morning, I would often see a musician friend braving the sunlight to write songs after he dropped off his girlfriend at work. At night, you could sit among the converted and listen to Bluegrass from the Lazy Boys or Steve Schmidt filling the smoky room with Fats Waller melodies.

Thompson has always loved Over-the-Rhine and its historical significance, and he sees Kaldi's as one of the anchors of the neighborhood: "I just thought, of course it will survive. Of course we're making the right decision. Kaldi's isn't just about me — it's about everybody."

Right now he's serving a limited menu of soups, salads, sandwiches and appetizers while he surveys patrons to find out what they want. Thompson says he'll bring back a lot of the old flavors, but he wants to run this menu perfectly and get his service up to speed before branching out.

"The feedback's been great," he says. "It's everything from 'We want vegetarian and vegan food predominantly' to 'There's not enough meat items on the menu.' We've seen all sides. But mainly most people are just glad to see it open and up and running."

On our visit, my friend and I tried the hummus ($4.75) as an appetizer. The presentation was very fresh; it was served on a bright green dish with pita triangles and topped with paprika and cilantro. The hummus, one of the more popular dishes, was silky with a strong flavor of tahini.

My friend's wild mushroom quesadilla ($7.25) didn't go over as well; she thought it tasted a bit like a Philly cheese steak. My curried chicken salad sandwich ($6.75) was tastier, with ginger and scallion flavors that gave it a nice punch. Given the restaurant's vegetarian-oriented beginnings, I was surprised to see the pickle loaf or branschweiger sandwich ($5.25) on the menu, but I say let the man experiment.

Times do change. People come and go in our lives and some of the old faces might have moved on, but thanks to Thompson and his wife, Collette, Kaldi's will remain a bohemian refuge against the 21st-century storm. A new crop of young artists will perch on the stools to discuss life and art, and the air will remain electric for all who pass beneath the goat head. ©

Go: 1202 Main St., Over-the-Rhine

Call: 513-241-3070

Hours: 10 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday (The kitchen generally closes around 9:30 p.m., but the bar stays open later)

Prices: Inexpensive

Payment: All major credit cards

Red Meat Alternatives: grilled cheese, hummus, black bean, vegetable and wild mushroom burritos and quesadillas, salads

Accessibility: Building is fully accessible.

Grade: B