Nothing says summer quite like a nostalgic stop at a seasonal roadside hot dog stand or burger joint — or really any outdoor walk-up window. The Greater Cincinnati area has had at least two open up during the pandemic, offering socially distanced outdoor dining as well as carry-out options, and other favorites have adapted their service to accommodate the new normal.
Fifty West Burger Bar
Every sign told the pioneer of Fifty West’s new Columbia Township burger joint that opening up shop during a pandemic was a bad idea. “In the middle of the night, I couldn’t sleep,” says Bobby Slattery, co-founder of Fifty West. “I called all (the employees), and we decided to open up the Burger Bar in the middle of the crisis.” After laying off the majority of his staff, Slattery says the scant handful of employees left in the kitchen braced themselves for an opening devoid of orders and customers. But defying the odds, people flocked to the 1950s root beer stand-inspired burger bar. “Then the orders just started flying in,” Slattery says. The kitchen was barraged with an average of two tickets a minute from a COVID-friendly online ordering system. The line grew so long, they were forced to start asking guests to wait in their cars. Slattery was able to bring the entire staff back on, and he says it has been almost nonstop business since their opening at the end of April. The brewery spent around 10 years planning and building the Burger Bar. It’s connected to Fifty West’s sprawling campus, which now has a tent-covered beer garden with spaced-apart tables in addition to its existing beach volleyball courts. The menu features bread-and-butter diner specialties like classic cheeseburgers, flat-top hot dogs and loaded crinkle cut fries, but there are also 12 specialty burgers named for the 12 states that U.S. Route 50 runs through. They’re loaded with ingredients inspired by each state, including Cincinnati-style chili, tartar sauce from Maryland, apple butter from West Virginia and smoky barbecue sauce from Kansas. To combat the influx of business during a pandemic, Slattery says they’re taking extra cleanliness precautions, taking employees’ temperatures at the door, scrubbing down tables and religiously wearing masks. And he says it’s been worth it. “It’s been absolutely insane,” he says, “and so, so good.” 7605 Wooster Pike, Columbia Township, fiftywestbrew.com.
Bridgeview Box Park
Also opening in the midst of the pandemic is the Bridgeview Box Park, a cluster of small food, drink and shopping vendors conglomerated where Mitchell’s Fish Market used to sit at Newport on the Levee. They are housed next to each other in shipping-like containers — hence “box park” — and are interspersed among a common outdoor area. What’s on the menu? Each eatery has its own unique flair: Che on Wheels, a food truck version of the OTR empanada bar, serves “picnic-style grilled and smoked meats,” sandwiches and sides; Bon Mi Street offers Asian street food and milk tea; and The Little Spoon Bakery & Cafe serves baked goods and Carabello Coffee. There’s also Kon-Tiki tiki bar, an outpost of Newport’s Wooden Cask Brewing Co. and Second Sight Spirits, the Ludlow-based distiller, which has special cocktail options. There’s also a plant shop. “We are creating an experience akin to sitting on your deck at home, except imagine that you are sipping an umbrella drink while people watching and taking in the four bridges stretching over the river,” said Adam Schwegman of North American Properties, developers behind the box park. Officials say they’ll be adapting to the future stages of Kentucky’s reopening, but are planning for what the “new normal” brings. Newport on the Levee, 1 Levee Way, Newport, newportonthelevee.com.
Pata Roja Taqueria
After visiting Mexico City and enjoying the city’s street food, Derrick Braziel was inspired to create Pata Roja Taqueria. Braziel took cooking classes and went to Mexico City several more times to inform his business and honor his food’s Mexican origin. For the past several months, Pata Roja has been serving its sweet and savory al pastor tacos from a window at The Takeaway deli and grocer in Over-the-Rhine and various pop-up locations around Cincinnati. Other menu items include bistec and veggie tacos, guacamole, chips and salsa. Braziel plans to keep his taqueria operating out of The Takeaway through the summer, with hours 6 p.m.-midnight on Fridays and Saturdays. Because of COVID-19, Pata Roja began offering taco kits for guests, but the service is on pause for now as the taqueria looks to build up its street food operations again. Braziel is also a co-founder of MORTAR, an organization that helps minority and marginalized entrepreneurs grow their businesses. 1324 Main St., Over-the-Rhine, patarojatacos.com.
Root Beer Stand
Since 1957, Sharonville’s Root Beer Stand had operated as a cash-only business, up until two years ago when they started accepting cards. Now, because of COVID, they’ve completely ditched their old-school business tactics and jumped head-first into the 21st century with iPad transactions, online ordering and texting customers when their grub’s up. “It’s worked very well since we’re a very, very old business and we did it in a matter of weeks,” owner Eric Burroughs says. This seasonal favorite is currently open for walk-up or call-ahead/online orders with carport pick-up, which you can enjoy in their newly opened picnic area. (They are also doing delivery.) They’ve slashed the menu to the most popular items and have simplified dishes: floats are now only one size and there are only single and double burgers. Regular 12- and 6-inch coneys are still available, but the Timmy Dog — a nine-ingredient footlong coney — is not. Thankfully, you can still get their famous root beer, brewed with the property’s well-water, by the gallon. Burroughs says the new tech they’ve implemented may stay on the menu for the future. 11566 Reading Road, Sharonville, therootbeerstand.com.
Mr. Gene’s Dog House
While the original Mr. Gene will have been gone for five years in July, the grab-and-go has been owned by his son, Donald Kuester, for over 30 years. This summer, customers can pair Mr. Gene’s piping hot chili-cheese melt or slaw dog with an ice-cold malt from the no-frills hot dog stand. Because of COVID, its employees are required to wear masks and gloves, but customers aren’t. Bonus: The outdoor seating area is open. 3703 Beekman St., South Cumminsville, mrgenesdoghouse.com.
Ollie’s Trolley serves its Southern comfort food from its red and yellow trolley car located in the West End. Guests can enjoy dishes like deep-fried turkey, rib tips and collard greens. Before the pandemic, guests could enter a lobby and order food for carry-out. Now, two windows have been installed for placing and picking up orders. The trolley also has a $9 buffet where customers can pick one entree and three side items. Ollie’s Trolley serves its food, described by general manager Marvin Smith as having a home-cooked feel, for breakfast, lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday. 1607 Central Ave., West End, 513-381-6100 and searchable on Facebook.
As a walk-up window in a bar district, Gomez Salsa OTR is built for a pandemic. Xs line the sidewalk of the OTR to-go taco window to encourage customers to socially distance. Gomez is offering their full menu of chips and salsa, tacos, bowls and burritos, as well as their signature Turtle, often referred to as a gourmet Taco Bell Crunchwrap. And you can wash it all down with a government-approved to-go margarita or Vive hard seltzer. The Walnut Hills location is working on opening their outdoor patio later in the summer, but for now it’s take-out only. 107 E. 12th St., Over-the-Rhine, gomezsalsa.com.
This Northside staple is still open, but the walk-up window featuring vegan, vegetarian and meat-based menu items has limited its hours and closed its small indoor seating area completely — now with only a two-top table outside. But owner Melissa Howard says she’s proud of what the employees have been doing in addition to encouraging customers to keep spaced apart. “We’re rocking on our sanitation,” Howard says. Customers can pick up Kitchen Factory’s staple by-the-slice New York-style pizza with regular or vegan cheese; vegan meatball hoagies served with pizza sauce on a Sixteen Bricks bun; and gluten-free, vegan mac and cheese — lovingly dubbed “crack and cheese.” “In a way, it’s easy,” Howard says of the new protocols. “My employees’ health and making sure they’re financially stable is pretty high up on my list.” 1609 Chase Ave., Northside, kitchenfactorynorthside.com.