Julie Fay and her business partner, Mike Markiewicz, had been involved in various aspects of Cincinnati’s Main Street arts and entertainment district since the early 1990s. After St. Theresa’s Textiles moved from a building that Fay owned, she decided to open a “destination business” that would bring people to the area. She wanted to create a gathering place — a “third place” in urban-planning lingo — something important for the street.
A combination art gallery, bookshop, coffee shop and wireless café, Iris BookCafe became that place. Dining at Iris is a locavore’s dream. Thesandwich bread is from Shadeau Bakery, which is almost directly across the street. Meats are from Avril’s on Court Street, and the ice cream is from Aglamesis. The soups are from Myra’s Dionysus on Calhoun Street in Clifton, a sentimental favorite of mine, because I waited tables there when I was barely old enough to do that legally.
I had a nice, hot cup of the Thai Pumpkin soup ($2.50), delicious, spicy and distinctive. My friend tried the corn chowder ($2.50), which was chockfull of corn and potatoes and flecks of black pepper. “This has a little bite to it,” he said, smiling approvingly.
The Ethiopian Peabody coffee ($1.85) was served in a large, handmade mug with raised “eyes” around the sides. I didn’t get the joke right away, but it’s a play on “iris” in the optical sense. A less obtuse — for a gardener, anyway — iris flower logo graced the water glasses. There are Essencha teas to choose from, but when I go back on a warmer day, I’d like to try a smoothie. They really looked delicious.
There are meat and veggie options on the sandwich menu. I have a weakness for anything with the word “avocado” associated with it, and so does my friend. He opted for the Turkey and Avocado sandwich ($5.95), leaving me to the Salmon and Avocado ($7.95). The house spread is dill mayonnaise, and the choice of sides includes baby carrots, sun chips or tortilla chips. Shadeau multigrain is my favorite bread anyway, so I couldn’t have been happier. Avril’s smoked salmon is one of two wonderful local salmon sources in town now, along with “Just Cured” at Findlay Market. Just Cured is a little moister, but I quite like the flaky, less oily version at Avril’s. It’s become one of my favorite pantry staples at home, and I’ve been adding it to cream sauce and pasta for dinner.
Fay bakes cookies and brownies for dessert and serves a range of ice cream flavors: French vanilla, Dutch chocolate almond, black raspberry and more that can be eaten as-is ($2.25/scoop) or dressed up as sundaes topped with Aglemesis homemade syrups ($3.40 with one topping), chopped nuts and whipped cream.
Eating at Iris BookCafe is like spending an evening at a friend’s house. It’s so low-key that I noticed we weren’t the only patrons who brought our own plates up to the front, and it felt quite natural to help myself to a refill on coffee. Fay’s goal is to serve the best local food with no preservatives in portions that people are actually prepared to eat. I’d say she’s accomplished that quite well.
Iris doesn’t fill the void left by Kaldi’s, because the menu is smaller and there’s no alcohol service, but there are a lot of similarities: free wireless Internet and walls lined with books, nooks for conversation and good coffee. Fay doesn’t like to compare the two, and emphasizes that she hopes that Kaldi’s returns to the Main Street scene. I couldn’t agree more, but in the meantime, Iris feels fresh.
The books are well-selected, and there are vinyl records and CDs for sale. There will soon be DVDs for rent — artier than Blockbuster, for sure. Photo exhibits will change quarterly, and there is local art incorporated into the space, including stained glass from Kaleidoscope on Main. There’s a courtyard that I’ll enjoy returning to visit when the weather warms up, too.
Go: 1331 Main St., Over-the-Rhine
Hours: 8 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Friday; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturday-Sunday
Entrée Prices: $4.95-$8.95
Payment: Major credit cards
Red Meat Alternatives: Various soups and sandwiches
Accessibility: Fully accessible