Longfellow Cincinnati's exterior is as cryptic as its online presence. The European café meets cocktail bar, located at 1233 Clay St. in Over-the-Rhine, is marked almost exclusively by a small, neon “Longfellow” sign illuminating the corner of one window.
It mirrors the bar’s lack of a website and almost bare Facebook page. When Longfellow opened in mid-February of this year, they posted online an invitation for people to come "drink something you like to drink."
For a bar so close to the popular bar crawl of OTR, it's a bold move to be quiet. And yet, that's Longfellow's strength: It lets its atmosphere speak for itself.
I visited Longfellow on a Tuesday evening, and only about 10 people dotted the one-room-bar's high-top and tables at 8 p.m., yet it felt full, with friendly groups chatting loudly and laughing as they ordered more and more. The music was a soundtrack of Doo Wop oldies and Punk Rock anthems that everyone there seemed to know by heart.
While it’s an OTR version of a dive bar, the menu showcases the life of the owner, Mike Stankovich. Stankovich has a Southern and Italian background — he grew up eating cornbread and rolling out homemade ravioli. Combine that with his experience traveling through Europe and Japan and his stint in New York bartending, and you have Longfellow's menu.
"The menu is dictated by my experiences, sure, but also old-school bar food that doesn't exist anymore,” Stankovich says. “Things like an egg salad sandwich, or a nice peanut butter sandwich.”
Longfellow’s menu manages to offer something traditional yet refreshingly new, with sandwiches, a selection of cheese, fresh vegetables, hand-sliced meats, crostini, marinated Mediterranean olives and, of course, Cincinnati’s own Grippo’s barbecue chips. Each simple dish is delivered without much fuss; I ordered the tomme ($4) and goat cheese ($5), the radishes and butter ($4) and three pierogies ($5). One of the bartenders dashed to the back of the house (because Longfellow is just one room, it's easy to see where people come and go) and in about 10 minutes, my food was delivered to me.
For such simple dishes, the presentation could easily stray into too fancy, too sloppy or just plain wrong, but Longfellow knocks the dang ball out of the park.
The Francophile radishes and butter is a dish I never could have schemed up as an American. The radishes are served raw and still a tad wet, and I did what the dish invited me to: I dipped the radishes in the chilled butter like a piece of bread and dug in. It was a whole new culinary experience for me; the raw, peppery radishes paired well with the deliciously spiced butter. I consider myself a bit of a butter fan, and I can taste a good one when it comes my way. Longfellow's butter was thick and served as a smear like cream cheese for a bagel. It's the kind of butter that no one would judge you for eating with a spoon — OK, some people might, but no one in Longfellow would. Everyone would understand.
The tomme cheese, a mild cheese produced in the French Alps and Switzerland, was so filling it could almost be compared to a piece of meat. The goat cheese had a deep body of flavor, with peppery notes that popped through the creamy texture. The only bummer of the evening was the fact that I ended up needing to order more bread because I rationed my cheese as slowly as possible. The best part of the evening: the sweet fruit spread served with the cheeses that made me feel like a French schoolgirl eating breakfast at the top of the Eiffel tower.
The cocktails enhance the menu. I ordered the Spruce Goose ($11), St. Joseph's Sour ($10) and the Classic Daiquiri ($10 under the Staff Favorites portion of the cocktail list). The Spruce Goose — a recipe Stankovich brought with him from New York — is a wicked mix of gin, tonic and other almost undetectable ingredients like lime and honey. Muddled together, I couldn't draw out one unique taste and downed the iced cocktail quicker than you can say, "Another, please." The St. Joseph's Sour, an updated whiskey sour, has a frothy egg white topping so soft it feels like sipping on a cloud. And the Classic Daiquiri, imagined by bartender Jen, is served in a small glass that betrays the cocktail’s mighty punch. It was my favorite drink of the evening, especially when paired with the European menu — the tart lime-infused cocktail cut through the creaminess of the cheeses.
Longfellow recently introduced pierogies sourced from Cincinnati's authentic Babushka Pierogies. Available from 11 p.m.-2 a.m. every night, I snagged an order right when the clock chimed eleven. The pierogies are three for $5 and served warm with sour cream garnish. I feasted on the potato and caramelized onion, but next time around will have to indulge in the Cincinnati chili pierogi. My face must have betrayed the utter joy I felt eating the pierogies, as a bartender leaned in and whispered to me, “That’s the face I make when eating them, too.”
In case you feel like sharing the love, Longfellow also features a Pay It Forward drink chalkboard. But there's a catch: You have to specify who you are paying it forward to and what kind of drink they will receive. Longfellow's regulars buy so many drinks for each other through this system they've already gone through the Pay It Forward chalkboard 10 times. "I got the idea from my favorite New York hole-in-the-wall,” Stankovich says. “Some people use our Pay It Forward option to buy their friends drinks they know they hate, some will be nice and buy drinks for their friends they actually like. The best was when a guy came in one night and bought a drink for his future sober self."
As for the name, Longfellow, it doesn't just stem from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem “Catawba Wine,” which popularized the nickname “Queen City” for Cincinnati — though that is half of it. While living in Washington, D.C. (where he played guitar in several Hard Core bands), Stankovich lived on Longfellow Street in a Punk house beloved by his friends.
"Kismet brought me to Cincinnati," Stankovich says. "The name Longfellow is my past and present colliding."
LONGFELLOW is located at 1233 Clay St., Over-the-Rhine. More info: facebook.com/longfellowcinti.