incinnati’s dining scene has garnered quite a bit of national attention in the past couple of years, but when critics discuss our city’s burgeoning gastro-tourism, they tend to exclude nearby Covington. For example, when Alton Brown was in town last year for his performance at the Aronoff, he went to a lot of cool spots — Collective Espresso and The Eagle in Over-the-Rhine, Eli’s and The Sleepy Bee on the East Side — but he didn’t make it across the river into Northern Kentucky. The thing is, just like the rest of downtown Cincinnati, downtown Covington is also undergoing a great renaissance. The city just celebrated its bicentennial, and big things are in store as more restaurants and the city’s first modern brewery, Braxton Brewery, hit the budding scene.
The Gruff, owned by local husband and wife team Kristin and Avram Steuber, opened in January. It’s a three-fold concept: a gourmet market/deli, a bar and a pizzeria/restaurant, all working in tandem. There’s nowhere else in Covington where you can buy Indianapolis’ Smoking Goose Meatery’s Italian cured meats (lomo $28/pound) and also grab a nice bottle of wine. The deli sells potato salad, tuna salad, hummus, sausages, fresh Sixteen Bricks bread (try the sourdough for $5) and Havarti cheese ($10/pound), whereas the market sells all kinds of local and national craft beers, small produce items (tomatoes, lemons, onions), farm fresh eggs, maple syrup, locally made Babushka Pierogies, soda, kombucha, hard liquor and everything else essential to your gourmet needs. And the restaurant itself has brick-oven pizzas and hot sandwiches.
Before opening the 4,500-square-foot eatery, the Steubers ran catering company and café Twin Bistro inside The Cov’s Panorama Apartments, but they always wanted to do a pizza place. The name comes from the fairy tale Three Billy Goats Gruff, a Norwegian story written in the 1800s. Three goats of different sizes try to cross a bridge, but a mean troll threatens to eat them. Eventually the goats defeat the troll, cross the bridge, graze on some yummy grass and live happily ever after.
“Crossing the bridge” also serves as a metaphor for those Cincinnatians tentative to visit Kentucky.
“I really want to see Covington turn around,” Kristin says. “Even when I was 18, 19, I remember Covington being a lot different. A lot more people would come down here. It was more a destination, and now it’s not. It’s kind of fallen off the radar.”
And that’s what’s at stake for The Gruff. The restaurant wants to show the rest of the Queen City and the nation that Covington can compete with the big boys. Local design company BLDG created the branding and the colorful murals inside and outside the restaurant, like three yellow goats on a green exterior brick wall. Inside, excerpts from the fairy tale are written on the wall above the bar, along with another painting of the three goats; the floor is painted a forest green to symbolize the goats’ grass.
Akin to the deli selection, the restaurant itself has gourmet inklings and isn’t just your boilerplate neighborhood joint. The bar serves a rotating menu of MadTree, Moerlein and Rhinegeist drafts and rotating seasonals from Upland, Abita and others. It offers cocktails, too, but they aren’t elaborate — just a Moscow Mule, Old Fashioned, a martini and a Manhattan. About 12 types of wines, mainly from California, are on the wine list, with glasses priced reasonably at $7-$9 and bottles $22-$27.
Each table at The Gruff is pre-set with a help-yourself bottle of water and glasses, which is a nice touch. The big menu consists of sandwiches ($8-$10), salads ($5-$10), deviled eggs, pizzas ($13-$16) and Graeter’s ice cream, Covington’s Piebird pies and milkshakes for dessert ($5). Normal deli things are on the menu, including veggie and tuna sandwiches (both good), but also more adventurous offerings like the smoked brisket pizza (a perfectly chewy crust) and a gourmet fried bologna sandwich.
During a recent visit, I tried the veggie sandwich (hummus, cucumber, tomato, onion, spinach, basil and goat cheese on a wheat baguette), though no goat cheese could be found. (Note: Goat cheese, but not goat meat, is sold here). A “chopped” side salad came with roasted chickpeas, mixed greens and balsamic vinaigrette. The sandwiches come with a choice of one side — everything from pasta salad and potato salad to cole slaw, fresh fruit and a hot veg of the day — but it’s $2 extra to add a side salad or waffle fries. Their pickle fries, which are strips of deep-fried pickles, are a better option than just boring potato fries.
The best part about The Gruff is that it’s open all day and evening, six days a week, and you can order food and beers through the drive-thru. (Kentuckians love drive-thrus, especially brew-thrus.) The Gruff is not reinventing the culinary wheel — at least not quite like neighboring Nuvo or other grab-and-go gourmet markets like Hyde Park’s Dutch’s or Mount Adams’ Sprout — but it does have a firm and essential foothold in the community.
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-midnight Friday and Saturday.