Cincinnati's New Car Smell

CityBeat readers highlight a variety of 'best new things' that excite them

They call in to local talk radio shows. They write letters to the editor in The Enquirer. You overhear their conversations at the coffeeshop. One of them might even be your brother-in-law.

They’re the Know Nothings, who like to tell you (and the world) how Cincinnati is a boring city and there’s nothing to do here and all the old places are stupid and nothing new ever happens. They stubbornly cling to the notion that new things here can’t be exceptional because Cincinnati is incapable of being exceptional. By definition, they argue, if it’s in Cincinnati it’s no good.

Luckily for the rest of us who live in the real world, the Know Nothings are a small — though vocal — minority. It’s our sacred duty to crush them at every opportunity, break their spirits and cut off their tenuous connection to the public consciousness.

Our weapon of choice? Facts.

The Best of Cincinnati issue is an excellent place to find the kind of information you need to refute Know Nothings. Take the readers poll category “Best New Thing,” for instance.

I was pleasantly surprised at the diversity of votes in this category, from retail businesses and restaurants to events and organizations to people and social issues. As a snapshot of where Greater Cincinnati is circa Spring 2010, it’s an impressive list.

With the goal of providing fodder for pro-Cincinnati arguments, I decided to delve deeper into the readers’ choices for Best New Thing. Memorize these facts and prepare to fight the Know Nothings when called upon. Your city needs you.

I present the winners in the order they finished in the readers poll.

Five Guys Burgers and Fries

Honestly, why get excited about another national burger chain coming into this market? Could Five Guys Burgers and Fries be that much different from chains like Steak N Shake or Johnny Rockets or offer quality anywhere near hallowed indie favorites like Zip’s or Quatman’s?

Five Guys opened four locations in Greater Cincinnati during the past year — Fort Mitchell, Norwood, West Chester and on the edge of the University of Cincinnati campus — and the word got around quickly: They serve a damn good burger. And their fries rock.

The restaurants are set up as no-frills diners, with the grill front and center, focusing the customers’ attention squarely on the food. The company itself, based in the Washington, D.C. area, seems no-frills as well; I couldn’t get anyone to comment for this story — based on what I read, Five Guys execs don’t “do” public relations. Their food speaks for itself.

And it speaks loudly, according to loyal customers. The walls in their restaurants are covered with “Best of” awards from various cities (Five Guys has 550 locations in 35 states), and their Web site has a page where “fanatics” share stories about their favorite menu items and stores.

CityBeat readers got sucked into the Cult of Five Guys as easily as other markets. Not only did Five Guys win the readers poll in this category, Best New Thing, but they also won Best New Restaurant, finished second in Best Fries and finished third in Best Burger. Hmmm, is anyone else getting hungry?

Kroger Marketplace in Newport

Northern Kentucky shoppers seem particularly excited about their new grocery store just off I-471, but it’s not just any old Kroger. The Marketplace store that opened in December 2009 was the seventh “destination” mega-store in Kroger’s portfolio of 112 locations throughout Greater Cincinnati and Dayton.

The Marketplace concept is an attempt to beat back competition from Wal-Mart and Meijer’s, home goods stores that have ventured into selling groceries. A Marketplace store is almost twice the size of a typical Kroger and sells about 60 percent food and 40 percent non-food items.

“We have a bistro on site with seating for lunch and dinner, with chefs preparing meals to be eaten there or taken home,” says Kroger spokeswoman Rachael Betzler. “We carry Murray’s cheese from New York, unique in this area, and offer home goods like furniture, jewelry and bed and bath through our Fred Meyer division (a Kroger subsidiary based on the West Coast).”

West-siders, take note of your Newport friends’ enthusiasm: Kroger’s next area Marketplace store just opened in Harrison.

Streetscape in Gateway Quarter

The redevelopment effort inching its way north up Vine Street from Central Parkway is nothing short of miraculous, a slow-motion tsunami that’s leaving new stores, restaurants and living spaces and refreshed streets and sidewalks in its wake. Dubbed the Gateway Quarter, these blocks have begun to convert long-debated Over-the-Rhine “what if” scenarios into reality.

The $2 million streetscape project was a partnership between the city of Cincinnati and 3CDC from April to September of last year. The overall goals, says 3CDC’s Kelly Leon, were to update yet maintain the neighborhood’s historic fabric, bury the overhead utility lines for a cleaner look, make the sidewalks wider and more comfortable and inviting for pedestrians and increase the lighting levels to improve store visibility and safety.

The project installed new sidewalks and granite curbs, collector strips that allow for planters on the sidewalk (which will be changed out four times a year), new street lights, trees and ADA ramps at corners and crosswalks. As someone once said, everything old is new again.

Clifton Cultural Arts Center

An abandoned public school building is teaching Cincinnati new lessons again — about keeping our history alive and about the role of arts and culture in communities.

The old Clifton Elementary School, built in 1906 and still perched majestically on Clifton Avenue, took another step forward in early March with the groundbreaking for Phase 1 of the Clifton Cultural Arts Center’s rebuilding plan. An elevator will be installed in the rear of the building, bringing the facility up to code and allowing full use of the large upstairs auditorium, which will undergo its own renovation.

The Clifton Cultural Arts Center (CCAC) came to life three years ago when Cincinnati Public Schools decided to close Clifton Elementary and construct a new home for Fairview-Clifton German Language School on its foot print, mothballing the 1906 building. A group of neighborhood residents saw the potential for the building and for its relationship to the new Fairview school and an adjacent Cincinnati Recreation Commission center and formed CCAC to take the building off the school district’s hands.

After some cleaning and spiffing up, the center has hosted regular art exhibitions and offers a wide range of classes, from kids art to adult yoga and pilates. Once the auditorium is fully functional, the center likely will offer live theater and music shows and perhaps even attract resident arts companies.

The Ascent

Bunched together 100-year-old red brick buildings are Cincinnati’s architectural calling card to the world, a classic look found in Over-the-Rhine, Covington, Newport and other urban areas. Samuel Hannaford’s work stands out, of course, in the masterpieces he and his proteges designed: Music Hall, Cincinnati City Hall, Cincinnati Observatory, Old St. George Church, The Cincinnatian Hotel etc.

A new era of architectural prominence could be upon us, judging from the high-profile buildings designed in recent years by world-renowned names like Zaha Hadid (Contemporary Arts Center) and Daniel Libeskind (The Ascent, pictured at top). Libeskind’s high-rise condo project near Covington’s riverfront, opened in February 2008, has clearly captured the public’s imagination and is easily recognized from almost every direction.

“It’s an amazing living experience for the visionaries who decided to move there,” says Debbie Vicchiarelli, chief marketing officer for Corporex, which developed The Ascent. “It’s approaching 80 percent occupancy.”

The design is a wonderful reflection of how Covington (and Greater Cincinnati) wants to see itself: stretching up into the sky, with the curved top point seeming to corkscrew upwards in an effort to reach even higher.

Café de Wheels

Tom Acito and Mike Katz picked a tough time to start an outdoor food truck concept: the coldest winter in recent memory. Still, their Café de Wheels has quickly warmed local hearts and filled local stomachs.

The truck works mostly lunch-time hours downtown, usually in the parking lot at Walnut and Court streets and then at the School for Creative and Performing Arts construction site. They’ve booked a happy hour gig Fridays at 4:30 p.m. at Fries Café in Clifton and can be found at Final Friday in Over-the-Rhine, Bockfest and other special occasions.

“We’ve served between 30 — ouch — to 180 — getting there — meals a week,” Acito says. “Good weather makes a huge difference. We’re still not up to a full day, three shifts, since we’re a staff of two. We’re working on increasing our hours to be able to do breakfast through dinner and late nights Friday/Saturday.”

The truck’s most popular dish is the Wheelsburger, with the Cuban sandwich, veggie burger and Katz’s soups and Texas chili close behind. Acito says new menu items are coming, including the Vegaphilly, “basically a Philly cheesesteak made with portabella mushrooms and a secret twist served on a Shadeau hoagie.”

Find out where Café de Wheels will be each day via their Web site ( You can also place an order there for Acito and Katz to cater your next party.

Fine Arts Fund Splash Dance

If you Googled “flash mob” during the past year, you would have found dozens of videos of people gathering in public spaces for what seemed to be spontaneous dance routines that were in fact organized performance art. Most of them happened in Japanese train stations or Berlin plazas or in front of the Eiffel Tower and seemed so exotic, so weird, so cool.

That couldn’t be done in Cincinnati, right? Wrong, said folks in the local arts community, and as usual they set about proving that Cincinnati can be daring and fun. Staff at the Fine Arts Fund organized what they dubbed a “splash dance” entirely online, from e-mail invites to secret password-protected videos of the dance steps to a Google group for updates to social media for teases and later for sharing video of their dance.

Recruits practiced at Know Theatre, the Aronoff Center and Music Hall’s ballroom. Local bands donated recorded music. And MidPoint Music Festival’s kickoff event on Fountain Square in late September was chosen for the public performance.

Despite rain and a light audience, the “splash dance” was amazing, as people kept joining in throughout the routine until, as a spectator, you thought perhaps you were the only person on the Square that afternoon not in on the joke. And then, as suddenly as it began, the music ended and everyone walked away.

Margy Waller, Fine Arts Fund vice president, says they’ve repeated the “splash dance” several times since MidPoint, once on a Sunday afternoon at Findlay Market (“in the sun,” she points out) and again at Newport on the Levee. Video of the Fountain Square routine is featured prominently in the Fine Arts Fund’s current fundraising campaign.

Google “flash mob Cincinnati” now, and you’ll find a nice surprise. (And go here for the Fine Arts Fund's behind-the-scenes "making of" video.)


It’s one of those stories that reminds us why creative people continue to make a difference in Cincinnati: A bunch of friends decide to help each other market their original artwork, find an empty storefront in hip Northside and open a gallery/boutique called Fabricate. The public loves it, and everyone lives happily ever after.

Debuting in November 2009, Fabricate has opened new art shows the second Saturday of each month, with A Shot in the Dark: Musical Stills by Scott Beseler a particular hit in January. The local photographer (a CityBeat contributor) printed his photos of mostly local musicians onto actual vinyl records, and a number of the featured bands played at the after-party at nearby Mayday.

Aileen McGrath, one of Fabricate’s co-owners (a CityBeat contributor as well), says that so far shoppers have gravitated toward Orange Fuzz Boutique plush characters and handmade soaps, jewelry by Charlotte Conway, paintings and illustrations by Wendy Owens and whimsical neckwear by Shannon Yoho. And there was the Molly Wellmann artichoke pillow.

“It had big eyes and a heart on the back, and everyone came in and picked it up and loved it,” McGrath says. “Several people posed for pictures with it and sent them to us later. A couple even came in again to visit it one day, even though they couldn’t justify spending money on it. People would ask if it was still in the store and were sad when it was finally purchased, albeit happy it went to a good home.”

Fabricate is located at 4012 Hamilton Ave. and is open Wednesday through Sunday. The next exhibition features work from School for the Creative and Performing Arts students, opening April 10.

Eddie Fingers and Tracy Jones

Tracy Jones was the peanut butter in the local Clear Channel radio empire, an outspoken former Reds player who filled a variety of on-air roles around game broadcasts. Eddie Fingers was the chocolate, the Rock & Roll bad boy who made fart jokes between Led Zep and Rush tunes on WEBN’s “Dawn Patrol.” When WLW legend Gary Burbank gave up his afternoon time slot, someone was smart enough (or desperate enough) to suggest creating a radio Reese’s Cup.

Fortunately for everyone — listeners, WLW execs, CityBeat readers and Fingers and Jones — the pairing has worked.

“First of all, to have my name associated with ‘best new thing’ at this stage of my career is pretty awesome,” Fingers says. “I’m really proud of my ‘Dawn Patrol’ years, but I’d always told myself that it couldn’t last forever and when the right opportunity came along I’d have to think long and hard about it. Turns out the right opportunity was just down the hallway when Gary retired.”

Fingers and Jones continue to serve Burbank’s old role as a bridge between WLW’s conservative political talk shows hosted by Mike McConnell and Bill Cunningham and the evening sports-oriented programming. The show relies on their easy back-and-forth banter: Jones likes to offer “informed opinions” (which are usually wrong), while Fingers still exudes a “whatever” vibe. Fingers is especially engaging when he talks about his kids and his family life, coming across as totally uncool, which only makes him cooler.

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