Barbecued ribs. Gourmet pizzas. Designer burritos. Indian, Mexican, Baltic, Peruvian, Thai, Italian. Upscale, homestyle, new, classic, dives. Downtown, Mount Adams, Northside, Newport, West Chester.
For a mid-sized city, Cincinnati practically overflows with restaurants filled with palettes of sumptuous, expensive ingredients and simple gastronomic pleasures. Sure, there are more than enough of the TGI AppleRuckers chains that are big on portions and low on personality, but we have some remarkable dining that rivals the larger cities.
I love grazing through New York City, Chicago and San Francisco because there's such an amazing diversity of dining establishments. I'm rarely bored there.
But then I stop to consider that I've eaten some of the best borscht at a Baltic restaurant in Blue Ash. I've experienced one of the most memorable meals of my life at a chef's table in the kitchen of a downtown French restaurant. And I know that the tabouleh made in a diminutive Mediterranean restaurant in Clifton is better than any I've had in Manhattan.
With all of the dining possibilities in Cincinnati, it's no wonder we get excited about spending our time and cash on good food.
As a food writer and reviewer, when I engage in conversation with people they're rarely interested in knowing about the current book I'm reading or my enthusiasm for yoga, architecture or UC basketball. I recognize the look of polite tolerance while The Question They're Dying to Ask simmers beneath a mask of feigned interest.
Do they care that I think Over-the-Rhine has stunning examples of Italianate architecture, that Bearcat guard Tony Bobbitt rocks or that Augusten Burroughs' Running With Scissors is a wickedly funny memoir? Barely. Hardly.
"Where are your favorite places to eat in Cincinnati?" is the question everyone wants to know.
I've been asked The Question — or variations of it — at parties, in elevators and while receiving a gynecological exam (the doc even stopped to take notes; no kidding). I open e-mail nearly every week from people visiting Cincinnati, or about to visit, asking advice for which restaurant is best to entertain guests, impress a first date or dine alone.
It's these questions and CityBeat's respect for Greater Cincinnati's culinary industry that motivated the dining writers to compile our first "Where to Eat" guide. It's a tough job — yeah, yeah, go ahead and cry for us — to cover all the restaurants that ought to be covered, and there are more dishes to taste and more columns to write about the undiscovered nooks and crannies of the dining horizon.
If you're familiar with CityBeat, you'll know that we're not compiling a standard guide to just the upscale, fine dining establishments — which are numerous. Instead, we're providing answers to the questions we as food writers receive the most.
Simply put, rather than being all-inclusive and comprehensive, it's a highly opinionated tour of Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky restaurants from high-end to down-home.
Whatever the ups and downs of Cincinnati's cultural life, we've invested in the people who feed us, and the returns have been admirable. Irrational ebullience? Perhaps.
Now let's eat.
Where to Take Out-of-Towners
When visitors come from out of town, we're eager to show them how beautiful Cincinnati is and that we really do embrace culinary diversity despite the reputation that we're all junkies for something called a three-way.
City View Tavern, 403 Oregon St., Mount Adams, 513-241-8439. Funky enough for your guests to think you're kinda cool, and truly the best damn Bloody Marys this side of a hangover. And the drive through Eden Park has never failed to impress any visitor.
Cumin, 3514 Erie Ave., Hyde Park, 513-871-8714. For a fresh spin on Indian cuisine. After dinner, drive up the hill to show off Ault Park.
Riverside Korean Restaurant, 512 Madison Ave., Covington, 859-291-4212. For authentic Bi Bim Bap, Pa Chan and Bulgogi while dining sans shoes in a 12-table restaurant that would be at home in any major Asian district, East or West coast.
Nicola's, 1420 Sycamore St., Over-the-Rhine, 513-721-6200. For delicious Italian cuisine and rustic cozy intimacy in a beautifully restored incline car barn that just happens to reside in a neighborhood with the largest concentration of Italianate architecture in the country (certainly you suspected I'd work that in).
Palomino, 505 Vine St., Downtown, 513-381-1300. For the thin-crusted pizzas and a glistening view of Fountain Square.
Primavista, 810 Matson Place, Price Hill, 513-251-6467. For a Sea Bass with Lobster Beurre Blanc that will compete with the stunning view.
Slims, 4046 Hamilton Ave., Northside, 513-836-6161. For the Zen attitude, communal tables, simple good food and a dining space unlike any other in the city (or many cities for that matter).
The Tousey House, 5963 Jefferson St., Burlington, 859-689-0200. For creative, modern Southern and regional cuisine in a stunning 19th-century mansion. We especially love taking our "big city" friends here, who are always amazed a restaurant this good exists "in the sticks."
Where to Take Your Parents
Dining en famille can be complicated — or not — depending on whether you're still trying to apologize to your parents and whether they have eccentric taste, country club taste or no taste.
The Celestial, 1071 Celestial St., Mount Adams, 513-241-4455. For old-world elegance, fine dining and a spectacular city view, this is the place that will convince them that you turned out OK. Make sure you drop by the Incline Lounge, where you'll smile with sentiment as you watch them dance to old Jazz standards.
Hamburger Mary's, 909 Vine St., Downtown, 513-381-6279. Take your parents here when you're finally ready to come out. You won't have much explaining to do, plus Mary's just makes the whole gay thing so ... fabulous!
Inn The Wood, 277 Calhoun St., Clifton Heights, 513-221-3044. For a hearty breakfast when they tell you that you haven't really made much progress since college. The contrast will startle them.
Maury's Tiny Cove, 3908 Harrison Ave., Cheviot, 513-662-2683. Sort of an old-school Vegas lounge vibe, this is the place to go if your parents have never moved beyond the Midwestern holy trinity of meat, starch and vegetable and like to be in bed before 8 p.m.
The Palm Court Restaurant at the Netherland Hilton, 35 W. Fifth St., Downtown, 513-564-6465. Make them feel really special amid historic grandness when you finally tell them they were right all along.
Where to Take the Foodies
The foodie enters into a higher state when restaurant dining — an intensely focused creature whose mind is occupied by awe and the wish to worship. Dozens of elements must play their parts faultlessly or there's danger of the whole thing coming unglued.
Aioli, 700 Elm St., Downtown, 513-929-0525. For Chef Julie Francis' thoughtful attention to color and texture on the palate as well as on the plate and for preparing the most delicious, sensual soups — hot and cold — in the entire city.
Boca, 4034 Hamilton Ave., Northside, 513-542-2022. For Chef David Falk's elevation of the maligned and misunderstood brussel sprout into a serious foodie addiction and for his continuously creative and playful bistro fare.
Daveed's, 934 Hatch St., Mount Adams, 513-721-2665. For the culinary high wire act that Chef David Cook pulls off with agility and ingredients that will stump even the most knowledgeable foodies.
Jean-Robert At Pigall's, 127 W. Fourth St., Downtown, 513-721-1345. For an exhilarating flavor carnival of seasonal, passionate dishes that can leave a foodie feeling as if they just took a wild ride through a culinary fun house. With impeccable service and a handsome room, you're sure to be named as a beneficiary in their will.
The Palace at the Cincinnatian Hotel, 601 Vine St., Downtown, 513-381-3000. For the talented husband and wife team of Guy Hulin and Noreen Nagao, who together craft exquisite food of savory and sweet and, along with Jean-Robert de Cavel of Pigall's, are highly respected by foodies from coast to coast.
The Tousey House. Because no one else is doing catfish, fried green tomatoes, cheddar grits and collard greens quite like Chef Kristy Schalck. Thoroughly modern and mouth-watering.
Where to Get Good, Slow Fast Food
Most of you interested in reading an article like this have little tolerance for franchised pabulum served by a plastic clown, but we're all occasionally short on time and in search of instantly gratifying satisfaction.
Chipotle, various locations. We're not too keen on giving props to the chains, but the ingredients are consistently fresh and the guacamole is yummy.
Habañero, 358 Ludlow Ave., Clifton, 513-961-6800. For delicious, eclectic Latin American style burritos served fast whether it's 11 a.m. or 11 p.m.
Kremer's Market, 755 Buttermilk Pike, Crescent Springs, 859-341-1067. For fabulous sandwiches such as the Pretzel Reuben, Classic Sub and Turkey Florentine, all made by hand with quality ingredients.
Ollie's Trolley, Liberty and Central Aves., West End, 513-381-6100. For the best cheap cheeseburgers and quality home cooking on the fly.
Taqueria Mercado, 3207 Dixie Hwy., Erlanger, 859-426-5804. If Taco Bell is Toxic hell, this is Taco heaven.
Wild Oats, 2693 Edmonson Road, Norwood, 513-531-8015. For healthy deli options, plenty of vegetarian (and vegan) choices and a beautiful salad bar resplendent with an impressive assortment of greens, vegetables, fruits, cheese, nuts and seeds.
Where to Dine on a Date
Even though hunger and love govern all world affairs, there's nothing that produces fear-driven anxiety — except for perhaps major surgery — quite like a first date. The decision where to dine often involves a complex list of ingredients essential to creating our idea of the perfect recipe for love ... or just a little sumthin' sumthin'.
The Celestial. For a contemporary menu and ethereal desserts with an Olympian view of an illuminated skyline. Dancing cheek-to-cheek in the lounge afterwards could ensure some cosmic afterglow.
The Chokolate Morel, 101 E. Main St., Mason, 513-754-1146. For outstanding food in small, intimate dining rooms that create an atmosphere of personal dining. For serious wooing, reserve the Cabernet Room, a solo table amid passionate reds and gold brocades that nearly guarantee poetic sighs.
The Comet, 4579 Hamilton Ave. Northside, 513-541-8900. After a couple of kick-ass burritos, nothing like a game of pool reveals the subtleties of the potential relationship. Duck inside the photo booth and get your picture taken to remind you years later of Back in the Day...
Jeff Ruby's, 700 Walnut St., Downtown, 513-784-1200. For the Rat Pack, big-shot ambience, the flattering, warm coppery glow and classic Sinatra serenades. How could you ever forget falling in love to "I've Got You Under My Skin?"
Scalea's, 320 Greenup St., Covington, 859-491-3334. For exceptional bistro fare served in the handsome and cozy, low-lit dining room or quaint, vine covered patio. Expensive tasting but reasonably priced food is perfect for impressing a date when the budget is feeling lean.
York St. Café, 738 York St., Newport, 859-261-9675. For its eclectic, kitschy dining room filled with oddball collections of everything from dentures to dogs — which either stimulate conversation on a first date or distract you from tedious conversation on the 100th — and the one-stop shopping of food (on the first floor), live music and liquor (second floor) and art gallery (third floor). Oh, and the food is superb too.
Where to Dine Alone
On the opposite end of the relationship spectrum is a need for solitude. A moderate diet of dining alone is good for the spirit, if solely for changing the awareness of what you eat and how you eat it.
The paradox of solo dining is that it often contains an added voyeuristic element, as other diners secretly wonder who you are and why you're dining alone and you become acutely aware of the surrounding conversations and behaviors of the other patrons. Or perhaps that's a frightening little insight that will motivate you to move across the room if you see me coming in to dine alone.
The Anchor Grill, 438 Pike St., Covington, 859-431-9498. For no-frills diner food and for the sheer joy of observing a parade of sideshow-worthy geeks and freaks.
Café De Paris, 17 Garfield Place, Downtown, 513-651-1919. For breakfast or lunch amid the rich symphony of languages (French, Arabic and Spanish, most often) this darling café attracts and for the sidewalk table where — if you squint your eyes just so at the urban beauty of Garfield Park — you really can imagine you're an ocean or a continent away.
Kaldi's, 1204 Main St., Over-the-Rhine, 513-241-3070. For the choice of complete quiet or the chance to engage in conversation with the wide diversity of patrons, and because you can sit for 10 minutes or three hours and no one will ask questions.
Le's Café inside the Main Public Library, 800 Vine St., Downtown, 513-665-3339. For authentic Vietnamese sandwiches and because it's the perfect lunch spot to get away from hustle and bustle — with a book, of course. Bonus: The adjacent Friends of the Library Shop is a gem for popular books at serious-bargain prices.
Mullane's Parkside Café, 723 Race St. Downtown, 513-381-1331. For the honest, health-conscious food and the close proximity of tables, perfect for eavesdropping on conversations tinged with politics, economics and socio-cultural musings.
Sugar 'N Spice, 4381 Reading Road, Paddock Hills, 513-242-3521. For the elbow-to-elbow horseshoe counter where you can feast on fluffy omelets and read the paper — yours or the person's next to you.
Where to Dine in Suburbia and Beyond
Despite our suspicion that dining in the suburbs means a strip of predictable, Milli Vanilli versions of Children-Eat-for-Free-Shiny-Happy-People meals, there are some really fine establishments worthy of the drive. And a shout out to all of you suburbanites for not settling for McBland. Y'all come to town for a visit now and then, OK? It's important for us to keep feeding each other.
Aralia, 215 Loveland-Madeira Road, Loveland, 513-697-8777. For authentic and exotic Sri Lankan dining in simple, family-style ambience. Be sure to try the house-made ginger beer.
Cheng-3 Cafe, 11371 Montgomery Road, Symmes Twp., 513-469-8801. For the Asian fusion seafood, especially the sea bass, which we'd swim that far to eat.
The Chokolate Morel. For the outstanding, creative food of Chefs Dave Avalos and Pam Kennedy served in the intimate rooms of a 19th-century home reportedly haunted by one of the original owners.
Jo An Japanese Restaurant, 3490 Olympic Blvd., Erlanger, 859-746-2634. For inspired sushi, sashimi, tempuras and yakimonos and the opportunity to dine with your shoes off in an upscale setting.
Knotty Pine on the Bayou, 1802 Licking Pike, Cold Spring, 859-781-2200. For the jambalaya, frogs legs and oysters as the Licking River rolls by you. By you, bayou, get it? Maybe that's an act we should take on the road.
Pacific Moon Café, 8300 Market Place Lane, Montgomery, 513-891-0091. For the dim-sum treasures and whole Szechwan Pike.
Sabor Peruano, 11512 Springfield Pike, Springdale, 513-772-5503. For adventurous comfort food, Peruvian style.
Wild Bill's New American Grille, 20 E. Silver St., Lebanon, 513-934-1300. Read between the bar-food lines for some crazy Cajun-Southwestern fusion that really works.
The Winds Café, 215 Xenia Ave., Yellow Springs, 937-767-1144. OK, we know this is a real stretch considering it's beyond the beyond, but we love The Winds so much we insist it's worth the trip for an inspired wine list, innovative cuisine and relaxed atmosphere amid the liberal vibe of Yellow Springs. Owned and run by some serious foodies with quirky humor, The Winds even publish their own newsletter.
Where to Graze, Swirl and Wonk
For those of us who love to explore and discover All Things Wine, a robust or unique wine list is part of the decision when choosing where to eat. Most restaurants that are sincere about their food take care with their wine list as well. Here are just a few of our favorites, including some retail to explore the Wonk within.
Bella, 600 Walnut St., Downtown, 513-721-7100. Pretty food, pretty people, a view of the uber-cool Contemporary Arts Center and a pretty approachable wine list. What more could you want?
The Chokolate Morel. Very casual wine bar sits next to the acclaimed restaurant (see other categories above). Even though the by-the-glass wine menu is somewhat limited, it's offset by a nice selection and good prices for full bottles and, of course, the delicious food.
Costco, 1100 E. Kemper Road, Springdale, 513-671-3302. A surprising range of quality wines, including high-end bottles with triple-digit price tags just a few aisles away from barn-size boxes of frozen shrimp and patio sets.
Piazza Discepoli, 23 Village Square, Glendale, 513-771-6611, plus locations in College Hill, Madeira and White Oak. Wines from barely known, new and small wineries have found a loving home here. Approachable, knowledgeable staff and affordable prices make it easy to experiment. On Saturdays, they offer home-cooked food and a tapas menu combined with an informative, educational tasting experience.
Trader Joe's, 328 E. Stroop Road, Kettering, 937-294-5411. A West Coast food and wine wonderland finally hits town — even if that means driving to up to Dayton. You never know what you'll find, which makes it so much fun. Wine industry stepchild Two Buck Chuck — so named for its $2 price tag — landed here.
The Vineyard Café and Wine Room, 2653 Erie Ave., Hyde Park, 513-871-6167. Two doors down from the prominent corner café is the less obvious Wine Room, with casually elegant and cozy quarters and a generous wine list to sample. The Wine Room's equally cozy patio is a more intimate space than the people-watching patio of the sister café, but the café's full menu is available and the staff will aid in wine pairing suggestions.
Where The Chefs Eat
Most of us imagine that popular chefs live a fabulous table-to-table life of Bacchanalian feasts, having developed a highly sensitive palate to anything less than the extraordinary and decadent. The truth is, popular chefs are popular because they're passionately bound to their own kitchens. When they do get a chance to dine out, most of them steer toward simple, well-prepared food, occasionally paying their respects to the dining rooms of other popular chefs.
David Cook, Chef of Daveed's, Mount Adams
Chipotle, various locations: "Great flavor combinations. Makes my endorphins pop. Always fresh."
Embers, Kenwood: "From steak to sushi to chicken pot pie, something for everyone."
JeanRo's, Downtown: "Classically well done! Great atmosphere, good people — even the chef!"
Jersey Mike's, various locations: "For the Giant No. 9 with oil, vinegar and everything. It reminds me of New Jersey ... Badda bing!"
Jean-Robert de Cavel, Chef of Pigall's and JeanRo's Bistro, Downtown
Andy's Mediterranean Grill, Walnut Hills: "A recent discovery. Relaxed atmosphere. Love the Strawberry Hookah (a pipe offered after the meal)."
Arthur's, Hyde Park: "When we feel like having the best American dish, a hamburger, and not far away from home."
Dewey's Pizza, Oakley: "When we're craving the Billy Goat and BBQ Chicken pizzas, and always a good wine-by-the-glass selection."
Shanghai Mama's, Downtown: "For late-night dining after Pigall's is closed — when we're usually starving."
Song Long, Roselawn: "Where we eat most often. Fresh, flavorful and well-spiced. Enjoy the mommy's cooking, love the family."
Sushi Ray, Mount Lookout: "Not far from home. Love the neighborhood feel."
Ron Wise, Chef of Rondo's, Westwood
The Comet, Northside: "Great quesadillas, burritos and beer."
Knotty Pine on the Bayou, Cold Spring: "Best gumbo — delicious. Great weekly crawfish boil. Great atmosphere all year round. Great selection of beers."
Riverside Korean Restaurant, Covington: "Excellent, excellent Korean food every time. A really neat atmosphere, great service and the food is delicious, especially the little side dishes."
Sebastian's, Price Hill: "Cheap, cheerful and fast Greek food. Delicious gyros, Greek fries, Tiropita and Baklava."
Tucker Restaurant, Over-the-Rhine: "Owned by Joe and Carla Tucker, our West side neighbors, this is undoubtedly the best breakfast in town. Joe makes the best deluxe hash browns and omelets."
Valley Vineyards, Morrow: "Grill your own steak, so you can't complain it wasn't done right. Great side dishes and corn in the summer. And the best locally grown and produced wine in Cincinnati."
Patrick McCafferty, Chef of Slims, Northside
La Mexicana, Newport: "As close to authentic as you can get in these parts."
Putz's Creamy Whip, Westwood: "For a chocolate malt once a year because it reminds me of the malts I drank after playing baseball in high school."
Thai Café, Clifton: "Because the food is consistent, the same woman makes it, and they work hard."
Julie Francis, Chef of Aioli, Downtown
Daveed's, Mount Adams: "Wonderful, beautiful food, good value and unpretentious. Top-notch service."
Boca, Northside: "Great concentrated flavors. Minimal, elegant presentations."
Jo An, Erlanger: "For the super fresh sushi and traditional Japanese dishes."
Riverside Korean Restaurant, Covington: "Authentic Korean, great spicy dishes. Love all the pickled salads and side dishes."
Jean-Robert at Pigall's, Downtown: "Always an amazing experience. All components — food, wine, service — add up to perfection."
Kristy Schalck, Chef of Tousey House, Burlington
Boca, Northside: "For the bistro energy and excellent food."
Coach Light Inn, Lawrenceburg, Ind.: "For Pot Roast and Deep Fried Chicken Livers with Onions. My all-time favorite place of the river rat life."
Huckleberry's, Lawrenceburg, Ind.: "For great, greasy goodness and ice cold beer after a day of boating on the river. You dock up and eat in your bathing suit and flip flops."
Jean-Robert at Pigall's, Downtown: "For a simply great dining experience."
Shanghai Mama's, Downtown: "For late night with a bunch of friends. The best Duck Confit I've ever had." ©