OTR Without Kaldi's Is Unthinkable

Kaldi's Coffeehouse, the venerable staple of Over-the-Rhine's Main Street, might have finally met its match: an eviction notice. Though thoughts of moving the bar and restaurant -- known for it

Matt Borgerding

Jeremy Thompson

Kaldi's Coffeehouse, the venerable staple of Over-the-Rhine's Main Street, might have finally met its match: an eviction notice.

Though thoughts of moving the bar and restaurant — known for its eclectic clientle and beatnik vibe — have bounced through owner Jeremy Thompson's head, he thought the timing would move at his choosing. When he spoke to leaders at Findlay Market about moving Kaldi's there earlier this year, it apparently set in motion a set of events that could wind up closing down the restaurant at its present location.

When talks with Findlay Market broke down, apparently over the city's concerns about a liquor license, Thompson decided he wanted to stay. Plus it's hard to take the Kaldi's show on the road.

"Kaldi's is not exactly the restaurant, it's the space," Thompson says. "You just can't recreate Kaldi's."

When it opened in 1993, it was essentially the beginning of what would become a major change for a neighborhood plagued by decades of crime and deterioration. Open early for those wanting to grab a cup of Java on the way to work and late into the evening for those wanting to get to know someone over the same, Kaldi's became a magnet for all sorts of locals.

College students from the University of Cincinnati and the Art Academy would trek downhill into the double shotgun-style restaurant with creaky, unpolished wooden floors, wobbly tables and relatively uncomfortable booths. I remember playing chess with an old friend on a Saturday night, well into Sunday morning, while sipping coffee with Grand Marnier mixed in — at the time the only place I knew that mixed alcohol with caffeine.

Kaldi's was packed.

And there were the books. Mike Markiewicz — a bearded, quiet literary type who co-founded Kaldi's with Sonya McDonnell — curated the for-sale collection that lined the walls. He said those were the books he didn't really care for anymore. He kept the good ones at his Woodward Street bookstore that he closed in 2006.

But anyone who went to Kaldi's and was curious enough to peek would pull a book off the shelf and nearly always find a gem. The book's price was written in pencil on an inside page. I bought many over the years.

Kaldi's abruptly closed in 2005 and stayed that way for four months. Thompson bought the restaurant and re-opened it, using his culinary training and experience serving thousands of Bengals fans at Paul Brown Stadium to bring life back to this little spot.

But it turns out the neighborhood's newly concentrated renaissance means a shift from its 1990s-era nightclub and bar bonanza to a community still trying to find its identity in the midst of a condo boom, dwindling crime and a bursting array of boutique shops. What does that mean for Kaldi's? Well, apparently an elevator shaft right through their current pint-sized kitchen nestled between the north and south dining rooms.

Upstairs from the place once dubbed the "living room of Over-the-Rhine," construction workers convert former apartments in the five-story building to condominiums. The building's owner, Urban Sites, has been doing this type of work in OTR for 25 years.

Urban Sites owner Bill Baum says he was planning to go forward without installing an elevator, but when Thompson said he wanted to move Baum sought funding to pay for the elevator. He got the funds, and installing it means that power will have to be shut off to the first-floor restaurant for about six weeks.

"In an effort to keep Kaldi's there, that's where we were going to go," Baum says. "We thought it was ridiculous to have four- and five-story walk-up (condos)."

Meanwhile, Baum says he's given Kaldi's a break on its rent and would much rather see the joint stay, even if it has to move temporarily, say, into the closed Enzo's coffee shop on Race Street.

"No one has ever wanted to see him go," Baum says, adding that the building gets its identity from Kaldi's. "I would rather have them there for free than have it vacant."

Thompson hopes a deal can be arranged but worries something worse might be afoot.

"Maybe we are 'old Over-the-Rhine,' " Thomson says. "I'm not trying to pick a fight with anyone. I don't want to be closed down after I've worked this hard. We've basically turned the corner."

Over-the-Rhine without Kaldi's would be like the Tyler Davidson Fountain without water. Yeah, it's still the fountain, but it just doesn't have the same splash to it.

Let's cross our fingers something can be worked out to keep Kaldi's going.

JOE WESSELS is publisher and executive director of iRhine/CinDaily.com. Contact him at [email protected].

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