Back in 2009, when I'd moved from New York to Cincinnati for a year's worth of work, the city's historic district Over-the-Rhine was just starting to develop. I'd lure friends and colleagues to congregate at Coffee Emporium for strong lattes and sweets, on Sundays we'd drink beer and play bocce at Neon's, and before a Fringe show I'd snag a bite and bourbon at Lavomatic. But by the time I left in 2010, Covington, Mount Adams, and the Fountain Square area still trumped OTR as far as destination restaurants go.
Not so anymore. The 3CDC development group has been revitalizing in a fury, and now they can't build condos or parking garages fast enough for the crowd that doesn't seem to mind waiting in line for two hours for a hotdog or taco. The discovery that I could no longer park easily on the street or lazily sip at my wine in the quiet of a midsummer's evening inspired a touch of crank to begin with, but as I took troops of eaters around OTR to eat our way through menus, I softened up. There's some solid food happening, and some that's not just "good for Cincinnati"—it's excellent, period.
Unless you come outside of happy hour times, book a reservation at the few joints that take them, and expect long waits at those that don't (though luckily, many will call you from wherever you're imbibing out your wait to tell you when your table's ready). Read on for seven standout spots to visit in the area.
Zula Restaurant and Wine Bar
With a prime spot on the northeast corner of Washington Park, Zula's got ambiance down pat, from a large family table fitting for parties to plenty of more intimate spaces. The drinks menu is a bit ambitious, and until they figure ways of finessing syrups and savory ingredients with a lighter touch, it's probably the best bet for those who appreciate a good deal of sweetness in their drink. The wine list, though, is extensive, and organized by price point as well as variety, so there's plenty of options for everyone.
We played around a bit with the menu, abstaining from the Z Breads we'd heard were stellar so that we could squeeze in more dishes, and while personal preferences had us disagreeing strongly on a few—one of us thought goat cheese was used with far too heavy a hand on an otherwise decent baby kale salad, the other loved how it coated all site of green—we generally concluded it's a solid menu with a few surprises. Serrano peppers were placed a bit liberally on an otherwise fresh Yellow Fin Tuna Crudo, overwhelming a few bites with heat, and the Roasted Beet Napoleon shown above was a delicious tower of sweet, citric and herbal that we could have eaten daily. But we were most sated by the New Orleans Mussels that nailed all levels of salt and smoke. They were so good next time I'd just order rounds of all eight mussels offerings and sop up the juices with their salty hand-cut fries.
1215 Wine Bar and Coffee Lab
A sign boasting "Summer of Riesling" was enough to get us in the door, and we may have stopped in a few times for flights of Riesling and rosé before we'd even ordered any food. Which was foolish because, though it's a tiny menu, everything we tasted was fantastic. Whereas similar wine bar menus often serve sub-par meat and cheese, their prosciutto is delightfully marbled and paper thin, the salami perfectly salty and aged, and all other bites appropriately sweet or savory, with no smear of extra grease to be seen.
Because of the thoughtful wine and beer menu, it's actually the perfect place for a lazy discussion and many rounds of snacks, since the traffic flows easily enough and a table or spot at the bar is generally a short wait (if a wait at all).
1215 Wine Bar and Coffee Lab 1215 Vine Street, Cincinnati, Ohio 45202 (Map); (513) 429-5745
Chef Dan Wright got a nod from Food and Wine as the 2012 Best New Chef of the Great Lakes region, and it shows in his menu at Senate, where monstrous hotdogs take the stage. Expect to spend $10 on a dog, with the comfort that it comes heavily loaded, like the Dan Korman 2.0 with spicy black bean-lentil sausage, roasted mushroom pico de gallo, sliced avocado, chipotle mayo, pickled jalapeños, and queso fresco; and the Trailer Park, which is a fitting nod to Porkopolis, with a bacon-wrapped beef hotdog and a topping of crushed Grippos, among others. There are some serious other eats, like roasted bone marrow bones, crispy pig tails, and a pork belly Reuben, too, all with solid layers of flavor and each it's own little gastronomic journey.
And while most of the plates are divine for a pre-nap meal of gluttony, the cocktails are reason alone to go back. The Mr. Chow has some intense butter-infused rum set in perfect balance with frangelico, velvet flarenium, lime, thai basil, lime, and pineapple, and they make the most solid Manhattan I've had in Cincy.
A fellow Serious Eats writer had shared that Dan Wright's sister restaurant Abigail Street (which is directly next door to Senate), served one of the best meals he'd had in his hometown in a long while. And we had to agree. Familiar favorites are presented in new, full-flavored ways, like grilled octopus on a bed of hummus with soft, crumbled merguez sausage, tomato, and jalapeño, set off by a scattering of crispy chick peas. The wood-grilled hangar steak changes seasonally, and those at our table remarked that the current offering—which was bright with citrus and white beans—was just as good as the two prior incarnations. The Fattoush (yellow pepper, radish, tomato, scallion, cucumber, zaatar, pita, lemon) is simple but well-executed, with solid technique (like chopping all vegetables into uniform sizes and not letting one ingredient overpower the other).
It's not the largest space, but, being one of the slightly more expensive choices in the neighborhood, the wait isn't as extended as other spots in OTR. Plates are big—this isn't a little tapas joint by any means—so mixing things up and popping around the menu is ideal for an ambitious group. And while the wine list is small, the four carefully selected whites and reds on tap brought straight from vineyards are available by the flight, glass, quartino, or bottle to-go, and the waiter nailed descriptions and suggestions for every one (of many) we tried. There's also a few more bottled varietals available and select beers for those wanting to play it safe.
Taste of Belgium Bistro
Taste of Belgium is the kind of homegrown food success story that's flourishing in Cincinnati, with a cart at Findlay or local farmer's markets leading to a full-scale restaurant. While waffles, house-made pastries and the like can still be found at Findlay, a full menu and plenty of both indoor and outdoor seating are available at the Bistro downtown, and seats pack in quickly during peak hours.
The food is pretty solid French-American, with classics like a variety of crepes, bouillabaisse, steak/frites/salad, salad Niçoise and a variety of mussels, and the menu in its entirety is worth exploring. But the best way to start out is with their classic Waffle and Chicken, which combines one of their thick, sweet waffles (which starts with a thick, yeasty dough versus a batter that pours), with a pounded and breaded chicken cutlet, both of which are then smothered in maple syrup and hot sauce. It's a dish fit for a hangover, a Friday night out, or an it-all-hit-the-fan kind of comfort.
Waiting in line at A Tavola our last night in town was one of the smartest food decisions we'd made all month. Pretty much everything on the menu gets a touch from the wood-fired oven, so while the menu may be small, it's mighty. Signature pizzas—like the Fig and Prosciutto, which layers fig jam, fontina and arugula on top of the obvious, or the rich fried eggplant, Roma tomatoes, pesto and mozzarella on another—take center stage. But the meatballs, sliders, and lightly dressed and roasted vegetables are treated with such simplicity that good ingredients, a touch of herb or citrus and a scorch make them all sing (ah, the cauliflower!). The stuffed dates are so good, you should make sure to order enough for your table to have at least two, and save room for some house-made gelato to cool the heat at the end.
Wines are served by the glass and organized by price for the bottle, the small beer menu is solid, and the signature cocktails are thoughtful and well executed. And while the full kitchen is open only until 11pm weekends, a late-night pizza menu fires away until 2am.
There's a lot on the menu to contemplate at Kaze, and while we weren't quite satisfied by the more ambitious plates (odd execution on a Summer Truffle Salad; unfulfilled flavors on the Wagyu Yakitori), the traditional ones were right on point. Sushi and sashimi offerings are solid, with very clean fish balanced on top of a smart portion of well-cooked rice or incorporated into rolls. On encouragement from a local friend, we went back for the pork buns and ramen, both which contained healthy doses of pork belly—the buns set sweetly off by apple and some crunch from frisée; the ramen by bright baby bok choy and scallions.
Kaze does take reservations, and the ample space and solid sake menu are beefed up by a few cocktails and a large selection of local, Japanese and other imported beers.
Kaze Restaurant 1400 Vine Street, Cincinnati, OH 45202 (map) 513-898-7991 KazeOTR.com
We checked out, but were unable to shoot, a few more local haunts we'd be remiss not to include. Props have to go to Bakersfield for their stellar house-made corn tortillas and simple, satisfying tacos as well as ultra-thin, crispy tortilla chips. Park and Vine, slings out satisfying vegan lunches and kombucha along with stocking sweets made by local home bakers and earthy-friendly companies. And we devoured our buttery-battered fish at Alabama Fish Bar while sitting on top of our car, since there's barely enough room to order and wait inside and the meal emerges piping hot.
Until we get back in to continue tracking OTR's insane development, keep us posted on what you see coming.