I’ve written a lot about Cincinnati over the years. I just can’t help it. Charles Dickens feels me. In his American Notes, he wrote, “The inhabitants of Cincinnati are proud of their city as one of the most interesting in America: and with good reason.” Sure, that was 150 or so years ago, but there’s still good reason to celebrate the place, especially when it comes to food. The chefs working in this city right now are like the winning lineup of a favorite sports team, so on their game that you just hope and pray that none of them will ever retire or get traded away.
A Pint at Arnold’s Bar & Grill
Nothing changes much at Arnold’s, and I hope nothing ever will. There’s the old barroom that’s been serving beer and liquor since the Arnold family opened this beloved Cincinnati institution in 1861, and the quirky upstairs dining area—once the Arnolds’ apartment—where you can enjoy straightforward Italian-American classics, like spaghetti and meatballs, alongside the family’s old bathtub. Outside, there’s a leafy brick walled-in courtyard that hosts live bands most nights of the week. Arnold’s is where I first fell in love with jug bands and bluegrass. It’s where I first fell in love with old bars with good bones, too. It’s a place where city council members come to celebrate their reelections, or drown their sorrows after a loss; a place with banged-up wainscoting and schoolhouse lights—a place where you might run into a Cincinnati Red or two.
I always tell people to visit Arnold’s in the daytime, when it’s quiet enough to get into your own headspace for a while, maybe figure a thing or two out as you sip a Hudepohl lager (the official “dad’s beer” of Cincinnati) at the bar. In fact, Arnold’s was open only during the daytime until the 1980s, when eccentric local businessman and former Cincinnati vice mayor Jim Tarbell bought the place and started a dinner program. Tarbell was and remains a fixture in this city. So much so that an enormous mural of him—in a top hat and tails, no less—encompasses the entire side of a building in Over-the-Rhine (see photo at top). Tarbell sold Arnold’s years ago to current owner Ronda Androski, who understands the importance of the place in the city’s collective consciousness; knows that no matter how many new craft cocktail bars and fancy restaurants open up nearby, Arnold’s job is to simply be Arnold’s. I have a soft spot for Androski’s famous Blueberry Chicken—tender breaded fried chicken topped with a decadent sauce of blueberries, basil, Brie, and walnuts. Don’t miss Arnold’s boozy take on Kentucky beer cheese, either. Theirs is made with bourbon, but it maintains its Cincinnati character when served with a warm soft pretzel from Servatii, a local bakery chain that’s been here since 1963.
A Three-Way at Skyline Chili in the Gaslight District
You’ve probably heard of Cincinnati chili and its peculiar spice profile of cinnamon, nutmeg, and chocolate. You’ve likely heard of Skyline Chili, too—it’s the most famous of the local chili chains. The first Skyline was opened in 1949 by Nicholas Lambrinides, a Greek immigrant who, after working for a fellow Greek at Empress Chili (cited as the first Cincinnati chili parlor), decided to go it alone. These days, Skyline has about 130 locations in four states, and for many of us wayward Cincinnatians, it’s the place we miss most when we move too far away. What you might not know is that there is one Skyline location that’s better than all the rest. It sits in the heart of Cincinnati’s Clifton Gaslight District—a 19th-century enclave near the University of Cincinnati that’s known for its Victorian-era houses, the indie film–focused Esquire Theatre, and comfy neighborhood cafés, bars, and restaurants. What I’ve always loved about this Skyline in particular—aside from its 4 a.m. closing time—is the building itself: a brick Dutch Colonial decorated with an ornate Skyline sign made with tiles from Cincinnati’s famous Rookwood Pottery. Inside, the place retains the feel of an old-school diner. I recommend you eschew the booths and take a seat at a counter stool so you can watch the step-by-step construction of Skyline’s famous Three-Way—a heap of spaghetti ladled with chili and topped with a Mount Everest–sized pile of neon-yellow shredded cheddar cheese, served with oyster crackers and hot sauce. Once you chop it all up with a fork into a mess of cheesy, meaty, hot sauce–squirted spaghetti, it might just be the best thing you’ve ever tasted. Before you head out, be sure to grab the traditional Skyline dessert: the small York Peppermint Patties sold at the register.
A Timeless Dinner at Orchids at Palm Court
Located in the former lobby of the grand Hilton Cincinnati Netherland Plaza, which opened in 1931 and has hosted everyone from Winston Churchill to Elvis Presley, Orchids at Palm Court is like some sort of crazy F. Scott Fitzgerald fever dream, with its ornate French Art Deco architecture, Brazilian rosewood walls, French silver metalwork, frescoes, and ceiling murals. While you might think a place so locked in the past would serve up a predictable if not dated menu, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Despite the opulence that surrounds you, what you’ll experience at Orchids is fresh, locally sourced comfort food of the highest order, served by a professional, Downton Abbey–style staff of 170 (if you include the hotel’s cocktail bar and adjacent grill) that will make you realize fine dining, with its bone china, white tablecloths, crisp linens, and all, is still alive and well and living in Cincinnati.
Executive Chef Todd Kelly, a New York native and veteran of San Francisco’s Rubicon restaurant, earned Orchids a coveted AAA Five Diamond award last year, placing it in the ranks of The French Laundry in Napa and Le Bernardin in New York. It’s easy to see how. Kelly runs this enormous operation more like a farm than a luxury hotel restaurant. He keeps an herb garden and beehives on the hotel's roof, and cooks with fruits and vegetables sourced from his own small farm in nearby Batavia, Ohio. He also makes his own cultured butter, as well as a luscious local goat’s milk cheese. One current offering is a winter wonderland of a dish: New Zealand venison, which Kelly brines for four hours in gin, juniper berries, bay leaves, and other spices. It’s seared until rare and served with a purée of buttery winter squash, a gelée of winter spices and agar-agar, and a port wine jus. While everything is perfectly executed, what I love most about this dish is that Kelly tops the venison with a dollop of whipped sorghum, which melts into the meat, sweetening it with warm, earthy, molasses-like flavors.
If Kelly has a culinary soulmate, it’s Orchid’s pastry chef, Megan Ketover, a Top Chef Just Desserts alum who serves some of the most beautiful, carefully arranged desserts I’ve ever tasted. If you’re lucky enough to find her sweet and spicy cardamom Basque cake on the menu, be sure to order it. It’s served with fresh Ohio sweet corn ice cream that melds the essence of corn with the flavors of brown butter, sugar, and blackberries. Once the dessert course is over, slip into the hotel bar, order an Old Fashioned, and beat on, ceaselessly, into the past.
The Grilled Octopus at Abigail Street
The first time I visited Chef Daniel Wright’s Over-the-Rhine Mediterranean restaurant, Abigail Street, a few years ago, I knew my hometown was gearing up for a second act. Wright, a Chicago transplant who moved here with his Cincinnati-born wife, was among the first restaurateurs to take a gamble on what was once a largely abandoned commercial strip of Vine Street in Over-the-Rhine. Despite the fact that there ain’t no octopus swimming in the Ohio River, Wright’s grilled octopus tastes as fresh as it does in Campania. He braises the tentacles in red wine and vegetable stock for several hours before tossing them on a wood-fired grill, which infuses them with the intense, comforting flavors of both sea and smoke. It’s served on a bed of creamy homemade hummus with spicy crumbled house-made lamb merguez. Wright also owns two other restaurants in the neighborhood—the gourmet gastropub Senate, as well as Pontiac Bourbon & BBQ, which Cincinnati Magazine recently dubbed “an instant classic.”
A Weeknight Supper at Salazar
Jose Salazar is another Cincinnati transplant who’s shaking things up in Over-the-Rhine. Colombian-born and New York–raised, Salazar moved to Cincinnati in 2008. He’s worked at such venerable restaurants as Thomas Keller’s Per Se and Geoffrey Zakarian’s Town. While he came to Cincinnati to take over the venerable Palace restaurant, Salazar quickly grew restless, yearning to open a place of his own. That spot, the eponymouly named Salazar, is located in a restored butcher shop in Over-the-Rhine. Sitting in the dining room recently, with its marble bar and Moorish tile floors dappled with sunlight via a wall of huge double-hung windows, I felt a surge of warmth wash over me as I slurped a spoonful of Salazar’s nutty and creamy celery root soup. The celery root, like most of the ingredients here, is sourced from southern Ohio farms. It's cooked in milk and a sachet of fresh herbs, then topped with chopped toasted hazelnuts for a crunchy contrast.
Afterward, I couldn’t pass up an order (well, two orders, but who’s counting?) of Salazar’s Blue Point oyster sliders. The shellfish are fried in a tempura batter and topped with garlic mayo, kimchi, and radish sprouts. Sure, the dish sounds simple, but tucked inside their brioche buns, the components balance each other beautifully: the creaminess of the oyster and mayo, the crunch of the tempura, the tangy, funky, fermented flavors of the kimchi—the fresh, spicy bite of the radish sprouts. No wonder Salazar was recently chosen as a semifinalist for the prestigious James Beard Award for Best Chef for the Great Lakes Region. He also just opened a new, larger-scale downtown Cincinnati restaurant called Mita’s, which features dishes inspired by his Colombian heritage.
A Chocolate Malt at United Dairy Farmers
“I never knew you could get ice cream that good from a gas station,” one of my Serious Eats coworkers told me when the topic of United Dairy Farmers (UDF), a Cincinnati-based chain of around 200 convenience stores and, yes, gas stations, came up. With all of the amazing ice cream available in Cincinnati (you’ve likely heard about Cincinnati’s famous Graeter’s Ice Cream—it’s made in a French pot; Oprah likes it), my fellow Cincinnatians might scratch their heads when they see that I’m recommending UDF. But while Graeter’s is, well, great, I think the chocolate malt at UDF deserves a heartfelt plug. Made with their own homemade ice cream (the old-fashioned, parlor-style stuff), the malt is served in a frosty wax-paper cup and tastes like the perfect hybrid of a rich Friendly’s milkshake and an icy Wendy’s Frosty.
UDF dates back to the 1940s, when the late local businessman Carl Lindner decided to open a store where people could buy milk and dairy products directly (and at a cheaper price) instead of waiting for them to be delivered. While there are UDF locations all over the city, my favorite is the one in Mount Adams, a hilly, historic neighborhood of brick town houses and soaring cathedrals that provides extraordinary views of the Cincinnati skyline down below. Over the years, I often ordered my malt and immediately tried to walk it off by scaling the scenic neighborhood’s San Francisco–like hills. It never worked, though. That’s because I usually wound up going right back where I started, to UDF, ordering another malt. But you know what? It was worth it.
The Glier's German Greats Breakfast at The Echo Restaurant
Pork is a big deal in Cincinnati. In fact, its downtown was so filled with pork processing plants in the 19th century that the city retains the nickname of Porkopolis to this day. Goetta might just be that era’s most important offshoot. Goetta (pronounced “get-uh”) is as common on the breakfast table in Cincinnati as scrapple is in Pennsylvania and grits are in the South. Made with a combination of pork and beef mixed with steel-cut oats, it’s usually served in a flattened square or round patty, and is as much of a birthright for Cincinnatians as our chili. One of my favorite places to eat goetta is The Echo Restaurant, a solid blue-collar, 1940s-era diner in the otherwise boutique-y neighborhood of Hyde Park, where I’m pretty sure I’ve been served by the same waitress for the past 25 years. Here, the goetta is just one component of what’s known as the Glier’s German Greats Breakfast. (Glier’s founder, Robert Glier, was the first to sell goetta commercially, starting in 1946.) The German Greats is a mouthwatering combo of goetta, crispy potato pancakes, eggs, sweet baked apples, and rye toast. Be sure to finish it off with one of the Echo’s homemade pies—selections vary from day to day, but they’re always good. Oh, and get to know your waitress, too. She’ll likely still be there next time you come back.
A Walk Through Findlay Market
At Findlay Market, you’ll drink a locally brewed Christian Moerlein ale at an outdoor biergarten. You’ll see an old woman inspecting far too many fresh pears. You’ll hear a little live German polka music in the background, and, if you’re smart, you’ll stop by the booth for a family-owned bakery called Blue Oven and bite into the best English muffin you’ve ever tasted. While I’ve visited a lot of public markets all over the world, Findlay, surrounded by Italianate buildings in the heart of Over-the-Rhine, will always be my favorite. Opened in 1855, the iron-framed main building also boasts meat counters selling sausages and spices. Findlay is home to an outpost of local superstar Eli’s BBQ, which cooks up an amazing hickory-smoked pulled pork sandwich. On the weekends when it’s warm, Findlay hosts a bountiful farmers market that brings in growers from all over Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana.
A Little Hanky Panky at The Rookwood
A few years ago, I went back home to serve as judge for a cooking competition called “Pork Chopped” at the Cincinnati Food + Wine Classic. While my fellow judges and I must have eaten 15 or more dishes that day, once the scores were tallied up, the unanimous winner was a chef named Jackson Travis Rouse, who prepared an andouille sausage dish so good, I felt like I’d just been transported to Cajun Country. Rouse, I later discovered, is executive chef at The Rookwood, the latest, and by far the best, restaurant to open in the old Tudor-style Mount Adams building that once housed Rookwood Pottery. I like how Rouse isn’t afraid to take risks with Cincinnati’s classic dishes. He has his own unique take on Cincinnati chili, which he serves with white (!) cheddar instead of the traditional bright yellow, four types of beans, and Goldfish crackers. He also puts our goetta to the most brilliant and delicious use, scattering it over locally made rye bread and topping it with tangy Kentucky beer cheese for the best version of the appetizer known as hanky panky that I’ve ever tasted. If you want the full Rookwood Pottery experience, you can even eat inside one of its massive kilns.
The Rookwood Bar & Restaurant, 1077 Celestial Street, Cincinnati, OH 45202, 513-421-5555
Some Presidential History at Taft’s Ale House
Cincinnati was once home to hundreds of breweries and beer halls, most of them located in Over-the-Rhine, a neighborhood founded by beer-loving German immigrants. And, while most of those breweries had shut down by the time I left Cincinnati in the late 1990s, in the past five years, the city has seen a huge number of new ones open. One of my favorite newcomers is Taft’s Ale House, which is named after the rotund, Cincinnati-born commander in chief William Howard Taft and housed in a beautifully restored cathedral that dates back to 1850. The Ale House is as ethereal as any house of worship should be—and made even better by a beer selection that ranges from the tried-and-true (First Pitch Pale Ale and Gavel-Banger IPA—the latter a reference to Taft, who served as both president and a Supreme Court justice) to the unexpected: a rich amber ale made with a touch of cherrywood-smoked malt. There’s food here, too; much of the menu is curiously devoted to tri-tip beef, which is served in all forms: sandwich, slider, and salad. No matter what you order, this is a place to drink in the city’s history, and give thanks and praise that Cincinnati’s brewing scene is at last rising from the dead.