You know Cincinnati food – you’ve dug into five-ways, and licked double-decker Graeter’s cones down to the paper wrapper. You’ve had a mett and a brat at a Reds game, and bought goetta from a butcher to fry up for breakfast. You have been among the crowds setting records for the eating of pork at Montgomery Inn.
All those things help define what eating in Cincinnati is all about. They’re our best-known, most regionally distinctive eats. But to be an expert Cincinnati diner, to really understand this city, you have more eating to do.
Here’s a bucket list, a roundup of must-try Cincinnati dining and food-shopping experiences. These cannot be duplicated anywhere else. They range from dirt-cheap to the highest, fanciest food experiences the city offers. You really ought to try them before you kick the bucket ... or leave town. Get these checked off, come back and I’ll give you more.
It’s surprising how often I meet people who have never been to Findlay Market, the historic public market in Over-the-Rhine. But it’s a must-visit, a microcosm of eating in Cincinnati. It still has direct connections to its roots as a public market founded in 1855. The preponderance of pork in the butcher cases speaks to German heritage, but also to the Southern roots of the many regular African-American shoppers here. There are the stands run by multi-generational families. But there are also up-and-coming food entrepreneurs who look to it as a place to launch something new. There are plenty of ways in which the market could be shined up, but its well-worn traditions make it a true Cincinnati experience.
As glamorous as you can get in this city – or many other cities. It’s a peak dining experience: the creative food, the grand French Art Deco atmosphere and the fine service all combine for a knock-out evening. For the cost of two or three far more mundane dinners you can splurge here and it will be worth it.
Every time my Jewish father-in-law drove into town via I-74, he was incredulous all over again that there was a place here called Putz’s Creamy Whip. To him, that was a somewhat vulgar pejorative. (Now that people “putz around” it seems fine.) I don’t think we ever actually went there with him, but I’m pretty sure he would have liked the squeaky-clean, summer wholesomeness of the place, where you can get a soft-serve cone with a little smiley face on it, a Par-Fay or a giant float and a foot-long coney and eat it on a picnic table. It’s family Cincinnati. (P.S.: He also couldn’t get over the fact that we had a bank called Fifth Third.)
Surf and Turf at The Precinct
Jeff Ruby grew up in New Jersey, and you could say that he does not have a Cincinnati style. But the kind of glitz and glamour he generated when he opened his first restaurant found a natural place to thrive here. With his attention to detail, his eye for the big gesture, and his relentless guest-satisfying attitude, he’s one of our big successes. Even at prices that can get up into the $50s and $60s, many Cincinnatians think of a steak here as a good value. Since we’re putting this on a bucket list, get the big filet with bearnaise sauce and crabmeat and – what the heck – a lobster tail.
If you can’t indulge on the level of a steak and lobster tail, you can probably afford to get a banana split at Aglamesis Brothers in Oakley or Montgomery. You’re going to have to share it – maybe with your sweetheart, sitting in the pink parlor with its old-fashioned counter and stained-glass lamps. They make all the ice cream there, and if a banana split isn’t enough, pick out a selection of hand-made chocolates as you leave.
Picnic in a park
When my husband and I first moved to Cincinnati, we would combine Saturday morning errands with a lunch we would make or pick up. We would eat it in one of the parks on a list that we were planning to make it all the way through. Thirty years later, we’ve been to most of them, though there are so many that we still have a few to check off. Parks here are a great place to eat. Try lunch in Fountain Square, where the people-watching is good, or a picnic on a blanket in Mt. Echo Park, with its expansive view of the city. It could be an evening picnic in Covington’s Devou Park, a barbecue on a grill in French Park on a nippy October afternoon, or a family reunion in a reserved Hamilton County parks shelter.
Yes, we’re a heavily German-influenced city. Cincinnati’s more conservative attributes are chalked up to this historic and demographic fact. Which is kind of funny – because in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Germans were good-time beer drinkers who scandalized teetotalers and Prohibitionists by drinking beer after church. Oktoberfest is the fun side of being German, when eating comically large cream puffs, drinking comically large amounts of beer, and wearing lederhosen and doing the chicken dance take over the city for a weekend.
Speaking of German: we had it, we lost it, but we’re getting it back in a big way. Your bucket list assignment is to visit the tap room of one of the local breweries that are finding success in the craft beer world. For extra credit, make a list within the bucket list and drink beer from all of them: Mad Tree, Rivertown, Listermann’s, Mt. Carmel, 50 West, Rhinegeist, and Moerlein, which is bringing back some of the old brands and Cincinnati styles.
Grippos Bar-B-Q potato chips
Just grab a bag and eat them. Or crush them up and use the crumbs to coat chicken, or put them in meatloaf. Or just get the spice mixture in the shaker and use it as a rub or seasoning. The chips are made on Colerain Avenue by a company still owned by descendants of the founders. It’s not the chips themselves that people love: it’s the barbecue spice. Look on YouTube for kids rapping about that very particular Cincinnati flavor, or on restaurant menus where Grippos are used to fill grilled cheese sandwiches or dust french fries.
The Ohio Valley has some of the best agricultural land on earth. The economics of farming in the 20th century have meant much of it is used for commodity crops – soybeans and corn – rather than food we eat directly from the farm. But that’s changing as people realize that tomatoes, strawberries, cucumbers and apples taste great when grown nearby. All you have to do is visit a farmers market to see it. There’s one every day of the week; the one in Burlington is open daily. You will find good Ohio and Kentucky produce, plus small cottage producers of bread, hummus, gelato, cookies, sauerkraut and more.
Italian time travel
One of the great things about Cincinnati is that it’s easy to step back in time here. There are blocks in Covington or Wyoming where you can squint and imagine that it’s 1910. Other direct portals to the past can be found in Italian restaurants. At Pompilios, Scotti’s, Campanello’s, or Sorrento’s, the menu and the decor haven’t changed much over the years.
I put these together because, thanks to the power of national TV’s food obsession, they are the most likely places that out-of-towners know about. If you’re in some other city and you tell someone you’re from Cincinnati, when they ask if Terry’s is as good as they’ve heard, you don’t want to have to fake it. And you will want to know firsthand whether you can recommend the donut grilled cheese sandwich. (Or the various chip-filled sandwiches: see “Grippos” above.)
Vine Street from Central Parkway to 14th Street on a Saturday night
Where did all these people come from? When did these restaurants open? There’s something of a fairy-tale enchantment about what’s happened in the south end of Over-the-Rhine. Of course, it actually took some doing, a concerted effort by big guns in the city as well as hard-working restaurateurs, and is not without controversy. But it’s thrilling to walk a street of restaurants that weren’t even a concept a decade ago. Every one is locally owned. That’s an accomplishment for this kind of development. If you haven’t been to Kaze, Taste of Belgium, Abigail Street, or the other bars and restaurants drawing in crowds here, then you don’t know the new Cincinnati. Read more about the Renaissance in Over-the-Rhine.
Japanese in Northern Kentucky
Procter & Gamble is the most influential corporation in town. But if you love Japanese food, you have to be more focused on the fact that Toyota used to have its North American headquarters an exit away from the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport. Much business was done in the restaurants Miyoshi, Jo An and Matsuya. That’s great for anyone who loves sushi, ochazuki, zara soba or hirami usuzukuri.
Fried fish during Lent at Immaculate Heart of Mary
We will also accept Our Lady of the Rosary, St. Margaret of York, Holy Cross High School, St. Joseph or the Woodlawn Fire Department, but if you haven’t stood in line to get into a church basement, fire house or veterans hall to eat fried fish and coleslaw and macaroni and cheese, then you haven’t dined in Cincinnati. Or, if you need some fried fish right this minute, pick up some at Alabama Fish Bar at the corner of Race and Liberty. (Get the peppers and onions.)
One of our great strengths is good butchers. I could mention Wassler’s or Bridgetown Finer Meats or the great Stehlin’s in Colerain Township, where you should get a cottage ham sometime. But Avril’s has the longest pedigree, and surely the longest list of made-in-house specialties. I love their old-fashioned ham, double-smoked bacon, beef metts and olive loaf. The dried beef here makes chipped beef on toast that’s truly worth eating. In a wonderful turn of events, after about 120 years, Avril’s is hip again – they make sausages and hot dogs for many restaurants around town who do fancy sausage sandwiches. And they set up a grill outside during the summer.
A Frenchman comes to Cincinnati for a job at a five-star French restaurant, not sure what he’s getting into and not at all sure about Cincinnati. Over the years, he is embraced and becomes legitimately beloved in town – crazy hair, heavy French accent and all, and despite legal problems with a former partner. He returns the affection, mentors many of the best chefs in town, and starts a successful charity for Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). Now Jean-Robert de Cavel owns his own restaurants, still busy despite a sudden tidal wave of competition Downtown. Kind of a nice Cincinnati love story.
Cincinnati Museum Center’s Rookwood Ice Cream Parlor
You must eat in this little room that is completely covered in cheerful, flower-covered Rookwood tiles in the rotunda of our grandest building. These art tiles were one of Cincinnati’s claims to fame from 1880-1960.
*Note: The Museum of Natural History & Science, the Cincinnati History Museum, the Duke Energy Children's Museum, and the OMNIMAX Theater are temporarily closed for renovations. Please visit cincymuseum.org or call (513) 287-7000 for complete details regarding the closing of certain parts of the venue for renovation and construction.
The cheese pocket
Written by Polly Campbell, Food & Dining writer at Cincinnati Enquirer.