"Fine" is a funny word. If a chef came to your table at a restaurant and asked you how your dinner was, and you said, "It was fine," that chef would probably worry that you thought your meal was just adequate.
But "fine dining" indicates food of the highest quality; food made with skill and creativity, and served with attention to the details of comfort and style.
This list, of course uses "fine" in that second meaning. The following restaurants are the best in town, in my opinion. They serve the most interesting, well-cooked food with an atmosphere and service to match it. They aren't necessarily formal, but these are places worthy of dressing nicely, getting a babysitter.
They are listed here in alphabetical order, because I'm sorry, I can't commit to a ranking of these. They're all good in their own unique way.
Boca's Downtown location is the most storied spot in Cincinnati dining: the address of the former Maisonette. What Boca serves fully illustrates what is often said about Italian food: simple dishes that allow ingredients to shine are more important than elaborate recipes and presentation. The food here is like a well-cut black dress: wood-fired branzino with Swiss chard and grilled lemon, a grilled romaine Caesar salad.
Cincinnati's favorite French chef, Jean Robert de Cavel, once cooked at The Maisonette, then co-owned a string of restaurants around town. Table is charming and gracious but not stiff, the place of a Frenchman at home in the United States. Contemporary French dishes display de Cavel's flair for composition and flavor match-making. Try foie gras torchon with duck confit roulade, apricot, arugula, pistachio bread and salad. Also open for lunch.
It's always hard to know how to include the Jeff Ruby restaurants in a list like this. Jeff Ruby's Steakhouse, Carlo & Johnny and Precinct, all owned by Jeff Ruby, have distinct personalities, but all offer a similar experience at the same high level. They are steakhouses, first and foremost, with awesome steaks, including a bone-in filet and a bone-in ribeye that could scarcely be bettered. You can make it a steakhouse experience by ordering these, potatoes and creamed spinach, but you would be missing some other excellent food: the salads, Carlo and Johnny's raw bar, seafood, veal chops, steak toppings like a wine-poached egg, and a la carte sides such as truffle creamed corn or roasted wild mushrooms.
Nectar owner/chef Julie Francis is well-rooted in the agricultural milieu of the Ohio Valley. But her inspiration is far more global. The Mediterranean, Asia and France all make their way into dishes such as local cornmeal crepes with asparagus, spinach and herbed ricotta, or sweet potato gnocchi with pistachio and preserved lemon or beef sirloin with buckwheat spaetzle, fennel confit and shiitake mushroom. The dining room is simply, almost sparely decorated.
At Nicola's, you will find Italian food at its most refined, a chic dining room, a good selection of Italian wines, and a lovely small garden. For years, Nicola's has been the only restaurant within blocks of its location in an old car barn on the corner of Liberty and Sycamore. It continues to create a small Italian world unto itself with delicious, full-flavored haute Italian: squid-ink-infused tagliolini with lobster and cauliflower, fresh fava beans with pecorino and croutons, risotto with truffle-infused mascarpone, Berkshire pork belly and grilled ramps. Owner Nicola Pietoso is the owner and host.
The room is magnificent, and the food lives up to it at Orchids at Palm Court. The French Art Deco dining room with soaring ceilings, ornate decorations and a grand stairway to get to it is one of Cincinnati's most precious treasures. The service is first-class, and the food from Chef Todd Kelly is wow! Lobster salad with a deep-fried poached egg, Fresh mozzarella blown up into a balloon, local pork with smoked bacon and caramelized onion tart, greens and paprika sauce, salmon crusted with potatoes and served in a deeply flavored ham hock broth with dried cherries. A tasting menu with wine pairings is available.
The Palace is a luxury restaurant in a luxury hotel, with modern, creative cuisine. Chef Matthew Beaudin can take an unexpected turn with traditional fine-dining ingredients, like his beef tenderloin with seared foie gras, spinach puree, grits cake, and short rib marmalade, or make chicken a special meal by cooking it sous-vide, and serving it with asparagus, morels, sunchoke puree, and black truffle-chicken jus. Excellent vegetarian options.
Written by Polly Campbell, Food & Dining writer at Cincinnati Enquirer.