The great thing about the restaurants on Vine Street and nearby isn’t just that they all offer interesting food; it’s that they’re so close to each other. It’s fun for Cincinnati to have a street where there are so many independent restaurants within walking distance of each other. And people do walk from one to the other; if one place is full, as they often are, you can check next door or down the street. Or have a drink in one place while waiting for a cell phone call telling you of a table at another.
And so many of these restaurants offer their food in small, tasting-size portions, allowing customers to have a drink and a dish, or order an entire meal. They all have a bar counter where it seems perfectly natural to order just a drink and a salad, or share a pizza with a friend.
So Vine Street is a perfect place to do a grub crawl – moving from one restaurant to another, snacking and noshing through the day until late at night. I have put together this all-day fantasy grub crawl: fantasy because it’s the delicious food of your dreams, but also because in the real world, no one could actually eat this much food. Use it as inspiration for your own grub crawl some day or evening.
Start at 1215 Wine Bar and Coffee Lab, with a cup of coffee. This is a calm, civilized spot for it. The coffee is in the back, past the wine bar, up on a little platform, where you can order espresso drinks or pour-overs. Pour-over is the only way they make brewed coffee, using exacting amounts and timing to create a cup that shows off the flavor of the particular coffee you choose, whether it’s Sumatran or Ethiopian or Brazilian coffee.
Other good times to go: 1215 has a fascinating, educational wine list – the reds, for example, are organized by soil type – and flights are encouraged. They do a nice charcuterie plate and other small snacks to go with.
Opening even earlier than 1215, Taste of Belgium Bistro has a great breakfast menu. There are omelets, pastries, crepes and waffles. There’s even a “Belgian breakfast of champions” that pairs a small pilsner with a waffle. If you’ve never had one of their Belgian waffles before, do so. They’ve become a Cincinnati classic, ubiquitous at festivals and events. But I like the crepes for breakfast: try the “Nati,” with goetta, egg, cheese, peppers and onions. But it’s not heavy, as each filling is added with a light hand.
Other good times to go: TOB is the workhorse of Vine Street: open for all three meals, with Belgian classics such as mussels and frites, a bakery case, plus an excellent selection of Belgian beer.
Quan Hapa serves Asian food that is perfect for a grub crawl – and a nice place to eat by yourself. I sat at the counter and watched the cooks work in the tiny kitchen. The sweet soy-glaze short rib bowl starts out with all the elements served separately: braised beef, crisp dumplings, slippery noodles, pickled red cabbage and pureed kim chee, delicious on their own, but as you eat the noodles, they mix together and you get new tastes with each bite. The bartender also mixed me a nice non-alcoholic mango-lime drink at lunch one day.
Other good times to go: Open for lunch as well as dinner, tiny Quan Hapa has a great view of the street, if you want to see who walks by and wave them in. Communal tables make for interesting encounters.
Senate. They say that bacon makes everything better. In the case of Senate’s Lobster BLT, there’s a good case for lobster making bacon better. This sandwich is a BLT on a bun, with the brilliant addition of butter-poached lobster; it’s a delicious mess. Many of the dishes at this restaurant that serves elevated comfort and street food are similarly luxurious treats, such as their duck fat or bacon-fat french fries, poutine and fancy hot dogs. This could stop your grub crawl cold, because it could be hard to eat anything else afterward.
Other reasons to go: The menu, with its burgers and hot dogs, would seem to say “lunch,” but you can put together a great dinner here, too.
Before-Dinner Snack I
I have several times sat at the bar at A Tavola and had a good cocktail with a little snack and enjoyed the bustle of the place. The bruschetta is good, and there are sliders, but try the risotto balls. They’re like a traditional, crispy, fried bar snack, but way better than any jalapeño popper. The rice is creamy, the cheese melts in strings, and you dip it in a good tomato sauce.
Other reasons to go: Pizza, obviously, from their wood-fired Italian oven.
Before-Dinner Snack II
If you want to try Bakersfield, get there early. They have somehow hit on a perfect winning formula, and the outlaw country-inspired bar is always packed. They’re open through the afternoon, and at 4 or 5 p.m., you may be able to get a seat and order a few tacos. They’re street-style, individually priced, and always good. They even feature huitalacoche, or corn truffles, in a vegetarian taco.
Other reasons to go: To be part of a busy bar scene, and for good margaritas.
Abigail Street is one of the more “serious” restaurants on the street, where it would be rewarding to order three or four small plates to make a multi-course dinner. The dishes are inspired by cuisine from around the Mediterranean. No reason you can’t order just one thing here, though, especially if you sit at the long bar. I had a cuminy roast carrot salad and delicious lamb ribs served with a fresh fig relish. Or try the scallop dish with a smoked-egg vinaigrette.
Other reasons to go: Open for dinner and drinks only, Abigail Street has an unusual wine program, featuring wine bought from wineries by the barrel and served on tap.
Kaze is a Japanese restaurant without a lot of Japanese rules, except, apparently, that everything has to be full of flavor. The braised pork dish on top of braised daikon is a case in point. Salmon with crispy rice cakes is another. The dining room is beautifully furnished and comfortable; there’s energy, but you can feel relaxed.
Other reasons to go: Kaze serves its share of small dishes, including sushi, which is done on the simple and traditional side. If you just want a snack, try the bar and get something like pork buns, sliders or yakitori. There’s also a nice outdoor space under a roof, sort of a Japanese beer garden.
The Anchor, on Elm Street, serves an almost-all-seafood menu, with lobster rolls and bouillabaisse, whole fish, and oyster po’boys.
Other reasons to go: Lobster roll. Great oysters. They have a small but pleasant outdoor dining area, with a view of Washington Park. They’re open for lunch and dinner.
There are some good desserts up and down Vine Street, from Taste of Belgium’s pastries to Senate’s warm pretzel beignets. But my favorite desserts are at Zula, where they explore interesting flavors and plate dessert beautifully.
Other reasons to go: crisp, blistered flatbread from a wood oven. Mussels done in every possible style you can think of. A dining room that’s larger than many of their neighboring restaurants, so there’s a little more room between you and your neighbors.
Haven’t had enough? Just want one more drink? Lackman Bar has lots of good beer on tap, plus craft cocktails: they are barrel-aging some of them.
Other reasons to go: while you’re waiting for a table. But it’s usually very crowded, so you may have to wait for a seat here, too.
Written by Polly Campbell, Food & Dining writer at Cincinnati Enquirer.