I saw a lot of hub-bub on the Twitter and Facebook when this assessment of state pride was published a few weeks ago. The logic behind the data seems flawed – does “liking” something on Facebook really guarantee anything more than a casual interest in that thing? I apparently “like” 174 pages on the FB, and the State of Ohio is not one of them. But you know, I’ve lived here my entire life and I’ve been all over the state – thanks to my dad, I’ve even been to every cave here too. The Buckeye State has it’s shortcomings – namely the 12% ABV limit on beer (am I joking?) – but the more I see of it, the prouder I am to call it home. While visiting Cincinnati this weekend, we came across something familiar: a city working to revive its once-desolate historic urban neighborhoods into cradles of culture and commerce.
Over-The-Rhine (or OTR), just north of Downtown Cincy, was our neighborhood of choice this past weekend, between bouts at King’s Island and the Cincinnati Zoo. A little more than a hundred years ago, the area was populated primarily by German immigrants (hence the name). A series of racially-fueled riots in the early 2000s ushered in a dark period for OTR, and for several years the neighborhood recorded the highest rates of violent crime in the country. Businesses and residents fled, and needless to say, it was not the place to be seen on a Saturday night. In 2004, several of the city’s corporations and nonprofits started buying up the vacant properties, thus beginning OTR’s Cinderella story. They renovated dingy, decrepit apartment buildings into chic, modern living spaces and naturally they’re now among the most desired (read: expensive) in Cincinnati. It’s also a burgeoning dining and entertainment district, and this past Saturday night we met with the full force of Over-The-Rhine’s nightlife in the company of friends who live nearby.
Our first stop fuses the mellow coffee-shop vibes with the intimate, celebratory atmosphere of a wine bar. At 1215 Wine Bar and Coffee Lab we ran the gamut of offerings: I sipped a glass of an Italian white (too fancy to pronounce/remember), Matt enjoyed a craft beer and then followed that with his nightly jolt of caffeine. They stock a full bar, and you can also grab a bottle of beer or wine from their shelves to take home. As for nourishment — if beer, wine and coffee isn’t enough to keep you running — they offer a few bar-snack style morsels. We choose three items from their cheese and meat board options ($12), and it came with a heap of perfectly toasted crostini, as well as three well-paired accoutrements. I will describe the service as a bit odd, only because I wasn’t exactly sure which server was responsible for us, and the man who took our food order seemed determined to misunderstand our cheese/meat tray choices. I can’t say I really cared, because who has the heart to send back cheese?
We hit up Graeter’s Ice Cream, and I have to admit their flavor options impressed me. The toasted coconut gelato was a popular choice among our group, but I went with the key lime pie ice cream. Both yummy, but I prefer the richness of full-on ice cream to that icy sherbet-like texture of gelato. I feel the need to disclose my personal bias against Graeter’s – I see it as the side directly opposite Mitchell’s in the great state-wide war of Ohio ice cream companies. One of my strongest Cleveland allegiances is with Mitchell’s Ice Cream, and for some reason walking into Graeter’s or purchasing their pints at Heinen’s feels to me like the equivalent of admitting Mitchell’s has a lesser place in my heart WHICH I WILL NEVER DO. But Graeter’s key lime pie was pretty delish. Any ice cream > no ice cream. We can all agree on that, right?
Where does one head after the ice cream parlor? To the cocktail lounge/dance floor, of course! Japp’s, which opened in 2011, occupies a 19th century wig shop. While waiting for the bouncer to check our IDs, I noticed an odd arrangement of hair pieces and beauty product advertisements in the front windows. Patrons can mingle among booths and couches in the bar area, or on weekends, head over to the annex for a “vintage dance party”. A projector illuminates one wall of the annex with a classic movie (I think, mostly musicals), which contrasts with the more contemporary, hip-hoppy tunes booming from the DJ stand. We didn’t stay at the dance party long, but it look liked a good time for those in the grinding mood. The main bar area is gorgeously old-school, and the cocktails are similarly crafted in a classic style. The bartender didn’t flinch when I ordered a Boulevardier, nor did she seem at all rushed by the throngs of drinkers awaiting their drinks. I saw people with Bud Lights, but this is not the place to order Jaeger Bombs or Buttery Nipples. Stay classy, Cincinnati.
Sunday morning we visited Findlay Market, which is Ohio’s oldest, continuously operating public market. Built in 1855, it has been expanded and revitalized several times in the past few decades. The farmer’s market pavilion is open weekends April through September, and the indoor market is open year-round. Our first stop was Taste of Belgium bakery, which specializes in that most Belgian of breakfast foods, the waffle. Our Cincinnati friends put it our on “must try” list, and I have to agree, it was one hell of a waffle. A crispy outer layer gave way to a dense, doughy middle reminiscent of a cake donut, but with a little more spring to it. This thing was flavorful too. Matt and I split an order with whipped cream and strawberries, but they have several options for toppings. If you don’t make it to the market, check out one of their full-service restaurants in Cincinnati, which offer all sorts of Belgian-inspired fare alongside a selection of Belgian beers and genever.
Findlay Market is surrounded by a few blocks of permanent, foodie-themed storefronts and we couldn’t resist the roasty, sweet aromas wafting out of Maverick Chocolate Co. They are a bean-to-bar chocolate maker, meaning they bring in the raw cacao beans and the entire process takes place in-house. After sampling the four varieties being showcased that day, we both found a favorite in the earthy, somewhat tangy 70% Dominican Dark Chocolate. Because they keep the ingredients minimal, the distinct flavor of the beans really shines in the final product. The ingredients listed on our bar’s label: organic cocoa beans, organic cane sugar. Boom, pure chocolate heaven. The bars sell for $7.95 apiece so we made sure to savor it!
We had a long drive home, but couldn’t leave without snagging a few juicy heirloom tomatoes, golden yellow zucchini and something new — lemon cucumbers! Disguised as rugged-looking lemons, they have the same grassy, watery taste of a regular cuke with a little extra sweetness. Overall, a very satisfying trip to the market, and an illuminating introduction to Cincinnati’s most dynamic neighborhood. A big thank-you to our Cincy hosts Robin and Beeler for entertaining and educating us last weekend, and a big apology from yours truly for completely failing in the picture-taking department on Saturday night. I’m always distracted by what’s on my plate…or in my glass.