This Midwest Neighborhood Is Home to One of the Country's Most Promising Food Scenes
After decades of decline, Cincinnati's historic Over-The-Rhine is back—time for a close look.
For the longest time, Cincinnati's Over-The-Rhine district offered visitors an unwelcome crash course in exactly what happens, once a city disappears down the rabbit hole of terminal decline—the brutal diminishment, the unstoppable loss, the disquieting emptiness. Springing to life back in the 19th century as a landing place for working-class immigrants from Germany, Over-The-Rhine stretches out—most efficiently, of course—for a couple of miles north of Cincinnati's downtown; the rather tongue-in-cheek name of the neighborhood derives from its location, north of what was then the Miami and Erie Canal, which residents had to cross when accessing the city center. Later, that canal would become the Central Parkway, a multi-lane thoroughfare that proved to be just as effective a divide, for many years after.
On this sizeable, densely populated plot of land, hemmed in on more than one side by Cincinnati's impetuous topography, well-formed and walkable Over-The-Rhine brimmed with architectural appeal from its earliest days. The streets of the quarter, many of them quite narrow, are a throwback to the old America—America before the automobile; no matter what time has thrown at Over-The-Rhine, this has always been a special place, a standout particularly in the Midwest, where so much of what was then has now been paved over, in favor of a less spectacular now.
And what a lot Over-The-Rhine has been asked to survive. No sooner do you fall in love with the neighborhood—and it is difficult not to, with its flourish-rich architecture all but designed to make the early tenements and terraced housing of the East Coast blush with envy—and it has already gone about the business of breaking your heart. At a certain point, to observe just how far Over-The-Rhine had fallen became almost too much. Even in a country where we are hard-wired to accept such low-grade atrocities, explaining them away by mumbling something about highways and suburbs, the depths of decay to which Cincinnati had allowed Over-The-Rhine to fall might leave even the most ambivalent bystander utterly bewildered. Urban decay in America, that's nothing new, but this wasn't a line of cookie cutter post-war bungalows in some Great Lakes factory town that nobody wanted anymore. This was a gorgeous piece of early modern American history, an entire neighborhood, steps out of the downtown—how could this have been allowed to happen?
Still, there were signs of life. Even in its lowest moments, Over-The-Rhine was still home to Cincinnati's Findlay Market, a neighborhood within the neighborhood, centered on a 19th century market hall, the oldest in Ohio. Much like Seattle's Pike Place, but without the tourist crush, Findlay Market had remained a treasure worth seeking out. There was always the city's Music Hall, too, that ambling pile of what's known as High Victorian Gothic Revival Style, which is about as elegant as it sounds, dating back to the late 1800's. When the city undertook a redesign and complete beautification of Washington Park, which the Music Hall faces, when work began to implement a streetcar system that would better connect the neighborhood to downtown and the Ohio River, it felt like the neighborhood finally had a fighting chance to succeed. And now, just a few years later, here we are, and well, it's exciting.
Depending on where exactly you are standing, because there is still so much work to be done, today's visitor to Over-The-Rhine will find the neighborhood much changed. Particularly in the southern portion, closest to Central Parkway, it is now the norm to come across well groomed, appealing blocks that call out to be walked, blocks of both commercial businesses and renovated residential buildings. There is a new energy, a hopeful vibe, an almost infectious appreciation for this great place.
Questions linger, such as how is all the aforementioned remaining work going to be completed, and at what cost—this is still, in some areas very visibly, a poor neighborhood, one that not very long ago was by some metrics considered to be one of the most dangerous in the nation. In addition, it is not entirely unclear what role the residents who stuck it out will play in this new, more prosperous Over-The-Rhine.
For now, however, celebrating a most improbable comeback feels like the right thing to do, and you will likely not be surprised to learn that a lot of the turnaround has to do with the growth of the local food scene.
Cincinnati has always had one of those, and a proper exploration will lead you all over the city, into rustic chili parlors and sparkling downtown dining rooms, out into the hills and across the river to Kentucky, but there is so much going on right here in Over-The-Rhine at the moment, complimenting the market and the other classic spots that held on tight through it all, that a thorough investigation of the neighborhood is all but required.
With your two feet, the city's Red Bike program and the Bell Connector light rail, a whirlwind day in this fascinating neighborhood is easily accomplished, all without the aid of a car. Here's how you do it.
Get warmed up.
A short, now mostly appealing walk from most downtown hotels, the lower bit of Over-The-Rhine—that is to say, the part between Central Parkway and Liberty Street—is where you'll find much of what's new and noteworthy. This is also the part of the neighborhood most ready for primetime, and of the two thriving main drags in this section, Vine Street and Main Street, Main feels the most like the organic heart of the sort of neighborhood we all seem to want to be living in, nowadays. Tucked ever so slightly off of that strip, Collective Espresso is one of Cincinnati's best modern coffee shops; this is a great place to start the day, not to mention eavesdrop on whatever local gossip is being spread. (It's a small room, and you'll hear everything.) Can't make it all the way here without your morning jolt? Stop just shy of Central at Ferrari Barbershop & Coffee Co., a family-run institution since the 1950's now operated (and only gently upgraded) by the younger generation. The barbershop is still as it was, but now you'll immediately spot a handsome little La Marzocco machine through the window, right as you walk up; brothers Tony and Austin Ferrari, both with years of industry experience in San Francisco under their belt, have chosen this as their first project back home. You're going to be eating a proper breakfast soon enough, but it wouldn't be wise to pass up the pastry at the fashionable Brown Bear Bakery, a relatively new arrival that has quickly become a favorite morning hangout for the neighborhood. Not so much about the new, hot thing? On Vine Street, local donut king Holtman's maintains a cheerful, modern shop, bridging the divide between the classic and the nouveau, all while keeping prices reasonable.
Have a big breakfast.
Back when the pickings were slim in Over-The-Rhine, there was Tucker's—if you're hungry for the kind of breakfast that will fill you up for just a few bucks (in some cases, including a generous tip), here's where you come. Located not far from the Findlay Market area, you're now in the part of Over-The-Rhine that looks a lot like the entire neighborhood used to look, which is to say more than a little shabby, but soldier on, anyway. For something more traditionally glamorous, walk all the way up to the market, where on a prominent corner facing the main hall, you'll find French Crust. Part of a mini-empire belonging to local industry vet Jean-Robert de Cavel, this bright, camera-ready spot is all sparkle, but the menu is pretty much classic. Go European with a carbs and caffeine breakfast, or splash out for an omelet, or even pancakes with maple butter.
Do the market crawl.
Say, did you eat yet? (That's a joke.) The first thing to know about Findlay Market is that it's really a neighborhood, with a long shed running down the middle of the central square; what's around the enclosed, operated year-round hall is just as important as what's inside, and for a clear demonstration, find your way to Eckerlin Meats. On a side street just to the north of the square, this classic butcher shop (since 1852!) is a true destination for locals, not to mention nostalgic expats on a visit home, but it's also not-so-secretly where you will find one of the most terrific breakfast sandwiches in town. Look for the guy in the corner, who will fry up some of the housemade goetta (it's a Cincinnati thing, a scrapple-like meat mush, but with oats—slightly funky, and incredibly delicious) and serve it on a soft roll with egg and cheese.
Speaking of cheese, also sort of off to the side here, you'll find The Rhined, which isn't just a good cheese shop, but also a great place for a bite—they do rather imaginative sandwiches, cheese flights, drinks and even a weekly raclette night (Wednesdays, if you're wondering). It goes on really, on and on—there's Maverick Chocolate, which has picked up its share of Good Food Awards lately, Churchill's Fine Teas, where avid travelers Kathleen and Jerry Kern enthusiastically spread the word, selling a dazzling selection that they'll tell you is the largest in the Midwest, there's Dojo Gelato, for those treacherously humid Cincinnati summer days, opened in 2009 by a couple of transplants from Austin, and if you need more coffee, local roaster Deeper Roots now has beautiful shop just steps from the market hall, which of course requires a complete walkthrough. Whatever else catches your eye in here, and there's a lot to look at, don't miss a stop for waffles at Taste of Belgium, owned by a real Belgian.
Go for lunch.
While most people would comfortably be able to spend more time at the market, there are a couple of standout options for the midday meal, clustered down along Vine Street. What started out as a food truck is now Panino, a destination for cured meat sandwiches by day, and a proper restaurant by night; co-owner Nino Loreto is something of a local salumi celebrity, with a whole operation set up in the basement. Is it ramen weather? Brothers Duy and Bao Nguyen and their partner David Le, the crew behind a very popular pho spot at the market, followed up with Quan Hapa, a modern spot for a range of Asian street foods; their tonkotsu ramen makes for a fine cold weather meal, while the house wings (you've got options, but perhaps go for the nuoc mam and honey toss) are good for anytime.
Get a jump on happy hour.
Times have changed and there are all kinds of people in Cincinnati now, but this is still in many ways a resolutely German-American city, which is to say it's very nearly always time for a drink, and as you might have guessed, there are so many options in the neighborhood, it's difficult to know where to start. Built within the shell of a 19th century beer bottling operation, Rhinegeist is one of the most widely-known breweries in a region that's once again absolutely crawling with them. Stop by their tasting room, where there always seems to be a ton of options on tap; with 25,000 square feet of space, ping pong tables, cornhole, and other diversions available, it's a great place to kick back and relax for a while. Beer's not the only local beverage around here—also in the neighborhood is the Revel Urban Winery. (Stop by for a glass of the house Sangiovese.) Just looking for a great bar? Taft's Ale House, operated by a popular local brewery named after one of Cincinnati's most famous sons, is a smart choice. It also happens to be located in an appealing, now converted Protestant church.
Make dinner plans.
Tucked into an appealing residential pocket just off of Main Street, Please is a deceptively relaxed, but wholly ambitious restaurant created by Akron native Ryan Santos, who hosted many a local pop-up dinner before braving the brick-and-mortar scene. From the outside, Please looks like the sort of quiet spot you might look for in a European city—some place far from the crowds, except there's a bright, minimal, Scandinavian feel to the room once you head indoors, and certainly once you sit down to dinner. Santos has done time in Copenhagen, and it shows. There's a four-course tasting menu for $57, but a la carte is an option, as well. For something less hushed, there's the lively new Sartre, a brasserie within the Rhinegeist complex that's drawing the dinner crowd further north than ever, while James Beard-nom'd Jose Salazar's New American spot—Salazar, as happens—might make for a great pre-show experience, practically just across Washington Park from the Music Hall. Not up for a whole thing? Retreat to Longfellow, a rather civilized drinking den with tall windows, some good wines by the glass, cocktail pros behind the bar and a fun list of tapas-ish bites. If you nibble now and find yourself hungry later, not to worry—they do pierogies, starting at 11 p.m. until the 2 a.m. close. Just in case you forgot you were in Ohio.