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 neighborhood is back and brimming with restaurants, bars, and coffee shops.

the rhined cheeseboard
Photo: Courtesy of Hailey Bollinger

For the longest time, Cincinnati's Over-the-Rhine district offered visitors an unwelcome crash course in exactly what happens when 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.

the rhined signage
Courtesy of Hailey Bollinger

It's difficult not to fall in love with the neighborhood, with its flourish-rich architecture all but designed to make the early tenements and terraced housing of the East Coast blush with envy. 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 is 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?

farmers market in cincinnati
aceshot / Getty Images

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 Cincinnati 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 1800s. 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.

Depending on where exactly you're standing (because there is still so much work to be done), today's visitor to Over-the-Rhine will find the neighborhood much changed. In the southern portion, closest to Central Parkway, it's the norm to come across well-groomed blocks of both commercial businesses and renovated residential buildings. There's new energy, a hopeful vibe, and an almost infectious appreciation for this great place.

Questions linger about how all the aforementioned remaining work is 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.

Exploration will lead you all over the city — into rustic chili parlors and sparkling downtown dining rooms — but there is so much going on right here in Over-the-Rhine 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 without the aid of a car. Here's how you do it.

findlay market
aceshot / Getty Images

Get warmed up

A short 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 noteworthy. This is also the part of the neighborhood most ready for prime time. 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 1950s that'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 favorite morning hangout for the neighborhood.

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 carbs and caffeine, or splash out for an omelet, or even pancakes with maple butter.

deeper roots coffee house in cincinnati
Courtesy of Deeper Roots Coffee

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. For a clear demonstration, find your way to Eckerlin Meats. On a side street just 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). There's Maverick Chocolate, which has picked up its share of Good Food Awards, and 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 has a 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.

street shops and markets in cincinnati
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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 a midday meal clustered down along Vine Street. Brothers Duy and Bao Nguyen and their partner David Le, the crew behind a very popular pho place 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 any time.

tafts ale house
Courtesy of Taft's Ale House

Get a jump on happy hour

There are all kinds of people in Cincinnati 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 Over-the-Rhine, 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 a converted Protestant church.

longfellow restaurant in cincinnati
Courtesy of Brooke Shanesy

Grab an evening bite

Steps away from the Music Hall, James Beard-nominated chef Jose Salazar's New American spot — Salazar, as happens — makes for a great pre-show experience. 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.

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