I need to get my Cincinnati fix on a regular basis — say at least once or twice a year. Usually, one of the visits is devoted to exploring the Queen City’s cultural attractions (it has more than you might think) and the other to checking out favorite restaurants (again, more than you might imagine).
This time the trip was mainly for the purpose of eating, with a few other activities thrown in between meals. First things first — let’s get to the food.
Cincinnati’s culinary scene is influenced by several things: German roots, access to abundant regional produce, a tradition of good beer, and its residents’ devotion to longtime favorite eateries. Chili doesn’t immediately come to mind when visitors arrive in Cincinnati, but those who know the city well usually gravitate to one of its iconic chili parlors (there are more than 200 to choose from).
My choice was Camp Washington Chili (campwashingtonchili.com), a James Beard “American Regional Classic” designee and a Smithsonian Magazine pick as one of “America’s 20 Most Iconic Food Destinations.”
Modeled after a 1950s diner, Camp Washington is open 24 hours a day, six days a week (closed on Sundays). Owners Johnny Johnson and his daughter Maria Papakirk welcome a regular clientele ranging from socialites sporting pearls to rural workers in bib overalls.
While the restaurant has an extensive menu, you come here for its three-, four- and five-way chili. Don’t expect Texas-style chili con carne in a bowl; the Cincinnati version is more akin to a thick sauce to top spaghetti or slather on a hot dog. While its main ingredients are ground beef and tomato paste, it also has a variety of toppings or “ways” that include cheese, onions and beans. The real surprise is the number of unusual spices in the flavor profile. In addition to chili powder, there’s nutmeg, cinnamon, clove, cumin, bay leaf and in some cases, dark chocolate.
Almost as beloved as Camp Washington is Montgomery Inn Boathouse (montgomeryinn.com). This place wrote the book on mouthwatering ribs. You can get them slow-roasted (their original pork loin rack ribs) or slow-smoked (St. Louis-style spareribs, using hardwood hickory sourced from a nearby farm). The only thing better than the smell is the taste. On the night I was there, the couple at the next table ordered a platter with a slab of beef on it that looked truly daunting (and truly delicious). They still hadn’t finished when I got up to leave.
The Boathouse has a lovely location on the Ohio River (there’s a view from every table), and a rogue’s gallery of photos of the famous and infamous who have dined here. The list is top-heavy with athletes, but they also claim to have served every U.S. president since Gerald Ford.
For a real culinary experience, wipe that barbecue sauce off your face and don your fanciest duds for dinner at Restaurant L (lcincinnati.com). This gorgeous spot is evocative of Paris, which is hardly surprising because it’s the domain of French chef Jean-Robert de Cavel, or simply Jean-Robert to Cincy’s chic set. Don’t be fooled by L’s elegance, with high ceilings, large windows, crystal chandeliers and plush chairs. There’s nothing stuffy or haughty about this place. Service is immaculate, but friendly and never supercilious. If you want a light, fruity rosé with your steak au poivre, that’s what you’ll get — with a smile.
Jean-Michel believes in quality over quantity, so most diners go for his two- or three-course prix fixe dinners priced at $65 and $85, respectively, although for overachievers there is a six-course menu gourmand for $125. There are Gallic touches, especially in the starter courses where foie gras is offered either as a terrine with spinach, almonds, duck breast and riesling gelee or seared with roasted grape, duck confit, spaghetti squash and pecans. Entrees are mostly New World and feature dishes such as halibut with pumpkin risotto, braised red cabbage and fried cauliflower and chicken with red grits, Brussels sprouts and maitake mushrooms.
A Cincinnati Sunday just isn’t complete without the epic brunch in the Grille at Palm Court in the Netherland Plaza Hotel. If the 1930s Art Deco setting (Brazilian rosewood paneling, silver nickel light fixtures and soaring ceiling murals) doesn’t impress you, the buffet table, which seems to be half the length of a football field, surely will. You’ll find all the requisites you would expect from a sumptuous buffet, plus some you might not expect (orchidsatpalmcourt.com).
What to do between meals
If you’re a fan of “The Godfather” and “The Sopranos,” head to nearby Newport, Ky., for the Gangster Tour with American Legacy Tours (americanlegacytours.com). Las Vegas as Sin City? In the immortal words of Johnny Depp’s character Donnie Brasco: “Fuhgeddaboudit.”
The March 1960 issue of the Saturday Evening Post identified “Sin City, USA” as Newport, and this informative two-hour walking tour focuses on all the juicy details. For years, the Cleveland branch of the mob controlled Newport, known as “Switzerland for gangsters,” who carried out their bootlegging, gambling and other forms of vice without restraint or interference.
Some tidbits gleaned from the tour are humorous (penny slots for little gamblers in one elementary school parking lot) while others reveal a darker side (Moe Dalitz, leader of the Cleveland mob, was suspected of murdering Dutch Schultz on the orders of Lucky Luciano). Afterward, stop in at the Gangsters Dueling Piano Bar, in what was once the last casino to operate in Kentucky.
Take a few hours to explore the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. As the first stop across the Mason-Dixon Line on the Underground Railroad, Cincinnati played an important role in the freedom movement. As one of the new group of “museums of conscience,” this beautifully curated museum offers exhibits that will educate and enlighten. Take a virtual bus tour to see what Rosa Parks experienced or walk inside a slave pen, used as a temporary holding place for slaves to be sent south for sale. The whole experience is profoundly moving (freedomcenter.org).
The Taft Museum of Art is considered one of the finest small art museums in America for its collection of eclectic art, from Chinese porcelains and European decorative arts to works by Old Masters such as Rembrandt, Goya and Gainsborough (taftmuseum.org).
Don’t miss the restored Art Deco Union Terminal containing the Cincinnati Museum Center (cincymuseum.org), or the Cincinnati Art Museum, beautifully situated in Eden Park with a 60,000-piece collection spanning 6,000 years (cincinnatiartmuseum.org).
For a different type of art, check out the American Sign Museum (americansignmuseum.org), where you can take a walk down memory lane courtesy of 900 classic signs dating back to 1890. From a neon Howard Johnson’s sign to a rotating neon windmill from a Denver doughnut shop, this museum will have you overdosing on nostalgia.
More information: CincyUSA.com.