Cincinnati has been experiencing something of a revolution in the last few years, shaking off its gritty past and slowly developing into a hip cultural center. Most evident is the transformation of the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, which suffered from high crime rates for decades. In 2004 the 3CDC non-profit formed and began purchasing vacant buildings and lots; developing Over-the-Rhine (OTR) and the neighboring Central Business District (CBD) block-by-block, while keeping an eye on preservation. In fact, OTR is home to the country’s largest collection of Italianate buildings.
One of the happiest results of this transformation is that Cincinnati’s food scene is heating up and new restaurants are arriving at an astonishing rate. Here’s some of the hottest spots — classic as well as new — in this emerging foodie destination.
Family-owned Holtman’s donut shop has been serving up hot donuts fresh from the oven since 1960, starting with its Loveland, Ohio shop, then moving into the Over-the-Rhine. Donuts are handcrafted from scratch and come in 30 standard flavors ($1-2 each) every day, as well as eight specials. We recommend the maple bacon and red velvet.
If sugar is not your preferred choice of breakfast, head a couple of doors down from Holtman’s Over-the-Rhine shop to Happy Belly, which offers a healthier start to the day with grilled wraps and smoothies.
Salazar Restaurant and Bar, the much-buzzed venture from local Chef José Salazar, opened its doors in January this year, welcoming patrons into a chic 45-seat Over-the-Rhine diner with a marble bar, lime-green banquette, and vintage-tiled floors. Salazar’s farm-inspired menu reflects the changing of the seasons, and is creative and occassionally playful. Order a selection of small plates for the table — petite fried-oyster sandwiches with kimchi and radish sprouts ($5), fried broccoli florets in a sambal-buttermilk emulsion ($5), and bluegrass soy-and-sorghum pork belly with shishito peppers ($5) — and leave room for the P.B.B. & J (that’s peanut butter, bacon, and jam served on challah) ($8).
Located inside the art deco and Historic Landmarked Hilton Cincinnati Netherland Plaza, Orchid’s at Palm Court has earned numerous accolades over the year, including the title of American Culinary Federation’s 2011-2012 USA Chef of the Year for chef Todd Kelly. Order a la carte — crispy pork belly ($11), Maine lobster salad ($13), and three-hour prime NY strip loin ($33) — or indulge in the chef’s tasting menu ($60; with wine pairings $90) or Grand Tasting menu ($110; with wine pairings $165). Traditionally, meals are finished with a plate of petits fours and a parting gift of a granola bar made with honey from the restaurant’s own rooftop beehives.
The grand, lush-red interior of Boca was formerly home to Cincinnati’s classic French restaurant, Maisonette, which had the distinction of the longest run of five-star ratings from Mobil Travel Guide in U.S. history (41 years). Boca carries on the fine dining tradition, serving chef-driven Italian and French cuisine, and a dining experience that is exceptional but never stiff. Most entrees can be ordered as a tasting portion, so go ahead and order a few — like the butternut squash risotto ($14 tasting/$27 full), Chatham Bay cod ($15/$29), and lamb confit ($19/$37).