It was interesting: When I told several people I'd be headed to Cincinnati, Ohio, and neighboring northern Kentucky, I pretty much received a collective shrug as well as comments like, "You'll probably run out of things to do within a day."
Well, I'm here to tell people near and far that Cincinnati and Kentucky have a LOT to offerprimarily with ( courtesy of revitalization ) some pretty unique spots that make the area memorable.
After arriving at CVG Airportwhich has a humdinger of a trip to baggage claimI checked into Cincinnati's 21c Museum Hotel ( 609 Walnut St.; www.21cmuseumhotels.com/cincinnati/ ), a 156-room establishment that's truly different ( and that's a good thing ).
In the hotel is the exhibition "Pop Stars! Popular Culture and Contemporary Art," which has all types of intriguing artwork. For example, Robert Wilson's "Lady Gaga: Mademoiselle Caroline Riviere" has the singer in a hi-definition video while Brian Knep's "Healing Tiles" uses custom software algorithms to create glowing patterns that visitors "tear apart" whenever they walk over themalthough the patterns "heal," but in a different variation each time.
The rooms are also pretty artsyand mine constantly had me pondering. My room seemed to have a chicken theme, but there was also a rubber duck in a structure that was strictly a shower ( irony? ). However, the most interesting ( and initially startling ) items were the bathroom tiles featuring body parts, courtesy of the Rookwood Pottery Company.
The hotel restaurant Metropole is a must-see ( or must-taste ). From the broccoli "beignets" to the eatery's signature cheeseburger to the Hudson Valley foie gras, there's something for everyone.
Later that day, I crossed one of several bridges to Covington, Kentucky's, MainStrasse Village ( Mainstrasse.org ) neighborhood. It's a charming, diverse ( including several LGBT owners ) and ever-evolving area that reminded me of Evanstondown to the various small shops and quaint restaurants. Just one of the restaurants is Frida, a Mexican spot that's basically a tribute to Frida Kahlo.
What is Kentucky known for ( besides a great college basketball team )? Bourbon! So it was on to Old Kentucky Bourbon Bar ( 629 Main St.; Facebook.com/1OKBB/ ), a paean to U.S. whiskeys. And thanks to vivacious local celebrity/bartender Molly Wellmann ( who owns several businesses in Cincinnati and northern Kentucky ), there are several delicious cocktails at the spot as well.
I was told that one of the best and popular restaurants in MainStrasse is Bouquet Restaurant and Wine Bar ( 519 Main St.; BouquetRestaurant.com ). Thanks to an entertaining conversation with the Cincinnati tourism bureau's Dave Ziegler and some tasty fare such as the pork chop, I had a wonderful time.
The following day started with a visit to Cincinnati's Lois & Richard Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art ( 44 E. 6th St.; ContemporaryArtsCenter.org )which happens to be right around the corner from the 21c Hotel.
After a very fun and informative talk with Communications Chief Regina Carswell Russo in the center's cafe, curator Steven Matijcio took me to see three interesting, yet diverse, exhibits: "After the Moment: Reflections on Robert Mapplethorpe," Mark Mothersbaugh's "Myopia" and Pia Camil's "Skins." "After the Moment" ( which runs through March 13, like the Camil exhibit ) marks the 25th anniversary of the art center's landmark presentation of Mapplethorpe's survey exhibition "The Perfect Moment" in Cincinnatiand the controversy it engendered. It also shows Mapplethorpe's legacy through the eyes of current artists.
As much fun as the center proved to be ( even singing along with Mothersbaugh's "orchestrions" in an exhibit that runs through Jan. 9 ), it was time to goto school. I requested to see the University of Cincinnati ( UC.edu ) and, despite the wind ( which some thought I brought with me from Chicago ), it was very fun and eye-opening. ( Even for guide Tyler Minton, who graduated in 2011, there were lots of changes he was seeing for the first time. ) University President Santa J. Ono is probably one of the most revered college heads in the country, and he was constantly waving to people as I saw him stroll across the grounds.
Skyline Chili ( several locations; SkylineChili.com ) is something of an institution in the area, so I had to try it. I had been warned ( by Ziegler ) that the chili is not the traditional typeand it certainly isn't, as it's thinner and more sugary. To be honest, I liked it ( although I didn't love it )but it is fun to go to a place and say you'd like a three-way ( and can get up to a five-way ). We later walked through the area and ended up at the charming ( and refreshingly roomy ) French restaurant La Poste ( 3410 Telford St.; LaPosteEatery.com ).
In 2001, Cincinnati's Over-the-Rhine ( OTR ) neighborhood was rocked in a series of riots when a city policeman was acquitted after he shot and killed a teenaged African-American. More than 100 businesses were attacked, causing millions of dollars of damage. Today, the area is definitely making a comeback, as a walk with OTR Chamber of Commerce's Emilie Johnson made clear.
OTR is a colorful ( partially courtesy of numerous murals ) site full of diverse businesses, encompassing everything from the wine bar Zula to Switch Lighting and Design ( very cooljust walk through it ) to Lachey's Bar ( started by, yep, Nick and Drew Lachey ) to the sports-apparel place Homage. Park + Vine, a store established by onetime Chicagoan Dan Korman, is about as green ( as in eco-friendly ) as an establishment can get. And no visit is complete to the OTR without visiting Macaron Bar ( 1206 Main St.; Macaron-Bar.com ), an gay-owned shop that has wondrous varieties of the dessert.
Then it was back to downtown, with my day ( or evening ) concluding with the acclaimed eatery Sotto ( 118 E. 6th St.; SottoCincinnati.com ), an underground site that's the very antithesis of the bright, festival Boca above it. The chicken-liver mousse with pistachio ( served with bruschetta ) is one of the best I've had in the past few years, and the dark atmosphere is perfect for a date ( although I mainly saw families and groups of friends during my visit ).
Go North, young man
After exploring OTR, it was time the following day to a neighborhood that's been described as progressive and alternative: Northside. Openly gay and candid Northside Community Council member James Heller-Jackson ( who, at one point, told a story about being called the "fkin' Mayor of Northside" ) was the guide during an extremely informative tour. While he sang the praises of most of the businesses in the area, he also pointed out a few that he felt should not be there.
Indeed, Northside is full of treasures of all types. When I return to Cincinnati, I'm hitting up The Littlefield ( 3934 Spring Grove Ave.; LittlefieldNS.com ), a bourbon bar with eats such as cilantro-and-lime duck wings and chewy chocolate-chip cookies with ginger, molassesand bacon. Spun Bicycles ( 4122 Hamilton Ave.; SpunBicycles.com ) is a full-service shop that specializes in restoration and custom fabrication ( and it helps, from an aesthetic standpoint, that muscular co-owner Dominic LoPresti is there ). There's also Tillie's Lounge ( 4042 Hamilton Ave.; Facebook.com/TilliesLounge ), a relatively new gay bar from the team behind the popular LGBT nightspot Below Zero Lounge; the opulent Tillie's is named for Tillie the elephant, part of a popular traveling show in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Shake It Records ( 4156 Hamilton Ave.; ShakeItRecords.com ) has stacks of vinyl and other music-related items
Lunch was at Ruth's Parkside Cafe ( 1551 Blue Rock St.; RuthsCafe.com ), which has everything from the delicious red beans and rice to the tempeh Reuben. And the visit concluded with a stop at craft brewery Urban Artifact ( 1660 Blue Rock St.; ArtifactBeer.com ), built in the lower level of the historic St. Patrick's church; it was actually cool trying the beer, which I normally don't drink.
( Side note: One concept Heller-Jackson mentioned during the walk was the Northside Yacht Club's "slurring bees"which are, basically, drunken spelling bees. Everyone I mentioned this to in Chicago used the word "awesome" at least once when responding. )
On the way back to downtown, we stopped at OTR's Findlay Market ( 1801 Race St.; FindlayMarket.org ). I honestly didn't want to leave this spot, either, which has dozens of vendors, including Maverick Chocolate, Ida Candles, Pho Lang Thang and Dojo Gelato.
The evening involved a visit to Sundry and Vice ( 18 W. 13th St.; SundryAndVice.com ) to meet up with openly gay City Council member Chris Seelbach. Besides talking with him about the city and his own life ( including the fact that he's been vegetarian since age 5 ), I had a most delicious drink called Son of Man ( with Appleton, apricot liqueur, ginger, lemon, apple, cardamon bitters and egg white ). I had a ( Sundry and Vice, as well as Old Kentucky Bourbon Bar, signify a trend of newer places that are strictly barsmeaning there are no bites to be had. )
I didn't want to end my visit to the city, but you know what they say about all good things. And finishing the visit with a visit to Salazar New American Restaurant ( 1401 Republic St.; SalazarCincinnati.com ) was absolutely perfect. Given the quality of the dishesincluding a sinful grilled pork-jowl appetizerit wasn't surprising the place was bustling.
Thanks certainly go to Debbie Pappadakes of the Cincinnati USA Convention & Visitors Bureau for arranging the trip and ( literally ) steering me around this vibrant area.