Cincinnati is a city that often fails to get its proper due.
Along with fellow Midwestern stalwarts St. Louis, Cleveland, Indianapolis and Kansas City, it’s often overlooked in favor of other metropolises perceived as being more glamorous. In a classic case of substance over style, the Queen City shrugs its shoulders and soldiers on — re-vamping, re-inventing and re-energizing itself — which ironically, adds style to its substance.
One Cincinnati institution in need of no re-vamping, re-inventing or re-energizing is its terrific art museum, picturesquely situated in Eden Park and home to some 60,000 works spanning 6,000 years. Founded in 1881, the Cincinnati Art Museum was the first museum built specifically to showcase art west of the Alleghenies. The collection includes the usual suspects — from Peter Paul Rubens to Pablo Picasso. But if you pay a visit before August 12, you can take in one of the most eagerly anticipated exhibitions in recent years.
"The Terracotta Army: Legacy of the First Emperor of China from the Chinese city of Xian," illustrates the First Dynasty’s formation and vast influence over the rest of China. The exhibition features 120 objects, including 40 that have not previously been seen in the U.S.
While the Cincinnati Art Museum is a cultural beacon, it is far from the only cultural jewel in the city’s crown. Celebrated for its acclaimed ballet, opera and symphony, Cincinnati is also a mecca for those interested in regional theater. I had a chance to visit the newly renovated Ensemble Theatre, located in a former bank building in the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, to catch a performance of “His Eye is on the Sparrow.” The one-woman musical about the ground-breaking African-American performer Ethel Waters whose career took her from vaudeville and Harlem’s Cotton Club to Hollywood and Billy Graham’s Crusade was as good as anything I’ve seen Off-Broadway.
If Cincinnati’s cultural scene is famously robust and firmly entrenched, a new wrinkle on the tourism horizon is happening just across the Ohio River in northern Kentucky.
The B-Line, in operation only since earlier this year, is an extension of Kentucky’s famed Bourbon Trail, with the emphasis on craft bourbon. I set out one day with Julie Kirkpatrick, VP of Sales and Marketing at the Northern Kentucky Convention and Visitors Bureau and self-proclaimed “Chief Bourbon Sipper,” to sample the goods. Our intro to the B-Line began with lunch at Tousey House, an 1822 Federal-style house in the historic district of Burlington, Kentucky. It began as a tavern and after functioning as a livery, hotel, boarding house and consignment store, has come full circle and is once again a tavern and restaurant serving southern comfort food at its best (the salmon croquette sliders with fried green tomatoes and house-made remoulade were delicious).
Next, it was on to do a bit of tasting at two of the three craft distilleries currently anchoring the B-Line.
While Boone County Distilling Company and New Riff Distillery have different philosophies — the former is more traditional in approach, while the latter has a decidedly next-generation aesthetic — the one thing they have in common is the seriousness with which they take their craft bourbon production. If you’ve filled up your Kentucky Bourbon Trail Passport and are itching for some more trails to travel, this is the one for you.
It has a definite tie-in with the Commonwealth’s version, with Kirkpatrick explaining that, “The Kentucky Distillers’ Association will determine which of the craft distilleries will be admitted to the trail.” We ended our day with more sipping at Newberry’s Prohibition Bourbon Bar, a speakeasy named “one of the best bourbon bars in America” by the Bourbon Review Magazine (leave it to those boys to know a good bar when they see one).
Owners Kim and Peter Newberry fashioned the intimate bar from what was once a garage on their property in Newport’s East Row where as Kim says, “there’s a bar tucked on every corner.” With a selection of 1,500 bourbons and rye whiskeys and its welcoming atmosphere, this one is not to be missed.
The Cincinnati area’s ever-evolving food scene is as creative as its arts scene. Boomtown Biscuits and Whiskey gets its name from the westward expansion where intrepid pioneers struggled for every acre of ground, often fortified by ... biscuits and whiskey. They’ll likely fortify you as well, but there is a caveat. This place is a popular brunch spot, with a wait for a table often being 90 minutes on weekends. Do wait……it’s worth it.
It’s a bit of a stretch from hardy pioneers to French existentialists, where at Sartre in Over-the-Rhine, the menu is light on biscuits and heavy (but not too) on contemporary French cuisine. You might feel a philosophical bent coming on as you tuck into dishes such as country pate with fermented pickles, griddled bread and mustard and steak frites with peppercorn sauce and lollipop kale. The brasserie is adjacent to Rhinegeist Brewery, so if you prefer this environment, know that Sartre’s has a pneumatic tube known as “the Burger Launcher” which catapults orders over to the brewery’s tap room.
If you need a southern soul food fix, book a table at Purple Poulet, a mix of culinary styles from Charleston, New Orleans and points beyond. You can’t say this place doesn’t have a sense of humor, with dishes named Redneck Rockefellers (oysters) and Swamp Critters Provencale (skillet frog legs, shrimp, and crawfish with pernod, garlic, tomatoes and capers).
If you’re not feeling too experimental, you can always go with their claim to fame: the fried chicken dinner, which is four pieces with green beans, buttermilk-bacon whipped potatoes and black pepper gravy.
Artistic touches abound as well at one of the area’s newest places to spend the night. Hotel Covington is a funky fixture in what was formerly that city’s Coppins Department Store. Masterfully repurposed, it offers guests local delicacies such as Maverick chocolates, New Riff bourbon, Braxton Brewery beers and Newport’s Carabello coffee. In addition, each room features a fur throw from the faux fur collection of local icon Donna Salyers.
The lobby bar, with its large bourbon barrel sculpture, is a buzzy meeting place. Hotel Covington serves as a microcosm of The Queen City itself — with its mix of working-class unselfconsciousness and trendy bravado — a place I never tire of visiting.
If You go
Cincinnati and North Kentucky