Lobster bar, distillery and others breathe new life into Court Street

Over the last several years, a number of Court Street businesses closed, leaving vacant storefronts and sparse activity in their wakes. What was once a less-than-savory landscape, however, is slowly reawakening with new businesses welcoming the next wave of Cincinnatians who crave interesting goods and services, as well as new food and drink options.

Court Street hasn't been traditionally known as a Cincinnati dining destination, unless you count the folks conducting inescapable tasks at the courthouse and Bureau of Motor Vehicles. If you’re there during the weekday lunch rush, you’ll see plenty of suited-and-skirted employees from Kroger’s nearby corporate office, as well as a mix of lawyers, police and anxious-looking eaters taking a break from a scheduled court appearance.

After lunch, things used to grind to a screeching halt — but that’s all changing, thanks to a slowly emerging Court Street food and nightlife scene.

Cincinnati native Dan Swormstedt is the proprietor of Court Street Lobster Bar, one of the area’s most highly anticipated additions. Described as both casual and chic, the restaurant represents a new entrepreneurial energy that can be seen surging through downtown.

“The main reason we chose Court Street was because of the anticipated development,” Swormstedt says. “We heard that a lot of the buildings had been purchased by development groups and that apartments were going in down there. We knew that we were going to be one of the first businesses, but we felt the long-term future of Court Street is very positive.”

Towne Properties and Daffin Investments are two such developers who have expressed plans to convert several vacant Court Street buildings into mixed-use residential and commercial spaces.

As those projects unfold, Swormstedt believes there will be a demand for neighborhood restaurants like his. While Washington Platform Saloon & Restaurant has long enjoyed a strong presence at the corner of Elm and Court — especially since introducing its annual Oysterfest — Swormstedt’s lobster bar will open at 28 Court, the street’s more populated center. But as with most restaurateurs, Swormstedt's focus is on the food. He gets his lobster shipped in biweekly from Maine, pre-shelled.

"(All our food comes) fresh, straight from the coast," he says. "It’s nothing different than if we were to take (the lobsters) apart ourselves; it just cuts back on labor costs.” 

Forging partnerships between residents new and old

Swormstedt initially looked at places in OTR and East Walnut Hills before deciding on Court Street for his restaurant.

“There’s a lot of beautiful buildings on Court Street and it’s a very unique street in Cincinnati," he says. "There’s a lot of businesses who we felt were under-served, especially in the restaurant space, and we wanted to help bring something to them as well.”

In acclimating to the neighborhood, Swormstedt has made a valuable friend in relative newcomer to the area, Queen City Exchange (32 W. Court). The lobster bar will operate a late-night food window at the bar on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.

“I’ve known one of the owners for about five years, so that was another impetus for this,” he says.

At another nearby property, Northside Distilling Co. will soon expand from its headquarters just a few miles away in Northside, opening a second production space at the corner of Race and Court.

"Initially it was the facility that attracted us to Court Street," says Northside Distilling Co. master distiller Chris Courts. "It had everything we needed. Before signing on it, we did a little research. I was watching the foot traffic and it really seems like a cool in-between area. I’ve been trying to coin the phrase 'Low-T-R' for Court."

The distillery will open April 29, offering un-aged whiskey, bourbon (in the barrel), vodka, moonshine and gin. Its proprietary bourbon has been aging for about a year and a half, so Courts hopes it will be ready for release in about six months.

"It’s being aged in small barrels, which will help with the displacement — more whiskey touches the barrel," he says.

But even as these exciting new projects begin to take shape, longtime Court Street residents Doscher’s Candies is planning to exit soon for a larger operating facility on the east side of town.

“Their factory in Newtown is going to be fantastic for them as they’re growing, but they’re leaving just when the rest of the street is getting built up,” Swormstedt says. “Luckily, it’s a positive move for them because they can’t handle the amount of volume that they’re doing in that facility. They’re very excited.”

Partnering to ‘keep people on Court Street past 4 p.m.’

On a street populated mostly with restaurants, bodegas and salons, the addition of one more restaurant might not seem like such a bold move, but the addition of both Court Street Lobster Bar and Northside Distilling Co. signifies a larger transformation of the area from quiet, overlooked lunch destination to center-city hub of art, food and commerce.

For now, the lobster bar will be one of just a few establishments that will be open for dinner. Another is the new Lalo, which offers modern Latin American fare at 29 E. Court.

“We didn’t want to just provide lunch and then close down like the other places on Court Street,” Swormstedt says. “There’s a ton of foot traffic. With Queen City Exchange next door and the distillery, and us, we’re going to be able to keep people down on Court past that slow 4 p.m. time and give that area a little more vibrancy instead of just being a pass-through.”

Court Street Lobster Bar announced a grand opening date of April 13 — which is this Thursday — but Swormstedt says he will delay opening unless he’s able to provide the full experience to customers, and that includes beverage service in addition to great food. His staff has been working closely with Heidelberg Distributing on wine and spirit pairings for his shellfish-heavy menu. The lobster bar plans to host a “Bubbles and Bloodies Brunch” on Saturdays that will feature champagne and sancerre — a light and bubbly varietal with sea salt notes that Swormstedt says pair well with ocean fare.

“I know I’m a bit biased, but our chefs have done a fantastic job,” says Swormstedt. “There’s nothing like what we’re doing, so it’ll be interesting.”

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