Soapdish: Updated insider's guide to OTR and Downtown

Back by unpopular demand after almost three years, your humble Soapdish columnist returns with a second chapter in my “Highly Subjective, Sometimes Eccentric, Oftentimes Random Insider’s Guide to Over-the-Rhine and Downtown.”  

Devoted readers may recall the first such treatise in July 2012. The premise, as set forth in that first column, remains unchanged:

“Every so often the local mainstream media comes out with an ‘Insider’s Guide’ to this, that and the other thing. Oftentimes said ‘guide’ is a predictably re-hashed version of the Tweets, Yelps and similar reconstituted internet pabulum one will find in the blogosphere and affiliated cyberspace realms. In our race-to-be-first, immediate-information age, there are very few secrets. (Remember ‘Secret Cincinnati?’ Yeah, I don’t either.) So in order to avoid straying into standard issue, Cincinnati Magazine/‘Best Of’ terrain, I present to you my ‘Highly Subjective, Sometimes Eccentric, Oftentimes Random Insider’s Guide to Over-the-Rhine and Downtown.’ ”

Armed with these two pieces, you’re now ready to conquer the town with a knowing wink and ironically arched eyebrow, content that no proverbial stone has been left unturned in one man’s quest for ultimate listmania. As such, without further adieu, let us begin!

Best Free Air/Rest Area on the Central Parkway Cycletrack

Ohio’s first protected bike lane, the Central Parkway Cycletrack, runs from Elm Street to Marshall Street, providing a pleasant and unimpeded byway for velocipedes in and out of the downtown. While some devotees of the automobile still view the lanes as a threat to truth, justice and the American way (not to mention wanton disregard of posted Parkway speed limits), many others were pleasantly surprised at the ability of bikes and cars to actually share the road in harmonious unison.

But what if you need a rest stop? What if your rear tire is looking a little less-than-plump? Have no fear cyclists, as Dave Leech (who lives in a nearby RV) has set up a small trailer adjacent to the city-bound lane of the cycle track just a wee bit north of Findlay Market. You may remember this as the site of an old Bengals bus and assorted junk yard of sorts hidden behind a chain link fence and some American flags and whatnot.

Now featuring a ’49 Desoto, the hand-written sign announcing “THE BIKE STOP” features such amenities as free air, tire patches, water, bike parts and discounted Reds tickets. They were also offering little lemonade powder packets to put in your water if you so desire.

Best New Neighborhood for Those Looking to Escape Over-the-Rhine

Sure, downtown and Over-the-Rhine are great, amazing, booming places full of hip boutiques and trendy restaurants, doughnut-munching tourists bumping into ice-cream slurping families bumping into dog-walking pretzel-eaters on their way to Washington Park. But there’s always that manifest destiny that calls you to that “next hot place,” and what better direction to look than Westward Ho to the West End, more specifically the areas of SoBri (South Brighton) and Central Park(way) West.  

There’s plenty of historic 19th-Century architecture there, from the grand mansions of Dayton Street to historic old warehouses and stables. Moreover, not one but three old schools are being renovated into apartments, including the beautiful former Lafayette Bloom middle school, with its fourth floor loggias and ornate detailing, as well as the old Sands Montessori and Heberle Elementary schools nearby. As these buildings fill up with residents, look for some trend-setting commercial establishments to fill in as well. Check it out now and you can boast, “I was here before….”

Best Downtown News Stand

The urban news stand is something of a vanishing breed, but one mainstay downtown, Fountain News, continues to ply the waters of mainstream media-peddling along with the usual assortment of lottery tickets and convenience store accoutrements. Aside and apart from the creepy porn department, its variety of periodicals is surprisingly strong. I mean, it’s the only place to grab the latest copy of lowbrow/outsider art mag Juxtapoz downtown.

Best Rooftop Establishment in the City   

This was a pretty pathetic category three years ago, with Lavomatic winning by default. Since then, we’ve seen the 21c Hotel open its (surprisingly underwhelming) rooftop as well as a rejuvenated Krueger’s Tavern putting some considerable effort into livening up the former Lavomatic rooftop (with great success, I might add).

But the Phelps rooftop bar at the Residence Inn on Lytle Park seems to be winning this race with expansive river views and recently expanded offerings. That said, be on the lookout for the Rhinegeist Brewery to offer some steep competition when its rooftop bar opens later this year.

Most Vastly Underutilized Grand Historic Space Downtown

Competition in this category has lessened in recent years, basically as a result of the impressive conversion of deteriorating downtown historic structures into newly refurbished hotels: the Enquirer Building, the Bartlett Building, the aforementioned Phelps and the Metropole, now known respectively as Homewood Suites/Hampton Inn, Marriott Renaissance, Residence Inn and the 21c.

Dixie Terminal, a 10-story office building at the corner of Walnut and Fourth Streets, is home to offices for Great American Insurance Group. While it was once a streetcar terminal on the lower levels and home to the Cincinnati Stock Exchange, I often scratch my head wondering why the gorgeous main lobby is not used more. The circa 1921 main building includes a barrel-vaulted concourse, with a Rookwood Pottery entry arch, marble floors, Bottincino marble wainscot, metal trimmings, decorated ceilings, with fanciful medallions showing little children and frolicking cherubs riding on the backs of various animals.

This should be a setting for grand fundraisers, wine tastings, weddings and commemorations. Instead, it’s a rather quiet albeit impressive space. At least it’s open to the public, so do yourself a favor and walk through it some time. The guards won’t hassle you.

Least Publicized Downtown Museum District

Sure, we all know about the Cincinnati Art Museum, the Contemporary Arts Center, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, the Taft Museum and Union Terminal, but what about that lonely little corner of West Court Street, home of both the Lloyd Library and the Cincinnati Fire Museum? That’s right, it’s our own Fire and Botany Museum District!

The Lloyd’s modest mid-century exterior belies its grand contents inside hosting a research library chock full of topics ranging from natural history to botany to pharmacy (be still my heart). Not only that, but it’s also home to one of Cincinnati’s newest (and potentially least used) art bike racks.

Next door, you’ll find the Cincinnati Fire Museum, celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, where you can slide down a pole and practice your patented “stop, drop and roll” maneuvers. The building, built in 1906, was formerly Engine Company #45 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

After your appetite for fire history/safety and botany is sated, feel free to wander over to the Court Street Candy District and check out the wares at Minges & Sons.

Best Time to Visit Market Wines When It’s Not Packed to the Gills

You like to go to Findlay Market on the weekends, but so does everyone else. Like, pretty much the entire city as well as accompanying suburbs seem to pack in there on the weekend, most of whom jam their way into Market Wines for a beer or a wine tasting. But guess what? Even though the market is closed on Mondays, Market Wines is not.

So stop in, bring your dog and enjoy the neighborhood atmosphere with a stress-free quality craft beer or two after all the tourists have gone home. Eli’s BBQ is also open as well, so your Monday night plans have pretty much written themselves.

Best Vintage Shopping in Downtown/OTR

This is a pretty straightforward category, but I must highlight the wares at Mannequin (Main Street in OTR) and Left Coast (Fourth Street downtown), which offer up some high-quality vintage shopping for the discerning basin dweller. Mannequin is pretty much strictly clothing and weighs heavy on the female side, but there’s a decent men’s department as well. Sometimes it feels as if you wandered into the wardrobe of a bygone and wealthy local industrialist from 1958.

Left Coast, meanwhile, is furniture and accessories, well sourced and reasonably priced. They also have a fun warehouse sale once a year that’s definitely worth checking out.

Best Secret Pop-Up Biergarten That’s Not Really a Secret

The Five Points Alley Popup Biergarten in Walnut Hills, now in its third year, is really blossoming into its own, with increased investment in the space, added attractions and new businesses. Sponsored by the Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation, the Five Points (so named for the intersection of five alleys) has acted as a much-needed gathering space and catalyst for the neighborhood.

Witness the opening of nearby Fireside Pizza as well as the upcoming Angst Coffeehouse, which opens right onto the alleyway, and you have the beginnings of a tangible business district coming together. The adjacent former “comfort station” on McMillan has also been acquired and is going to house a bar as well.

Best OTR Intersection

The intersection of 14th and Republic, intimate yet familiar, located as it is between the bustle of Vine Street and the pastoral scenes of Washington Park, is a model in efficient urbanity. On one corner, the charm of Jose Salazar’s excellent restaurant opens a marble countertop into a small street corner, while across the street Picnic and Pantry provides an assortment of groceries and prepared foods for your everyday needs. On the third corner is the latest soon-to-open bar from the 4EG group, Low Spark (with yoga upstairs), while an undisclosed project is being studied for the southeast corner.

Best Olde Timey Retail Strip

Main Street, between Sixth and Court, offers up a virtual time travel visit to the past. While its offerings are dwindling (now closed Spatz’s health food store was like a health food store from the 1950s, i.e. unhealthy), there still remain some hardcore standouts. These include the Hathaway Stamp Company (for all your custom stamping needs), Spitzfaden Office Supplies (since 1951!), the fantastic Ohio Book Store, Main Street Casket Co., Acme Hardware, Ciancolo’s Grocery and an assortment of very affordable greasy spoons where cops often eat breakfast (Sophia’s, Sports Page, etc). While the House of Shirts is no longer there, the Player Piano Shop still has pianos visible from the window, like a time capsule from a bygone era.

Best Happy Hour Block Downtown

Finally, let’s close things out with a libation. While Righteous Room’s exceedingly reasonable happy hour was highlighted in Chapter One of this guide, it should not go unnoticed that the nearby, recently opened Horse & Barrel offers an impressive special known as an “Old and a Cold” for just $5. This gets you a pint of a quality beer, the “Cold” (say, for example, a Rhinegeist Truth), and a shot of bourbon from a selection of “Olds” (i.e. Crow, Forrester, et al.). Curiously enough, if you don’t get the “Old,” your single pint of beer will actually cost you more.  

Once upon a time, back in the 1950s, the sleazy dive bar on this block known as the Phoenix Cafe was the #1 seller of Kessler’s whiskey in the country. Let’s just consider the “Old and a Cold” a modern update on that rich history and tradition.

Read more articles by Casey Coston.

Soapbox columnist Casey Coston, a former corporate bankruptcy and restructuring attorney, is now involved in real estate development and construction in and around Over-the-Rhine and Pendleton as Vice President at Urban Expansion. He's also a civic activist and founder of a number of local groups, including the Urban Basin Bicycle Club, the Cincinnati Stolen Bike Network, the World Famous OTR Ping Pong League and LosantiTours: An Urban Exploration Company.
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