Soapdish: The ultimate insider's guide to downtown + OTR

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.”

Best Art/Dog Park

As a resident of and (sometimes vocal advocate for) Over the Rhine, I have witnessed firsthand the rejuvenation and amazing progress that has taken place in the neighborhood. From the high-end bistros of Vine Street to the more organic developments of Main—the buzz is undeniable. While everyone is ooh-ing and ahh-ing (and deservedly so) over the simply amazing, new treasure that is Washington Park, suffice to say it is not the only park in the hood.

Tucked away in a little corner of Clay and Melindy Streets is Northern Row Park, a compact, community-maintained, once squalid pocket park that was resuscitated by the hard work of local residents in 2007.

While the park does not have the world-class landscaping and computer-controlled fountains found a few blocks to the west, what it does have is art. Specifically two wall murals by internationally known artists Matt W. Moore (Portland, ME) and Mike Perry (Brooklyn, NY), in addition to an ongoing, “found object,” telephone pole installation by neighboring resident David Forrest.  

While the park is also a go-to destination for seemingly every single dog owner in a two-mile radius (including yours truly), the shade and vegetation provide a peaceful respite from the nearby clamor of Liberty and Main.

Best Urban Bocce Ball Court Not in the Neon’s Courtyard

Speaking of parks, and at the other end of downtown, is Lytle Park. While Lytle Park is well-known for the neighboring Taft Museum, few are aware of its world-class bocce ball court, the only such court in the Cincinnati park system.  

Constructed last year, the court came about largely from the tireless efforts of nearby resident Kathy Holwadel, who came up with the idea in order to help promote the George Innis Italian Landscape exhibit at the Taft last fall.  

The court is a nice alternative to the best urban bocce ball court in an Over the Rhine bar, which, naturally, can be found in the courtyard of Neon’s.

Best Asian Cheap Eats in Downtown

While Findlay Market’s always stellar Pho Lang Tang leads the vanguard in OTR, smaller, more modest offerings can indeed be found downtown.

An oft-overlooked treasure is the cash-only, family-run Orient on Main Street between 6th and 7th, featuring an expansive Pan-Asian menu as well as an elderly grandmother who is there at seemingly all hours. I strongly recommend the hot and sour soup.  

Another bargain is the Sunny Deli in the Carew Tower, where the every Wednesday Bi-Bim-Bap special for $7.49 is a bargain at any price.  

Finally, the newest offering is the relocated Le’s on Court Street, which moved from its location in the downtown library. Featuring all your fave Vietnamese pho’s and bun’s et al, the modest space churns out high-quality fare at low prices.

Best Downtown Art Gallery/Fireplace and Home Accessories Store Where the Owners Also Live Upstairs

Established in 1819, Bromwell’s Hearth, Home and Gallery is well-known for its amazing array of custom fireplaces. What is less well known is their fine stock of unique home accessories and décor, as well as a stunning upstairs art gallery.  

Owner Jeff McClorey clearly has a good eye, and his store reflects that. In addition to artists-in-residence studios on the upper floors, McClorey also has his family residence upstairs.

Bromwell’s has an art opening July 21 featuring the works of Cuban-born, Toronto resident and former visiting DAAP professor Henry Navarro. Along with High Street in OTR, Bromwell’s is one of the highest-quality retail spaces around. Seriously, I take out-of-towners to these places in order to impress.

Best Place to Peruse the Latest Issue of Monocle Over a Brown Bag Lunch

The Mercantile Library, located since 1903 in the upper echelons of the 11th floor of the Mercantile Building near 4th and Walnut, is a non-profit membership library organized in 1835, the city's senior library and one of the oldest cultural institutions in the Midwest. 

It is often referred to as the “Oldest Membership Library West of the Alleghenies,” which is just fun when anyone benchmarks their status as “West of the Alleghenies.”  In short, it’s a really cool, albeit literary, place (not that those two concepts are mutually exclusive), with circular cast iron staircases and classical marble statuary nestled amidst the stacks, all for a basic membership price of $55 per year. 

Best Bread Basket Gourmet Special in OTR

Nicola’s is, simply put, one of the top restaurants in the city, and their Monday night “Neighborhood Special” is one of the better bargains you will find anywhere.  

The special features their tagliatelle pasta with a Bolognese sauce, as well as a salad, for just $13. Moreover, if you have ever been to Nicola’s, you would know that the amazing bread basket alone is worth that much. Although originally intended as a bar-only special, they will also seat you in the restaurant if there’s no room.

Cheapest and Best Wings in the Basin

Going to the absolute opposite end of the dining spectrum, the cheapest and best chicken wings in OTR, indeed the basin, can be found at Tina’s on Liberty. While many look at Tina’s as that odd, slightly scary cell phone store across from the dodgy Shell Station, they actually serve decent wings at seriously bargain-basement prices.  

Maybe this is why the poorly conceived “experiment” to convert neighboring Grammer’s to a wings joint was doomed to fail. Hopefully Tina’s will soon institute a “deposit” policy on their wings, thereby minimizing the inevitable sidewalk littering which seems to be epidemic in the surrounding vicinity (and the bane of dog-owners everywhere).

Best Rooftop Establishment in the City by Default

Lavomatic on Vine in OTR has the best rooftop space of any bar/restaurant in the city, perhaps because it’s the only rooftop bar/restaurant space in the city. It is also criminally underutilized.  

Why regular happy hours or other events are not scheduled there is beyond me.  

Nevertheless, Lavomatic’s monopoly on the rooftop market is at risk, as the much-anticipated 21c Hotel will feature a rooftop bar and spa when it opens this fall. 

Perhaps this will be the spark that spurs Lavomatic to be more creative with what is a pretty unique space in OTR.

Lavomatic recently announced they would be closing July 15-26 for renovations and to roll out a new menu. Perhaps a revamped rooftop bar is also in the plans? Time will tell. On a side note, why don’t we have more rooftop spots in downtown? Ponder that while I move on to our next category.

Best Courtyard in OTR That a Surprisingly Large Number of People Don’t Know About

The Iris Café on Main Street has an urban oasis/garden in its back patio which is the perfect space to escape the hubbub of the city outside. Accessed by walking through the bookstore/café, the vine-covered walls and unique art installation is the perfect space to enjoy a bowl of soup and peruse a random book from the shelves.

Best Downtown Happy Hour Bargain

Since it opened, the Righteous Room on Walnut has been unparalleled in having the best Happy Hour downtown. Like its fellow 4EG establishment in OTR, the Lackman, the Righteous Room features high-quality taps and spirits.

With 50 percent off from 4 to 8 pm, it is a steal, which may explain why the tiny space is often compared to the contents of a sardine can.

So there you have it—one resident’s Highly Subjective, Sometimes Eccentric, Oftentimes Random Insider’s Guide to Over the Rhine and Downtown. While spatial limitations in these very virtual pages prevent me from continuing, let me tell you, I’m just getting started.

Check out the above options and let the crew here at Soapbox know about your favorites that I may have overlooked (or just didn’t get to…yet).

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.