Allyn's Cafe offers bayou food in Cincinnati

When Allyn’s Café owner Allyn Raifstanger began investing in Columbia-Tusculum in the 1980s, it was a huge gamble to make on a few vacant buildings in a rundown neighborhood. But the payoff was big: a home, a livelihood, and a comfortable niche in one of Cincinnati’s most darling, overlooked neighborhoods.

Raifstanger has always worked in the restaurant and hospitality business. After getting a degree in hotel and restaurant management from the University of Massachusetts, he ended up in Cincinnati, landing a job at the historic Netherland Plaza Hotel. Working in hotel management, he now had a more reasonable schedule than he’d had in restaurant management. So he and a friend started buying and renovating buildings on the side. He remembers buying their first property with credit cards for $14,000.

It was the 80s and Columbia-Tusculum, according to Raifstanger, was pretty empty. The large lot across the street from Allyn’s, where Columbia Square now stands, was completely vacant. With the exception of a few places such as the famed steakhouse The Precinct, there wasn’t much going on in the neighborhood at all.

“This part of [Columbia Parkway] lacked businesses,” he says. “Even the households on our street, half of them were rundown or boarded up.”

In 1990, he quit the hotel, liquidated all his assets except his home, and jumped into the restaurant business.

He calls the circumstances “serendipitous.”

“I noticed that the building was available and I’d been looking to start something on my own. I — literally — cashed in my retirement savings plan from Netherland Plaza and bought it,” he says.

He connected with the owner and made an offer to buy it at asking price on a five-year land contract. The owner agreed. Then in 1991, with his restaurant experience, management savvy, and renovation skills working together to make it happen, he opened Allyn’s Cafe.

Everything changes over time: music, food, and beer
Five years after buying the original building, Raifstanger secured the adjacent building, knocked a hole in the wall and opened “The Stein Room,” a dining room where he houses a family collection of vintage steins from around the world. There is also a large dining room in the rear for private events or larger groups of guests and a patio out back. A few years ago, he renovated the bar area, opening up the original space to more light and room for customers. The bar used to be a popular venue for local bands, but Raifstanger says they no longer book live music.

Wine and beer have always been a big part of the culture at Allyn’s. In the late 90’s Raifstanger instituted an in-house Around the World in 80 Beers program. Customers drank their way through the list over time, recording their escapades in notebooks and on wall plaques. One hundred and thirty customers completed it, and the longest took four years.

“The record was in four days,” he says with a laugh, adding, “But we wouldn’t let anyone do that any more. That was when we were young…”

There are about 60 bottled and canned beers in house at any time, plus 12 rotating taps. The Around the World program is unofficially disbanded but, with a rising interest in craft and hard-to-find beers, Raifstanger is considering focusing on those instead. Allyn’s is also a Certified Venue on the Untappd app. The app notifies Allyn’s followers when a new keg is tapped and lets them review the beer. It has put them on the radar with enthusiasts looking to try hard-to-find and limited quantity beers, the kind Allyn’s specializes in. Customers can also purchase a bottle of wine (plus corking fee) from the in-house wine and bar shop to drink with their meal.

The menu is mostly Cajun fare, though that wasn’t always the case. When Allyn’s opened, the menu was primarily comfort foods, with nightly specials like Mexican or Cajun night. As time went on, the kitchen developed some great recipes — like his wife’s turkey chili — and the menu expanded. Eventually, Raifstanger had to simplify. To fill a niche, he kept some of the original comfort foods but added the Cajun items to the formal menu.

About five years ago, Raifstanger became a vegan. He has since adapted a few of the most popular items to plant-based recipes, including the jambalaya, Mardi Gras pasta, and chili, and he says that his vegan menu gets more positive reviews on social media than anything else. There also are some gluten-free and vegetarian items. And he makes sure everything on the menu, including the meat and seafood, is just as healthy and fresh.

“Being very health conscious, I look at ingredients on everything I buy here,” he explains. “Everything’s under a microscope.”

27 years and a different neighborhood
Raifstanger and his wife have always lived in the neighborhood, right around the corner from Allyn’s. They married six months after Allyn’s opened and, a few years later, renovated their home and then moved next door, where they raised three boys.

Columbia-Tusculum boasts the title of “Cincinnati’s oldest neighborhood.” The 1788 Columbia settlement, as it was originally named, predates Losantiville (which later became Cincinnati) by a month. And thanks to its strict standards for historic preservation, it is an architectural time capsule and claims some of the oldest inhabited homes in the city. Yet, to the casual Cincinnati observer, the neighborhood of Columbia-Tusculum might still be under the radar.

As both a resident and a business owner, Raifstanger says this is a great time to be in Columbia-Tusculum. In the 27 years since Allyn’s opened, the neighborhood has gone through a lot of changes. Whereas it used to feel like a place commuters passed through on Columbia Parkway, to or from somewhere else, it’s now becoming a destination to stop and spend time.

Raifstanger has watched home by home being renovated and large residential developments are popping up all across the neighborhood. Across the street from Allyn’s, Columbia Square has made a huge difference, as have the smaller businesses along Eastern Avenue. The neighborhood has welcomed new restaurants and breweries, fitness gyms and yoga studios, and green building stores. It’s busy on the weekends, but not congested. There is free parking. It’s easy to to walk around.

“We can get on our bicycles, go down Eastern Avenue and get downtown in 15 minutes,” he says. “Pretty soon you’ll be able to get all the way up to Loveland and beyond.”

While most of his business still comes from the surrounding community, Raifstanger sees more and more people making their first visit, which always surprises him. And, after a generation in business, he’s now hearing customers tell stories not of their own memories of Allyn’s Cafe, but of their parents’ memories, too.

But what about the future? Will Allyn’s Cafe ever expand or open a second location? A long time ago, a good friend — Joe Busken of Busken Bakery — made sure Raifstanger kept things in perspective. Expanding his business, he said, wouldn’t necessarily make him any more money. It would just make him busier. And Raifstanger says his restaurant has never been about making a ton of money. He says it’s always been “a gift.” Working for himself has given him the freedom to spend time with his children and see them grow up.

Plus one restaurant keeps him busy enough. Between hosting and doing the administrative work like managing payroll and scheduling managers, it’s a demanding job.

“You cannot run this from a cellphone on a golf course,” he says. “A restaurant does not run itself.”

This summer, Raifstanger spent two months in the kitchen personally training a new chef. This employee, he says, has been with him since he was 15. He started as a dishwasher and is now in charge of the kitchen.

This new chef is only one of Raifstanger’s long-term employees. Others have been with him for 12 or 18 years. The Bar Manager started at Allyn’s almost 20 years ago. These loyal employees are one of the keys to his success. Keep good employees, he says. They have to be on track with the mission and culture of the business.

Good, fresh food and a little Cajun spice helps, too. And the other key to Allyn’s success might be the willingness to gamble everything on building a life in a community where everyone else is still just driving through.

Plan a visit
Allyn’s is open 11 a.m.–10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, and until 11p.m. on the weekends (the bar closes two hours later). Sunday Brunch is served from 11 a.m.–2 p.m. Go Metro with routes 25X, 29X, or 30X. For a real taste of Allyn’s Café culture, check out the Crawfish Boil and West Side Brewing tap takeover on August 23rd.

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Liz McEwan is a proud wife, mama, urbanite, musician and blogger. Follow her at The Walking Green and on twitter at @thewalkinggreen.