U Square at the Loop — the $80 million, 80,000-square-foot entertainment and apartment complex adjacent to University of Cincinnati in Clifton — has been slowly rolling out retail stores and restaurants since the spring and is set for its grand opening Thursday.
U Square covers two city blocks between McMillan and Calhoun streets, which are littered with a passel of new and old offerings. On McMillan, there are five Asian restaurants; on Calhoun, there are a couple of clothing stores (economical Rue 21 and pricier Altar’d State), a yogurt shop, 4EG’s third Keystone Bar & Grill location and hot dog spot Mr. Hanton’s Handwiches. Apartments and UC offices are also a part of the center, and Calhoun Residence Hall is a stone’s throw from these restaurants and bars.
At first it may seem like an oversaturation of restaurants, but because variety is the spice of life, having four sub shops and three Indian places at which to dine is probably better than being bereft of options. Chains tend to dominate the area, like the insipid Waffle House and Starbucks, but there’s also Lime Fresh Mexican Grill, a decent taco and burrito chain that offers happy hour and daily food specials; The Brass Tap, the soon-to-open Florida craft beer chain’s first Midwestern location; and another 4EG venture, the craft cocktail bar The St. Clair.
“Years and decades ago there was a really nice area in Short Vine — that’s kind of a bygone area,” says Dan Cronican, managing partner in 4EG and owner of Keystone Bar & Grill. “When we saw that development (U Square) going up, we thought it was definitely going to be something that would be successful and well-received from the population there, so we were pretty excited to be a part of it from the start.”
Keystone Clifton opened Fourth of July weekend and so far has exceeded 4EG’s expectations. What separates this location from Keystone Covington and Hyde Park is the building that houses it was built from the ground up, unlike the former two locations that are situated inside old buildings. This gave 4EG the ability to design a contemporary looking restaurant for their full-service “polished casual bar and grill” concept.
So far, Keystone Clifton is the most upscale restaurant at the Loop, with the others mainly catering to strapped-for-cash college kids.
“Obviously being right across the street from the university, college kids are definitely a part of that demographic, but our mentality wasn’t that we’re going to open up a college bar, so to speak,” Cronican says. “I think we’re upscale enough to attract the folks who may live in Gaslight (District) or work in any number of the hospitals up there, but at the same time, we have a value-conscious price point with our mac and cheese and our many drink and beer specials that can also appeal to a university student who may not have as deep as pockets as, say, a neurosurgeon.”
Akin to Keystone Clifton, The Brass Tap also wants to appeal to the fact there are seven hospitals within a one-mile radius. “We’ll have a night or two targeted toward the college crowd but, in general, our concept is pretty diverse,” Mic Foster, operating partner of The Brass Tap, says.
“And we also like the Clifton community itself, so we’ll focus a lot of our marketing and entertainment in their direction as well.”
Whereas The Brass Tap and Keystone Clifton want to draw the entire community in, Mr. Hanton’s will specifically cater to the tens of thousands of college kids. Brian Hinton and his wife, Awilda, started Hanton’s as a late-night hot dog cart a few years ago and it’s since evolved into a food truck based in Mount Adams; on July 8, they opened their first brick-and-mortar on Calhoun, sandwiched between Keystone Clifton and The Brass Tap. With the quick-service appeal of hot dogs, Hanton’s caters to a college kid’s grab-and-go philosophy.
“We kind of tried to set this up like a Chipotle,” Brian explains. “You’re in, you order and out you go. With the college students, that’s important because a lot of them are on the go and they don’t have a whole lot of time. Get in, get your food — they can have their lunch gone and on they’re way in 10 minutes.”
The Hintons found themselves at U Square after Brian approached 4EG with his hot dog idea, which they really liked — and invested in. “So they already had space here from the development and they said, ‘What do you guys think about opening a store right here on campus?’ For us, it was a no brainer,” Brian says.
Hanton’s has a big menu of gourmet hot dogs that could give Senate a run for their money. Hanton’s lobbied for a Coke Freestyle machine, and with Coke’s blessing were anointed as the first non-chain restaurant in town to have one. The Brass Tap doesn’t offer much food, so Hanton’s will allow online ordering and send a runner over to The Brass Tap to deliver handwiches like the Smokin’ Hot Chick (chicken-apple sausage and habanero mustard) and the Cincinnati Caviar (Cheez Whiz and goetta).
Cronican thinks the combination of Mr. Hanton’s
and 4EG’s Keystone and The St. Clair will result in a hat trick. “With having St. Clair you have your neighborhood tavern,” he says, “and Keystone Bar & Grill fulfills that full-service restaurant that appeals to a wide demographic. Then you have the Hanton’s, which fulfills a late night need. So those three concepts all next to each other, I think there’s something for everybody.”
The St. Clair’s tiny bar concocts $10 cocktails, but they also have happy hour specials including their signature Painkiller for $5 on Wednesdays. And even though it’s located next door to Keystone Clifton, The St. Clair exudes a different ambiance.
However, with so many places opening at U Square, should restaurateurs be worried about competition?
“We don’t look at it as competition,” Cronican says. “We look at it as everybody is bringing something different to the table. You have Mr. Hanton’s; you have, as far as restaurants are concerned, there’s Lime Fresh — they do burritos. There’s Hwy 55, which is a burger joint. There are a pretty wide variety of restaurants and concepts. I think we cover a lot of bases and I don’t necessarily look at it as competition — just as the more the merrier.”
The Brass Tap also doesn’t see other establishments as a threat.
“We like the idea of being a destination within a destination,” Foster says. “We’re a small footprint in only 2,600 square feet and so we’re really not big enough to drive the whole area on our own. The other establishments really help make it an attraction for everyone to come to. I’d really like to see people from outside of Clifton to come up and experience U Square.”
The Brass Tap was supposed to open in July, but construction issues set them back until Sept. 16. In the meantime, fans can “like” their Facebook page to receive an invitation for their private preview parties happening Sept. 13 and 14.
Foster got involved when he became interested in opening a craft beer bar, and while doing research he came across the Tampa-based The Brass Tap. He flew down to Florida and spent some time at the various locations and felt “it was a good fit (for Cincinnati).”
The Tap will have more than 200 craft bottles and 80 draft handles, with 22 of them being local beers, including newbies Rhinegeist and Double Barrel Brewery.
“The Cincinnati market is a relatively well-educated craft beer market,” Foster says. “People know their beer and like their beer.”
They will have a growler station, a trivia night, a long weekday happy hour and a Brew Crew rewards program. “Local is really important to us and we campaigned really hard for it,” Foster says. “And I think people will see it reflected in our store.”
UC begins its fall classes at the end of the month, and because the population in the neighborhood will explode, it remains to be seen how students and teachers moving back will affect U Square. Early indicators suggest U Square is already a success: Keystone Clifton, Lime Fresh and The St. Clair have been packed, and The Brass Tap already has more than 2,000 fans on Facebook and will surely attract denizens from all over the city. Supplied with an arsenal of good beer and food, U Square injects a much-needed adrenaline shot into Clifton and beyond.
Mr. Hanton’s Handwiches
Go: 249 Calhoun St., Clifton
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Wednesday, 11 a.m.-3 a.m. Thursday-Saturday
Keystone Bar and Grill
Go: 249 Calhoun St., Clifton
Hours: 11 a.m.-2:30 a.m. Monday-Friday, 10 a.m.-2:30 a.m. Saturday-Sunday
The St. Clair
Go: 245 Calhoun St., Clifton
Hours: 4 p.m.-2:30 a.m. daily
The Brass Tap
Go: 251 Calhoun St., Clifton
Hours: Noon-2 a.m. daily