The 'gastrofication' of OTR: A bittersweet bite to the restaurant boom

CINCINNATI -- Here’s one way to measure the status of Over-the-Rhine’s evolution: Stand at the intersection of Vine and 15th streets and soak up the views north and south.

Facing south, urban renewal is anchored by a dozen trendy restaurants and bars. Make a 180-degree turn and see a snapshot of the poverty, neglect and drug use that have plagued the neighborhood for at least a  generation. This is the bittersweet of gentrification.

Those who pay attention to the eat scene—namely, Cincinnati’s discerning food bloggers—are excited by OTR eateries planned to open in the coming months. These same keen palates are also, to varied degrees, sour on a side-by-side trend: This growing bounty of high- to middle-brow outposts ignores and squeezes out elements of OTR’s storied culture and character.     

Call it gastrofication.

“I see it as pushing out the poverty to other places,” said Heather Johnson, better known in her blogging life as The Food Hussy. Johnson’s observations stem from her volunteerism with OTR’s shelters and rehab programs.

“It’s great the neighborhood is being renovated, but there is that hipster vibe that ‘I wanna be at the coolest place and I’m going to wait two hours before I can eat,’” Johnson said. “There’s not a lot of street food, not a lot of affordable food, not a lot of quick options. I think that’s kinda the piece that’s missing. We don’t need another fancy sushi place.”

Laura Anold agreed.

“You want some place that’s going to be (you’re) out in 10 minutes and you won’t be tempted by a margarita,” said Arnold, who, with her husband, David, lives in Downtown and blogs as Cincinnati Nomerati.

“We got into Bakersfield early on, and it’s gotten to the point where you can’t even get in,” she said. “You need, like, a 2:30 p.m. reservation on a Saturday.”

Julie Niesen-Gosdin, who lives in OTR and may be better known to foodies as blogger  Wine Me Dine Me, added:

“We don’t have a lot of price points. That would be my only complaint,” Gosdin said. 

“I get this complaint a lot—people saying they would love to spend just $10 on dinner,” she said. “And now we’re getting a whole lotta' upscale condos, and I’m wondering how that’s going to affect the variety.”

The current variety, by some measures, is wide: Asian, Mexican, Mediterranean, seafood, pizza by design or by the slice and all the short ribs and fried chicken you can wrap your bacon around. Still, vast regions of the globe are unrepresented in Over-the-Rhine’s food fare—Africa, the Middle East and South America, to name just three continents, along with India or name-your-island. Outside of Findlay Market, where several proprietors have strong ethnic leanings, the traces of regional authenticity among OTR's eateries are subsumed by notions of what Cincinnatians are ready to embrace.

Gosdin noted that Quon Hapa, which specializes in Asian seafood, places an asterisk on its menu, a warning next to the fertilized duck egg that this “item is exotic—enjoy at your own risk.” Authenticity isn’t the point, adds Gosdin, who is quick to rattle off the names of a half-dozen restaurants “all doing really interesting food.”

“I look at Quon Hapa and Kaze as reflections of what’s going on on the coasts. It’s certainly not like the Thai food you’ll find in a basement in Los Angeles,” Gosdin said. “Bakersfield is not super authentic Mexican and it’s not supposed to be."

Chance Takers and Patience Needed

None of this existed seven years ago, when 3CDC—Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation—tested the condo market at 12th and Vine streets with a hundred upper-floor units. That same year, at the ground level below, the founders of Lavomatic—Marilyn and Martin Wade and chef Jean-Robert de Cavel—took a chance on beleaguered Over-the-Rhine. Not long after, Senate opened across the street.

3CDC and entrepreneurs have had a symbiotic relationship ever since, renovating and reinventing Vine Street northward and, the effects rippling west to Washington Park and east to Sycamore Street. Developers and restaurateurs no longer see OTR as a risk but as a canvas of imagination and inevitability.

Anastasia Mileham, vice president of marketing and communications with 3CDC, applauds the diversity of fare and price points among OTR's restaurants, particularly in context with the timeline of redevelopment. Mileham talks of the need to develop the "24-hour neighborhood," serving office workers by day and residents at night.

Strong retail and residential bases are also early in development in OTR, Mileham said, and both are factors in the quality and variety of the neighborhood's restaurants.

Her advice for anyone looking for greater variety? Patience.

"Look at The Eagle—you can get chicken there as cheaply as you can at Colonel Sanders," she said. "We are starting to see a healthy mix of the sit down versus the deli and carry out. Remember, it really hasn’t been that many years people have been patronizing this neighborhood, so it’s still very much an evolving neighborhood."

Over-the-Rhine's Chamber of Commerce is also adapting to meet the neighborhood's ever-changing shifts. Though the chamber has been around for 30 years, only last year did leaders revamp their Web site to, among other goals, better help people find the neighborhood's hidden treasures.

"Tucker’s and Alabama are definitely gems in the neighborhood that have been around for a long time, and they definitely see an increased interest when a blogger writes about them or get media attention," said Emilie Johnson, president of the OTR Chamber. "But for us, the overall brand is OTR. It's about broadening minds to all that is down here."

Risky Beginnings

“The initial businesses that went in there were assuming a lot of risk. The neighborhood was unproven, and they needed a certain return,” David Arnold said, explaining the relatively high price points for OTR’s earliest restaurants.

“Five to seven years ago, a bank would say you’re crazy to open a restaurant in OTR. Today, it’s a slam dunk,” he said. “I think when it becomes more mainstream and less risky, other kinds of businesses will be able to afford to move in, and you’ll see more places with lower prices.”

Illustrating that is the Gomez Salsa, essentially a taco truck without the motor, hoping to open a storefront on 12th Street by the end of May. Gomez Salsa raised some of its startup money through an online crowdfunding campaign. A better litmus for how far OTR has come might be Alabama Fish Bar, on the northwest corner of Liberty and Race streets. This is a part of OTR untouched by redevelopment and, generally, overlooked by those coming into OTR from elsewhere looking for food and drinks.

“It’s tremendous. People going to the Eagle aren’t going there,” Gosdin said of Alabama. “Tucker’s (on Vine and Green streets) has been there for eons and the clientele is the most diverse of any restaurant in OTR.”

Johnson points to Venice on Vine Pizza as another hopeful beacon for the neighborhood. The shop makes an effort to hire people with histories of substance abuse or legal problems, starting them in the back of the house and training them to move up to hosts and servers.

“They’re working with people in the neighborhood and giving them a chance,” she said. “I wouldn’t say they’re succeeding by leaps and bounds, but I wish we’d see more (restaurateurs) doing things like this in the neighborhood.”

The bloggers cite Findlay Market as a potential socio-economic bridge, particularly during warm-weather months, and hope to see surrounding redevelopment.

“(Eateries inside Findlay) are more affordable and have more of a mixture of people who come in and people who live in the area,” she said. “But it’s so sad when you go to Findlay—to see one side (of the market) all developed and the other is all shut down and boarded up.”

Another pulse point of the neighborhood, Gosdin said, is the Kroger store sitting at the current progress line of Vine Street’s rejuvenation. Restaurants and new residents have raised the expectations of what shoppers can expect from a grocery store, Gosdin said, and the Kroger in OTR has responded.

“I remember the first time I went there, they didn’t have a whole lot—just prepackaged food and not a lot of great produce. When they talk about ‘food deserts,’ I was like, ‘OK, I understand,” she said. “And over the years, I’ve popped in to pick up flour and sundry items, and it’s just gotten better and better. Now I can go in there and pick up everything I need for dinner.

“Kroger is just as important to the development of OTR—more so—than Kaze is,” she added. “OTR needs more than restaurants. It needs amenities for people who already live there—a dry cleaner, a flower shop, or even retail. They all work together.”

Map contributors: Jane Andreasik

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