CINCINNATI — When Olaf Scheil took over management of the Dunlap Café last spring, he planned on shaking things up a little – giving the endearingly divey, wood-paneled Over-the-Rhine bar and grill more of a German vibe.
It made perfect sense. After all, Scheil is known for his German food pop-up The Lübecker, which serves some of the best schnitzels, jager sauce and pickled red cabbage Cincinnati has offered since the late 1800s, when Over-the-Rhine was still German and German food was simply called “food.”
Then he started having second thoughts. After conferring with Bryan Vielhauer, who co-owns the spot with business partner Tim Pennington, they agreed: When it comes to the Dunlap, which has been on the corner of Dunlap and Henry streets since 1936, change might not be the best idea.
“The Dunlap is its own thing, with its own identity,” said Vielhauer. “Changing it from its current role as a dive bar with good-priced burgers and good cheap beer didn’t seem necessary.”
And so the menu remains an assortment of standard 21st-century diner fare – burgers and fries; bacon and eggs; club sandwiches and bean soup; $2 chili dogs and a hearty goetta, egg and cheese sandwich.
That decision to largely stay the course didn’t mean there wasn’t room for improvement.
Scheil, who grew up in Lübeck, Germany (hence the name of his pop-up), is quietly putting his imprint on the Dunlap. He offers occasional Lübecker pop-ups and other German-themed events, including throw-down parties for the German-heritage organization Cincideutsch.
He also sells T-shirts, hats and coffee mugs with the Lübecker insignia from the back of the bar, and he is encouraging his cooks to be more inventive by offering “burger of the week” and “wing of the week” specials, both of which are far flashier than the Dunlap’s traditional offerings.
Scheil and his crew have also painted the walls and done a bit of redecorating. (They’re in the process of cleaning up the bar’s famous beer can collection, which takes up an entire wall.)
Speaking of beer, this being 21st-century Cincinnati, they’re also upping their beer game, adding a list of local craft IPAs, pilsners and goses to the classic selection of PBRs, Hamm’s and Little Kings. The Dunlap is also the unofficial tap room of Off Track Brewing Co., an up-and-coming craft brewery that’s just across the street.
Located two blocks from Findlay Market, far from the crowds and cacophony of Vine or Main streets, the Dunlap is the oldest drinking establishment in Over-the-Rhine, which makes it a wonder why so many Cincinnatians haven’t heard of it. Then again, it’s always had a secrecy about it – the kind of place where people like to disappear to after a bad day at work or ghost their cubicles for a three-PBR lunch.
“People don’t ask a lot of questions at the Dunlap,” said Vielhauer. “It’s like ‘Cheers’: Sure, everyone knows your name, but they’re not going to say it out loud.”
FROZEN IN TIME
For Scheil, the Dunlap feels like a natural fit. After serving in the German Army and graduating law school, he spent several years working as the general manager of a German dive bar frequented by sailors, actors and artists – the same kind of varied clientele for which the Dunlap has long been known.
Like Tucker’s on Vine, the iconic Appalachian-migration-era diner just a few blocks away, the Dunlap is a mix of bearded brewers, grizzled academics and hard, yellow hats.
Like OTR itself, the place has persevered through rough patches, including the tragic tale of Dennis Garland, a patron who lived above the Dunlap. He was shot and killed after hurling a bar stool at an armed robber in 1982. A Cincinnati police detective named Clarence “Cid” Caesar ensured the burglar’s capture after copying his fingerprints from a potato chip bag he left at the bar.
While its rough-and-tumble years seem far behind it, the Dunlap still seems frozen in a certain place at a certain time – a time when Over-the-Rhine was still a landing spot for working-class immigrants and migrants rather than the polished entertainment destination it is today. There are accents here: French, Russian, German and Mexican. A few weeks ago, the lunch crowd included a librarian and a pastry chef, some workers from Rhinegeist Brewery around the corner and a small crew of construction workers.
Last week, a Russian woman walked in on a chilly afternoon and asked Scheil if he was serving his schnitzel today.
“No, not today,” Scheil said.
“Oh, no,” the Russian woman said.
“Soon,” Scheil said.
'THE DUNLAP IS ITS OWN THING'
It’s that sort of diversity that drew Vielhauer, who also owns nearby Decal Impressions, to the Dunlap back in the early aughts. He loved the mix of neighborhood regulars – the prostitutes and the police officers; the postal employees and the grain-factory workers.
The bar’s divey-ness and let-loose attitude also reminded him of the Bier Stube, his favorite bar when he attended Ohio State in the 1990s.
When the place came up for sale in 2012, he felt like he had to buy it to ensure its survival. And since most of his experience was at (instead of behind) the bar, he made sure Pennington, who had years of restaurant and bar experience, was on board.
“What we’ve managed to do is preserve a working-class bar for the people who work in this community,” Vielhauer said.
One might think that the Dunlap would be at a disadvantage, given the number of new restaurants and bars that continue to proliferate just across Liberty Street, nearby Rhinegeist and the resurgence of new restaurants around Findlay Market. Yet Vielhauer said business has never been better.
“It was never crowded like it is today,” he said, crediting the Cincinnati Bell Connector streetcar. “That public works project saved business in this part of OTR."
He also said contractors, planners and construction workers helped create a new generation of regulars, who are giving new life to an old dive bar many had long forgotten.
The Dunlap might be the last whisper of an Over-the-Rhine whose working class is now mostly comprised of those who are gutting the neighborhood’s old buildings and storefronts to make way for craft cocktail bars, luxury apartments and furniture boutiques. Still, as long as the Dunlap remains here, they’ll always have a place to grab a hot cup of coffee in the morning and a cheap beer after work.
For now, the Dunlap will remain the Dunlap. And that, according to Vielhauer, is all that matters.
“The Dunlap is its own thing,” he said. “We are just its caretakers.”
The Dunlap Café
1926 Dunlap St., Over-the-Rhine