I reverted back to increasing my Diner, Diners and Drives tally on my recent trip to Cincinnati. It was an easy call since three of them are less than a block away from each other on bustling Vine street. Over the course of two days I hit all three; one for breakfast, one for lunch and one for dinner.
When Guy Fieri was only 10 years old, WKRP in Cincinatti hit the air. I remember watching the short lived sitcom (four seasons to be exact) as a kid. It featured a group of misfit radio personalities at a radio station in the Ohio city. The cast, headed by Andy Travis (not to be mistaken for Randy Travis) featured the likes of Johnny Fever, Venus Flytrap and Jennifer Marlowe. Andy may have precluded the hipster movement by frequently donning plaid shirts and luscious locks. Howard Hesseman, who played Johnny Fever, went on have success as the lead in the sitcom Head of the Class and Loni Anderson will go down in history for certain features and for being remembered as Mrs. Burt Reynolds until the end of time.
In honour of this cult favorite, here’s an overview of Taste of Belgium, Bakersfield and Senate, three of Cincinnati’s Vine street triple D joints.
W- (Waffles and Wright).
Taste of Belgium boasts waffles done right so it seemed to be the ideal breakfast spot. The decor had the brick walls and tiled floor characteristic of Over-the-Rhine eateries. We were seated and greeted but a waiter with a definite chip (unfortunately not chocolate) on his shoulder. He was efficient but far from welcoming. I ordered a decent Americano and the McWaffle, a breakfast sandwich containing egg, bacon, cheese and served with a side of maple syrup. The waffle itself was far from the fluffy batter you might bake up at the free Hampton breakfast. It was much denser and more filling. It flirted with dryness but was helped by the syrup. The combination of everything made for a good but not remarkable bite that was a lot sweeter than the service.
Daniel Wright is the brainchild behind Senate, the street food pub which revolves around the ultimate street meat..the hotdog. In addition to tube steak (including a daily dog names after a celebrity), there are a number of items including bites, burgers and sandwiches. It had a good vibe highlighted by a long packed bar surrounded by tables. Since it was over twenty degrees, the front window/patio was open and I managed to score a seat overlooking the street. Our waitress was attentive although somewhat overshadowed by this dude in a vest and tie walking around like an..umm…senator. As tempting as the Mama June celebrity dog of the day was (you can imagine the toppings), I opted for the best selling trailer park burger, mainly because it was topped with Cincinnati’s own Grippo’s crushed BBQ chips atop a bacon wrapped dog and finished with slaw and american cheese. It was a delicious mess.
K-(Kentucky and Kibbles)
Bakersfield is a taqueria which is gradually expanding in all directions from it’s Cincinnati epicentre. Also focusing on Mexican food, the booze menu is expansive, not only including traditional tequila but also whisky from the neighbouring state of Kentucky. In fact, I was there on a Monday night which meant I could get a shot of Bulleit for $3. Add a $2 boot of PBR and I’m two thirds of my way to a George Thorogood song for $5. I felt bad to the bone. As for kibbles, the guacamole at Bakersfield was fresh and chunky (which I’m sure is Cincinnati style) and aggressively seasoned with garlic which was paired nicely with one of the best (and spicy margaritas) I’ve had in a while.
R- (Restaurants Over-the-Rhine)
Defined as one of the most historic neighbourhoods in the US, the Over-the-Rhine area of Cincinnati has deep German roots and architecture dating from the 19th century. Over the years, it has debilitated into one of the sketchiest area in the states. For example, the area was used as the backdrop for the 1991 movie “A Rage in Harlem” because of it’s resemblance to 1950’s Harlem. However, over the past decade or so, there has been major restoration, at least along the southern part of Vine St, resulting in a trendy neighbourhood full of shops and restaurants including the trio of triple D’s mentioned in this blog. I was speaking to a table of locals at Bakersfield and they confirmed this restoration story, telling me that crossing Liberty street to the North after dark was once a death wish but ven that is slowing changing. That said, I late took a drive north up Vine St.to check out the University of Cinicinnati and passed through one of the most decrepit neighbourhoods I remember, easily rivaling Michigan St. in Detroit, parts of Harlem and the worst part of San Francisco’s tenderloin district. Restaurants like Taste of Belgium, Senate and Bakersfield are part of the nucleus in a molecule of hope working through the celebration of food.
P (Pastor, Potstickers and Poutine)
The foundation of the Bakersfield menu is the taco and there are almost 10 to choose from. They pride themselves on making their own tortillas and ironically, that was the weakest part. I felt they tasted a little raw as if they were only fried on one side. They were nicely presented on a large tray with abundant fillings at a reasonable price point of $3-4 each. The pork belly pastor were a good representation and the spicy cochinita pibil and huitlacoche tacos were quite unique.
Meanwhile at Senate, the potstickers were full of extreme Asian flavours and the poutine was served with short rib and cheese and since a white gravy was used instead of the traditional (at least in Canadian terms) brown one, it was more creamy than squeaky and quite rich to say the least.
Based on my ongoing Guyz rating for diners, drive-ins and dives, none were a disaster but I’ll give top taste, service and vibe points to Senate. The vibe of all three were helped by the cool architecture but the buzz at Senate and Bakersfield was much better than the sleepiness and snarkiness of Taste of Belgium. Service wise, both Bakersfield and Senate were pretty good. Regarding the food, the Senate hot dogs, in addition to being pretty delicious, are a great concept especially with the rotating celebrity choice of the day. The Bakersfield guacamole was good and the tacos were average. Taste of Belgium served a decent breakfast.
In the end, Over-the-Rhine is a fun and buzzing area with a number of funky restaurants, shops and snacks. In fact, Vine Street may be the best thing in Cincinnati’s food scene since WKRP’s turkey bombing of the Pinedale mall on Thanksgiving in 1978.
Food- 4/5 Guyz
Service- 4/5 Guyz
Vibe- 4.5/5 Guys
Total- 12.5/15 Guyz
Food- 3.5/5 Guyz
Service- 4/5 Guyz
Vibe- 4/5 Guyz
Taste of Belgium
Food- 3.5/5 Guyz
Service- 3/5 Guyz
Vibe- 3/5 Guyz
Total- 9.5/15 Guyz