Cincinnati is hosting the 2015 MLB All-Star Game this year at Great American Ball Park. I was in town the weekend of the game and had an opportunity to experience all the excitement that an All-Star Game brings to a mid-sized American city. While I had no intention of attending the actual game, I managed to experience a lot of great non-baseball events throughout the weekend. Most of my experience was centered around downtown’s historic Over-The-Rhine neighborhood, which in the past few years has become a hub of culture and activity for the city. What follows is a photo essay of my experience.
After flying into town Thursday, my adventure started Friday morning in downtown’s historic Over-The-Rhine district. Home to Cincinnati’s huge population of German immigrants 150 years ago, the streets are lined with beautiful 19th-century Italianate architecture. The neighborhood is thought to be the largest, most intact urban historic district in the United States. The Germans, famous for their love of beer, operated 23 breweries and hundreds of drinking establishments in OTR during the late-1800s. Prohibitionist, Carrie Nation, came to the city in 1902 with the intention of busting up saloons with her famous hatchet. She took one look at Vine Street, with 23 saloons between 12th and 13th street alone, and kept moving. “I would have dropped from exhaustion before I went one block,” she said.
Although Over-The-Rhine is in the midst of a massive gentrification effort, there are still many beautiful abandoned buildings ripe for restoration. One that caught my eye was the former Wielert’s Beer Garden at 1408 Vine Street. Once one of the largest and most majestic beer halls in the city, it closed at the start of prohibition in 1919. Currently owned by the city’s non-profit 3CDC development corporation, it seems only a matter of time until suds are spilling on the floorboards here again.
Pontiac Bourbon & BBQ
We spent most of Friday morning on Vine Street dodging drizzling summertime rain while checking out the numerous stores and boutiques that line the street. After working up an appetite for destruction, we stopped for lunch at Pontiac Bourbon & BBQ at 1403 Vine Street. The restaurant opened in January and specializes in what they describe as Ohio-style barbecue – something I didn’t know existed. The bar area was decorated with reclaimed wood, vinyl booths, neon signs, and taxidermy; all creating a cozy and modern atmosphere.
I had the pulled pork sandwich with crinkle fries and an IPA; all for about $20. The BBQ was excellent, but I was a little disappointed that none of the 10 or so beers they had on tap were local. They had to pour my favorite local beer, Rhinegeist Truth IPA, from a can. It was still delicious.
Taft’s Ale House
The next destination on our walking tour of Over-The-Rhine was Taft’s Ale House, two blocks off Vine at 1429 Race Street. The brewery and restaurant, named for 27th US President and Cincinnati native William Howard Taft, occupies the former St. Paul’s Evangelical Church. Constructed in 1850 but left abandoned since the 1980s, the historic structure underwent a massive multi-million dollar renovation before opening on baseball’s Opening Day this year.
The inside of Taft’s Ale House is gorgeous. The main floor, pictured above, features beer hall-style communal tables in the dining area with a view of the brewery along the side of the room. This allows you to enjoy your delicious ale while watching the Taft’s crew brew a new batch for the restaurant. The bar on this level is fittingly located at the rear of the room where the old church alter would have been. They reportedly brought in a priest to bless the first batch of beer. I didn’t try the food while I was there, but the tri-tip I saw looked as good as anything I’ve seen in Santa Maria.
Part of the charm of Taft’s Ale House is the attention to detail throughout the building. The gavel shaped pull taps at the main bar are a nod to William Howard Taft’s tenure on the Supreme Court of the United States.
The beer selection emphasized the fruity and light beers that are popular with the ladies. I steered clear of the frightening-sounding, Nellie’s Keylime Caribbean Ale, and instead went for something that tastes more like actual beer than a Florida dessert. I asked the bartender which of the two IPA’s on tap was closest to a west coast style citrusy IPA and he recommended Gavel Banger IPA. The flavor was a bit too mild for my tastes, but it was still a good brew to enjoy on a humid Cincinnati afternoon.
Later on Friday, we headed to beautiful downtown Norwood for the 2015 Volksfest beer festival on the grounds of the Listermann Brewing Company near Xavier University. Volk means “people” in German and the idea behind the festival was to celebrate Cincinnatians and their many fine craft breweries. The festival featured twenty different beers on tap at a time from local brewers Blank Slate, Fifty West, Christian Moerlein, Rivertown, Mt. Carmel, Madtree, Cellar Dweller, Wiedemann, Quaff Bros, Bad Tom Smith, Taft’s Ale House, Urban Artifact, Tap and Screw, Ei8ht Ball, and Braxton, among others. I sampled offerings from Dogberry, Rhinegeist, and Triple Digit. All were excellent.
It was raining when we first arrived but everyone was able to avoid the weather by congregating at the tables under the main tent. I’m not sure how Ohio smoking laws apply to an event like this, but I was a little shocked to find two middle aged assholes smoking cigars in the middle of the tent. Cigar smoke is disgusting in any setting, but it’s especially offensive at craft beer event where the odor is competing with your ability to taste the flavors of the beer.
Aside from the occasional assault from cigar smoke, the main tent was a great place to hang out. A band calling themselves “The Listermann Trio” performed excellent rockabilly that paired perfectly with the beer drinking atmosphere.
Dinner options at Volksfest were provided by several local Cincinnati food trucks. The “margherita” pizza for $8 from the Fireside Pizza Wagon was kind of a crime against margherita pizzas (sliced tomatoes?), but still hit the spot. Hey, it’s pizza, baby.
What better way to cap off a great day in Cincinnati then to head to Clifton to catch a show by up-and-coming Cincinnati psychedelic rock band Scientifick Adam.
The four-piece played a 40-minute set of spooky hard rock reminiscent of Mars Volta. I see big things in the future for these talented youngsters.
City Flea at Washington Park
We started Saturday morning back in Over-The-Rhine at the City Flee market at Washington Park. It was only 10:30 when we arrived but the neighborhood was already so packed with visitors that the huge parking garage under Washington Park was completely full. Located next to historic Cincinnati Music Hall (in the background of the above photo), Washington Park has played a major role in Over-The-Rhine’s recent revitalization. When I lived in Cincinnati 10 years ago, you would’t be caught dead in Washington Park even during daylight. It was a rundown shell of an urban park, populated by homeless transients, drug dealers, and muggers. All of that changed in 2012 when the city spent millions completely renovating the park into the model urban oasis it is today. Anchored by a large children’s playground and fountains, lush green lawns, and a bar area serving craft beer, it’s become one of the most popular destinations for visitors to downtown Cincinnati. It’s also located just two blocks away from bustling Vine Street.
City Flea is a monthly event held in Washington Park during warm months and features dozens of vendors selling everything from arts and crafts to vintage clothing. It might have had something to do with the timing of the All-Star Game, but one of the most common items I saw for sale were screen printed Cincinnati Reds or baseball themed tees. I also noticed that if you put the state of Ohio on almost anything, you can charge $30 for it. Cincinnatians love their sports teams and their state.
Christian Moerlein Malt House Taproom
All that flea marketing activity made us work up a thirst, so we headed over to the Moerlein Malt House Taproom at 1621 Moore Street. Christian Moerlein Brewing Co. was founded in 1853 and grew to become one of Cincinnati’s largest breweries until it fell victim to prohibition and closed in 1919. The brand was revived in 2004, becoming one Cincinnati’s early craft brewing pioneers. Although not located in any of the original Christian Moerlein buildings, the tap house operates in another historic former brewery in Over-The-Rhine. Moerlein isn’t my favorite of the Cincinnati craft beers, but their subterranean malt house might be one of the most charming places to drink one.
Also located within the Moerlein Taproom is Wiesenkoenig, a boutique that sells traditional German lederhosen and dirndl dresses. Wiesenkoenig is the official supplier of lederhosen for the Munich Oktoberfest and this Cincinnati store is their only location in North America. The fine leather lederhosen for sale in the store sell for $300-$400 if you’re interested in gearing up for the fest this year.
A trip to my hometown wouldn’t be complete without a visit with old friends. My good buddy, The Boy, invited me to a cookout at his house on Saturday afternoon. I always have to be careful with my grilling terminology – in Ohio it’s called a “cookout,” while in California it’s a “barbecue.” Using the wrong descriptor in the wrong location could cause severe confusion. For instance, if I told someone in Ohio I was having a “barbeque,” they would definitely assume that I was serving actual BBQ. But if I told someone in California I was having a “cookout” they wouldn’t know what the hell I was talking about. Anyhow, I had a great time seeing old friends at The Boy’s house and sampling various bourbons from his disturbingly extensive collection. As you can see above, The Boy has a bourbon problem.
I started off Sunday morning with a trip to the progressive Northside neighborhood. Known more for bars like the Northside Tavern and the Comet and record stores like Shake-It Records; they also have a few decent cafes. We grabbed a drip coffee and pastry from Sidewinder Cafe at 4181 Hamilton Avenue. When I was paying, the cashier accidentally dropped my credit card down the crack between the counter and the deli case and I had to wait several minutes while she and several employees frantically scrambled with iPhone flashlights to dig it out from under the counter. Luckily, they were able to retrieve my card and I was on my way back down to Over-The-Rhine.
We spend the morning of our last full day in Cincinnati at the historic Findlay Market in Over-The-Rhine; a place my grandparents used to take me when I was a young lad. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Findlay opened in 1852 and is the oldest continuously operating market in Ohio.
The market is lined by rows of colorful 19th-century buildings that house independent stores and restaurants. On weekends, vendors set up tents on the street outside the market.
The market building houses multiple vendors selling meat, fish, poultry, produce, flowers, cheese, deli, and carry out foods. They even serve local craft beer at a small cafe on the west end of the building.
White Castle and Skyline Chili
It would be impossible for me to visit Cincinnati without eating a steamy White Castle cheeseburger or a Skyline Chili 4-way. Neither restaurants have locations in California, so this is a real rarity for me.