It’s pretty hard to pick a “best restaurant” in Cincinnati.
Ten years ago, if you’d have asked us what the 10 best restaurants were, it would have been easy—and we might not have even come up with 10. Now, with a renaissance in downtown Cincinnati, the embracing of local farms and the greater variety of amazing restaurants opening up around the Tristate, it’s pretty hard to pick. We took a variety of categories that we know you care about, and picked our 30 Very Best Restaurants: the ones who do what they do best. You’ll notice a few themes: fresh, often local, ingredients; a distinctive approach to food; and, occasionally, a sense of nostalgia. It’s not exclusively fine dining, but we did make sure that it’s local (and delicious). Tell us what you think.
Best New Restaurant
Jose Salazar, who worked under Thomas Keller and came to Cincinnati as the executive chef of the Palace a few years ago, has opened a casual, yet refined, spot tucked away on Republic Street in Over-the-Rhine. Whether you’re looking to share small bites, like perfect pork belly and shishito pepper skewers; or some cured meats, a nod to the original use of his restaurant space as a butcher shop; or if you’re looking for a full meal before an event at Music Hall, Salazar’s dishes are always delicious and beautiful.
Senate has received national recognition for its playful take on a hot dog, but one of the first restaurants in the newly rehabbed Gateway Quarter has a little secret: its burger. It’s simple, and everything a burger should be: Angus beef, caramelized onions, cheddar, lettuce, tomato and housemade pickles on a Brioche bun. As creative and delicious as the dogs are at Senate, Chef Wright’s simple burger is anything but basic.
Mac’s (three locations)
Mac’s original location on McMillan is a classic college pizza place: plenty of specials, plenty of beer. They’ve expanded both east and north, to Wooster Pike and Landen, taking their same, freshly made pizza to a wider audience. Not only do they have a delicious pepperoni pie, they mix things up with a Chicago Gyro pizza (topped, of course, with gyro meat and tzatziki) and also do a vegan pizza. Gluten free? Your friends won’t even know if you pick up one of their specialty pizzas made with a gluten-free crust.
Jimmy Gibson doesn’t mess around. He does everything in-house, from aging steaks to creating desserts (himself, he’s happy to point out), in an atmosphere that’s upscale, quirky, and not a bit stuffy. Gibson has the chops—pardon the pun—for steak, having been executive chef for Jeff Ruby Culinary Entertainment before opening his eponymous restaurant in the former Wah Mee downtown. His prime, bone-in rib-eye weighs in at 24 ounces, and is an experience in itself.
Tucked into Mainstrasse, around the corner from bustling bars and pubs, is Bouquet, an intimate restaurant run by Chef Stephen Williams and recently expanded from one floor to two (previously, he lived above the restaurant with his wife and front-of-house manager Jessica). It’s a great space for date night: a beautiful, walkable neighborhood; fresh, inventive food; a stunning wine list and great service.
Mazunte, in an unassuming strip mall in Oakley, is everything a good Mexican restaurant should be: no Americanized refried beans and “Mexican rice”, but instead a sharp focus on fresh, bold flavors, quality ingredients and quick service. Go there early—there is often a line—but it’s worth the wait. Chorizo tacos, fish tacos and fresh salsas are highlights, the recipes based on Josh Wamsley’s immersion in Mexican cuisine in 2010.
It’s humble: dishes are served on paper plates and you bus your own table, but this Indian eatery and bakery is a star, distinguishing itself by being entirely vegetarian and offering an array of Indian sweets that draw customers from as far as Chicago. Their chaat, a snacky Indian street food, particularly the papri chaat, is outstanding and I can’t help but finish my meal with a sweet, usually gulab jamun with a paneer cheesecake center. They’re just sweet enough; a good finish to a spicy meal.
Food with a View
Incline Public House
In a city of hills and valleys, there are some spectacular views. One is tucked into the hills of the west side, in the newly christened Incline District in Price Hill. Incline Public House features an extensive beer tap list as well as a menu of solid pub-style food. Enjoy some Grippos mac-and-cheese next to floor-to-ceiling windows and a view of downtown, or in nice weather, enjoy a fig and prosciutto pizza on their large patio. It’s a breathtaking view (and only about five minutes from downtown).
Despite our German roots, second largest Oktoberfest in the world and German neighborhoods, we don’t have a ton of German food. Enter Wunderbar, a restaurant in Covington that has you covered. From giant Bavarian pretzels to homemade sausages, pierogies from Babushka Pierogies and doner kebab, this is the real deal. Wash it all down with a beer from their rotating taps, and it’s just a little bit of Munich in Covington, Ky.
Mason has a great array of international food, and one of the newer additions is Phoenician Taverna, which features Lebanese classics. This is not a hole-in-the-wall gyro joint, but a white tablecloth experience with an enthusiastic and knowledgeable staff that can guide you past usual choices like hummus and tabbouleh with fresh-baked, light-as-air pita and into less familiar territory, like kibbeh nayeh (essentially a lamb tartare, served with “garlic whip”, which is as good on the kibbeh as it is on almost everything else) or fatteh bel (chicken, lamb or eggplant covered with yogurt sauce and pomegranate seeds).
Make your way down the stairs of Sotto, where you’ll find, amid dark recesses, some unexpected Italian. This isn’t a meatballs-and-pasta place: it’s more refined, yet still comfortable. The menu features bruschetta with goat cheese and honey, panzanella salad with burrata, silky polenta, and short rib cappellacci. Fresh pasta, top-notch (often local) ingredients, and knowledgeable service. It’s a great place for a date or a celebration—or just a simple night out.
Tapas, small plates—call them what you will, but they’re the best way to try a restaurant’s dishes. It’s easy to share a few between two people (or more for larger groups) so you can experience more of what a restaurant has to offer. Red Feather, with its seasonal menu (as well as super-seasonal specials: think softshell crab for the three weeks or so it’s in season), is designed around sharing: charcuterie, cheese boards, beet salad, tempura calamari and pork rillette (among others) can create a satisfying meal.
Sugar ‘n’ Spice
They say it’s the most important meal of the day, and there’s nothing better than classic, diner-style food done right, as they’ve been doing at Sugar ‘n’ Spice for over 75 years. Get a pile of wispy thin pancakes, giant omelets or the meat-laden Slaughterhouse Five (that’s a sausage link, a patty, smoked sausage, bacon and goetta, as well as eggs, toast and homefries—whew!). Sure, they have lunch items, but breakfast is where they truly shine.
People outside of Cincinnati tend to think of our chili first. Anytime we have out-of-town visitors, we’re asked about it—and we usually indulge. We focus on the smaller, mom-and-pop chili parlors, where you can get a coney or a three-way, but also double deckers and other unique creations. We’ll hop into Northern Kentucky for Dixie Chili (and maybe eat an Alligator as well), or head over to Camp Washington’s traditional diner atmosphere for their much-lauded chili. If we’re closer to the North, Blue Ash Chili is our favorite for a slaw dog or a six-way (chili, cheese, spaghetti, beans, onions, and fried jalapeno caps).
Blue Oven (various locations)
If you get to Findlay Market around 8 a.m. on a Saturday, you’ll see a line curling around the corner of the market house, full of people with cups of coffee in hand, on their phone, waiting for Blue Oven Bakery to open. It’s worth it: they’ve been raising the bar for artisan bread in the area since 2007. Standouts include their baguette, almond croissants and cherry-chocolate (if there are leftovers, it makes a mean bread pudding).
Cincinnati can call itself a food truck town—there are trucks that do everything from ice cream, to tacos, to waffles, to pizza and everything in between. The standout is Urban Grill (“Bacon built this city”), which features creative sandwiches that mostly feature Cincinnati’s signature ingredient: pork. Their menu is ever changing and often event or location specific, but try the Central Porkway (pork tenderloin, slaw, white sauce, bacon jam, onions and peppers) or the decadent Urban Mac, which includes griddled-crispy macaroni and cheese, bacon and pepper relish on a bun. It’s decadent, but delightful.
It’s a special occasion—wedding or birthday or retirement—and you need a cake. The local grocery store’s sheet cake won’t do. Maribelle, a cakery that’s been in business for over a decade, is probably best known for their wedding cakes, but their special occasion cakes and cupcakes are everyday stars. Need a custom flavor? They can probably accommodate, but they likely have one you’ll want out of their existing flavor list, like lemon almond pistachio, cookies and cream or banana pineapple.
Kaze, one of the largest restaurant spaces in Over-the-Rhine, has a secret: it has the best happy hour in the city. Two can easily have a couple of discounted specialty cocktails each and nibble on happy hour specials: dollar oysters, beef sliders, pork battera (a bit like sushi, but with crispy pork instead of raw fish) and ramen for about $30, with tip. It’s available in the spacious bar area and in good weather, on their outdoor patio, one of the best in the city. It’s a delicious, affordable urban oasis.
Goodfellas’ Pizza in Covington, and soon in Over-the-Rhine, looks like a typical, New York-style pizza joint: shotgun room, pizza ovens, a couple of tables and lots of slices. However, if you walk towards the back of the restaurant, you’ll discover a set of stairs that leads to one of the best cocktail bars in the city, and you’d never know it by walking by. Wiseguys features an extensive, well-crafted cocktail menu that has something to please everyone, from sweet and fruity to a killer Manhattan, as well as an extensive tap list of beers for the non-cocktail drinkers. It’s sedate, relaxed and welcoming—a hidden oasis on Mainstrasse.
Taste of Belgium
Ever since Taste of Belgium in Over-the-Rhine opened for brunch, there has been a line at the door at their opening, particularly on Sundays. It’s worth it—a McWaffle sandwich (a waffle split and filled with egg, cheese and bacon, with a side of maple syrup) and a cup of coffee might cure anything. You can also head up to their Clifton location, which is larger inside and has an extensive patio, with the same menu you love in Over-the-Rhine.
Straits of Malacca
Best sushi, best Thai—people in Cincinnati argue about this almost as much as they do their favorite chili. Leave your comfort zone and head to Mason for Straits of Malacca for Malaysian food. It will be familiar—Malaysian food is influenced by Chinese, Indian, Thai and many other countries. They feature a street food-inspired lunch menu and a fine dining dinner menu (Paul Liew worked for Jean-Robert de Cavel at Jean-Robert’s Table, as well as at other fine dining restaurants around the world). This is a great place to go with a group—grab multiple entrees and pass around the table to try all of the great flavors, from noodles to curry to roasted duck.
Park + Vine
You can take an avowed carnivore to Park + Vine and they’ll be happy, even though there’s no bite of meat in sight. Danny Korman’s store expanded in 2011 into a regular, beloved brunch and lunch spot on Main Street. Try the Rubenator on rye, with tempeh and vegan 1000 island dressing with a side of Raw Raw salad (kale and other good-for-you things in a vinaigrette). You won’t miss the meat.
Fast Workday Lunch
Fusian (various locations)
Fusian is becoming an empire of approachable, delicious sushi. The concept is simple: pick your rice (brown or white), wrap (soy or seaweed), a protein (raw, cooked or even vegetarian) and top it precisely the way you’d like for a custom sushi experience. It’s fun, it won’t leave you in a post-lunch coma and there are locations near many of the major office hubs downtown, in Hyde Park and in Kenwood. Eat it there or take it back to your office, just don’t miss their homemade gingerade to rev you up for the rest of the day.
This Batesville, Ind., restaurant does more than bring the farm to the table; it’s literally on a 250-acre working farm. The restaurant uses as much of the produce it grows as it can, and the place even has it own livestock, butcher house and smoker, so all of its delicious sausage, peperoni, bacon and meat is done in-house. The menu is seasonal, but you’ll find quality steak, chicken and even buffalo all year round.
Jean-Robert de Cavel
Cincinnati, at one point, had several four- and five-star restaurants, but by the time Jean-Robert de Cavel came to town, there was only one, and he continued The Maisonnette’s tradition of excellent service and food until it closed in 2005. Subsequently, he opened Jean-Robert at Pigall’s, which served as a training ground for chefs who now own their own restaurants across the city. Now with two restaurants: Jean-Robert’s Table and French Crust Cafe, he’s still influencing Cincinnati dining, and can be seen at nearly every food-related event, particularly ones with charitable components. His influence will long be felt in this city, and we’re richer for it.
Jeff Ruby’s (various restaurants)
There’s really no restaurant that is swankier than one of Jeff Ruby’s. Brass fixtures, tuxedoed waiters and a lady is always escorted to the restroom. If Ruby does anything, it’s service: from the beginning to the end, one of his restaurants is bound to make anyone feel special. Pair that service with some of the top talent in the city: Chefs Dave Taylor, Travis Maier, Martha Tiffany and Amy Guterba (among others), and you have a well-rounded, delicious and unique experience.
Best Intro to the City
Our readers voted Otto’s one of the best restaurants for out-of-towners. Many want to try chili and Graeter’s, but they need to get a sense of our community as well. Otto’s— with its eclectic décor, Mainstrasse location and menu of Southern favorites, as well as flatbreads and charcuterie— make for a place that gives people a taste of what our city is like and a launching point to explore the rest of the city.
Tano, an unexpected little spot in Loveland, is a favorite of locals and others who flock to this restaurant for lunch and dinner all week long and brunch on Sundays. They have a great dine-in menu, but would you expect them to have takeout? Everything from their brunch breakfast burrito to pork nachos to a six-ounce filet mignon is available packaged to enjoy at home. This is a great option for when you’re tired of calling your favorite pizza place.
Best Wine Selection
Tony Ricci knows steaks, wine and service. Along with his aged steaks, raw bar and Italian specialties, he features a well-priced selection of wines that has won awards that your server can expertly pair with your meal. We love the extensive by-the-glass selection: sometimes, you don’t want a whole bottle, but you still want to try distinctive, interesting wines.