The transformation of an infamous Cincinnati crime zone into one of the hippest dining strips in Ohio is an amazing narrative. It's a tale of accidental architectural preservation through abandonment and neglect. It's a saga of recapturing an all-but-forgotten past to design a better future. It's the story of Over-the-Rhine.
Boasting more than 900 registered structures, OTR is arguably (speculated by many, but not officially confirmed) the largest untampered historic district in the United States. With its dilapidated Italianate buildings (many Civil War-era) being slowly but surely restored, OTR-a pre-Prohibition German immigrant and brewery stronghold-is beginning a brilliant new chapter.
Its renovations are stunning. In small pockets, OTR's ornate and eccentric edifices painted in eye-popping colors hunch together in fanciful, storybook-type cityscapes. Several sport delightful murals (OTR has a thriving art scene). Many have become sophisticated, fun and wildly popular bars and restaurants.
Salazar is one of the best. Named for talented chef-owner Jose Salazar-who, in NYC, was an extern at stellar Jean-Georges and joined chef Thomas Keller's opening team at superior Per Se and Bouchon Bakery-the restaurant is an exciting 42-seater. Just as its setting blends elegant silver tree-branch wallpaper with steampunk-like light fixtures, Salazar's cuisine is refined yet assertive (and ditto for its creative cocktails and enticing wines).
Salazar's edgy, local-focused, multinational and surprisingly affordable menu varies seasonally, but some perennial favorites ($5 to $6) include: crispy-yet-creamy fried oyster sliders with kimchi, aioli and local radish greens; pimenton-smoked and crinkly dark-fried Brussels sprouts with a frothy and tangy yuzu emulsion; and blistered shishito peppers with a bright sambal-peanut vinaigrette and bonito flakes.
A short stroll around the block leads to Senate, a hot dog joint with white cloth napkins, a maitre d' and waiters who knowingly expound on this restaurant's sourcing, craft cocktails and fancy beers. Like most OTR rehabs, it's long, narrow, suave, endowed with vintage brick walls and often packed to its handsome rafters.
Rich and crisp duck fat fries cooked with rosemary and garlic ($6) make a terrific accompaniment for the mammoth and outstanding Korean dog (juicy short-rib meat and homemade kimchi play off quick pickles and a fantastic butterflied and grilled wiener, $11). Also on hand: crispy fried pig tails, lobster BLTs and one of "America's Ten Best Hot Dogs," according to Forbes-the Croque Madame with bechamel, poached egg and ham.
Only steps away is The Eagle, the best contemporary fried chicken eatery in the state. Locals will wait hours to enter its rowdy blues-juiced, rustically chic space-which bears splendid echoes of its former identity as an old post office. (The Eagle takes its name from the postal service logo.)
There's an ocean of beers and deservedly famous bloody marys ($9 for a spicy stein) but, most importantly, the chicken is amazing ($9 for a half-bird). Encasing its tender and juicy meat is a thin, crispy, peppery and nuanced crust bearing flavor-charged notes of herbs and spices.
Bold seasoning with a zingy edge also characterizes $4 sides like must-have tangy cheese grits and uncommonly dynamic succotash. For something sweet, try the Spoonbread (kernel-pocked cornbread) and irresistibly crusted sweet potatoes with baby marshmallows.
For something sweeter, you can't beat nearby Holtman's Donuts. They're all fabulous, but try the bacon-maple, apple fritter and red velvet with cream cheese frosting.
A visit to rambling Findlay Market (circa 1852, it's Ohio's oldest municipal market) is a must. Check out the tempting array of homemade sausages at Kroeger & Son's Meats, house-made goetta (think scrapple, but better) from Gramma Debbie's Kitchen, plus myriad European cheeses and 40 olive varieties at Silverglades (open since 1922).
About a block away is Rhinegeist Brewery. Situated in an old (circa 1895) beer bottling plant, it's a brick leviathan and party-time playground so gargantuan that, among communal seating, pingpong tables and enormous artworks, indoor wiffle ball league games are played.
There's also a duskier bar area with TVs, classic rock and about a dozen of Rhinegeist's 40 beer styles on tap. Your recommended $8 to $10 flight might include Ink (a dark-fruity imperial stout) or Saison Blue (made with wheat from great local bakery Blue Oven).
For something stiffer, head to Japp's Since 1879. As its title relates, Japp's has been around a while-but it used to be a salon and wig shop. Now it's a killer cocktail bar with elaborate weekly drinks and an uproarious, vintage-wig-store ambiance.
Yeah, Over-the Rhine is still rough around the edges. But places like these-and a new streetcar system (set to open autumn 2016) connecting it to nearby Downtown-demonstrate its amazing story is still being written.
G.A. Benton is a Columbus-based food critic for Columbus Alive and The Columbus Dispatch.
Photos by Jodi Miller