Road Trip: Dayton dining guide
Rather than the world's grandest cities, it was little ol' Dayton, Ohio, that forged the imaginations, brainpower and gumption that'd look at a bicycle and then envision and build the first successful flying machine.
Of course the Wright Brothers are long gone, but I recently discovered a similar kind of "Gem City" (gotta love Dayton's nickname) can-do-ness moving a new generation of pioneers to propel the past into the future. Instead of accelerating themselves through the skies, though, these ambitious Daytonites are urging a once tired food and drink scene to boldly take wing and soar.
One smart way they're accomplishing this is by retaining the charm and character of old, even dilapidated buildings while drastically refurbishing and repurposing their interiors. Among other improvements, this has resulted in a fun, funky and fiercely local restaurant, a huge and exciting farmers market/food court and arguably the best-stocked bourbon bar ever in Ohio.
Olive, an urban dive (that's its actual name) is obviously a restaurant with a sense of humor and a feel for narrative, but it also comes with a motto: "local over import, labor over convenience, and service over everything."
When you go to the year-old, Mediterranean-leaning Olive-and you should-you'll need to find a green and white-tiled, White Castle-looking diner still bearing the name of its former inhabitant, Wympee. Inside this built-in-1938 shell, you'll discover a cute, cheery, sparkling clean and thoroughly modern, do-gooder eatery (extremely "green"-composting, etc.) that enjoys turning 21st-century dietary restrictions and healthy ingredients into riots of flavor; you'll also locate a delectable Saturday brunch.
Since the small and popular Olive (reservations recommended) is BYOB, I noticed conscientious brunchers toting in bottles of soon-to-become-mimosas cava (when mixed with Olive's freshly squeezed OJ).
From the large and inviting menu-divided into "breakfastish" and "lunchish" fare-my co-conspirator and I tried and loved several dishes. A gluten-free/vegan Socca ($11) was a crispy, chewy, nutty and pizza-like chickpea pancake topped with spinach, lemon zest, marinated tofu, plus roasted garlic, kalamatas and tomatoes.
A too-refined-for-its-title Paleo Platter ($16) corralled a bunless, lean but juicy, chargrilled local-pasture-fed-beef burger with fried leeks, a lovely over-easy local egg, extra-crispy bacon and a colorful medley of sweetly roasted vegetables.
An epiphanic Tuna Melt (a worth-it $14; served with two large, can't-lose sides) was erected with ahi meat, a wonderful aioli (homemade from raw, local eggs), white beans, onion salad and a superlative, crackly toasted ciabatta roll.
For dessert, we wisely said "I do" to a heaving slice of Olive's famous buttercream-frosted White Wedding Cake ($5).
After brunch, we strolled a couple blocks to the remarkable, local-food-intense Second Street Market (open Thursday-Sunday until 3 p.m.). Inhabiting a former freight train depot constructed in 1911, this long and narrow, vintage brick edifice now houses a wealth of farm-fresh goods, area-produced textiles and restaurant stalls. Among the dizzying selections are just-butchered hams, Ohio Proud relishes, fruit butters, alpaca sweaters, organic amaranth pasta, white coconut balsamic vinegar, arepas, pad Thai and New Zealand-style meat pies.
Rimmed by Civil War-era houses, the historic Oregon District crams a lot into a few blocks. There's a hipster hat shop (Brim), a terrific little edgy art and vintage clothes store (Clash), a must-visit, beards-and-tats-happy music club/popular eatery (Blind Bob's) where local rock stars like Guided By Voices and Motel Beds play (and everyone loves the pickle soup), plus restaurants like beloved Thai 9 and the newish Roost.
Roost serves beautiful, creative and highly impressive modern Italian-influenced, often agrodolce-accented dishes like perfect sea salt-crusted scallops ($9) atop a brilliant, ginger-kissed serrano pepper and onion marmellata offset by a citrusy carrot salad; or housemade tagliatelle ($17) with housemade chorizo, roasted garlic, crab claw meat and Calabrian chilies. We also loved a warm mushroom salad ($9), delicate Duck Crespelle ($24, with housemade ricotta) and a boldly haunting (vegan!) Spaghetti alla Ceci ($14).
Closer to the University of Dayton, locals dig the brash but comforting grub from a newly converted 19th-century fire station called Jimmie's Ladder 11. For more sophisticated fare (like red trout with brown butter, purple spinach and pomme puree or crispy duck with sweet potato gnocchi, mushrooms and pistachio cream) they head to Coco's Bistro, recently re-located into an expansive, formerly abandoned industrial space.
For an unaltered blast-from-the-past (because man and woman cannot live on newness alone), Daytonites go to the classic Pine Club steakhouse-and so did we.
Lauded by Saveur and Gourmet magazines and championed by Splendid Table/Roadfood's Jane and Michael Stern ("There is no better steak in the USA"), this dark, cozy and delightfully unfancy, 65-year-old pine-paneled restaurant is mindblowingly frozen in time.
So don't expect credit cards or reservations to be accepted-even President Bush had to wait-but do expect: a great made-in-Dayton Buckeye Vodka martini (an understandable modern concession); semi-sweet, oniony and thoroughly giggly "red-and-blue" dressed iceberg salads loaded with blue cheese; charred, phenomenally tender and juicy, cut-and-aged-in-house strip steaks, and almost delicate giant hamburgers, all rife with uncommonly pure beef flavor; huge and puffy potato and onion pancakes; jammy-sweet stewed tomatoes topped with crunchy croutons; and big, silly smiles that will last for hours.
The perfect nightcap after that retro feast can be had at the nearby Century Bar. Yet another recently opened/rehabbed dive, underneath a stunning stained glass light well and jaw-dropping carved wood (which includes ship-like figureheads!) are 76 bourbons such as Hudson Baby, 20 year-old Pappy Van Winkle and a heady E.H. Taylor collection. Sip on one and plan another trip to old-new Dayton.
Food critic G.A. Benton blogs at columbusalive.com
Where to Go
416 E. Third St., Dayton
Second Street Market
600 E. Second St., Dayton
524 E. Fifth St., Dayton
The Pine Club
1926 Brown St., Dayton
10 S. Jefferson St., Dayton