Go: 1203 Sycamore St., Over-the-Rhine
Hours: Lunch: 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Friday; dinner 5-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday and 5 p.m.-midnight Friday-Saturday; "After Dark" menu: 10 p.m.-1 a.m. Monday-Thursday and midnight-4 a.m. Friday-Saturday; brunch: 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday.
Prices: Moderate to expensive (depending on how hungry you are)
Payment: All major credit cards
Red Meat Alternatives: Falafel mini-burgers, mac & cheese and peas, perogies and more
Accessibility: Fully accessible
If stainless steel walls could talk, the diner at 12th and Sycamore would tell the story of two decades of change in Over-the-Rhine. One of the first marks of gentrification in the Main Street area when it opened in 1986, the diner might still be an architectural anomaly, but it's become a neighborhood landmark.
With the opening of Vinyl, a new generation has adopted the space. Owners Roula David and Michael Spaulding have poured creativity (and a good deal of money) into re-inventing the diner and giving the neighborhood a much-needed dose of optimism.
You might not notice the phrase "Change the City" subtly spelled out on the wallpaper, but the statement is in everything from the lineup of local DJs spinning Funk, Soul and Rock & Roll to the local-meets-world, high-meets-low-art menu. I'll come back to the food later.
But first, fashion. Servers wear gorgeous, asymmetrically detailed, diner-style dresses and button-downs designd by Brooklyn-based NatureVsFuture line.
Pale green, yellow and white color schemes are clean but not cold, with molded white chairs that are functional and playful. Booths are covered in a soft, suede-like fabric, and tabletops are made of reconstituted African grass.
You might have to pinch yourself to remember you're in the Midwest.
While most of Cincinnati is still discovering mojitos, Vinyl is making a Yuzu Bath ($9) with lemony yuzu juice and shochu (similar to vodka) served with shiso (Japanese basil). Of course, they also have Mojitos ($9), guava-flavored ones.
I was equally impressed by the non-alcoholic choices, which range from world juices to flavored waters to tea from Essencha in Oakley.
As for the edibles, the menu is a collage of cleverly conceived kitsch and world-fusion. Food comes on sticks, TV dinner trays or tapas-style plates for sharing. Fondue, tuna casserole, oyster shooters, sushi and perogies all on the same menu? I love it!
But here's where my job gets difficult: The first time I visited with a crew of food-crazy friends, the execution of these dishes was terrible, despite our wanting very much to like them.
Artisanal Corn Dogs ($11) with three flavors of sausages from Kroeger & Sons Meats (of Findlay Market) were cooked to death, and the presentation was sad. The portion -- equivalent to one sausage -- might not have seemed so skimpy if they hadn't been sloppily hacked into thirds, looking half-eaten. Finally, there was no corn -- just dog.
"Lollipops" of salmon, country-fried steak and shrimp were also overcooked and lacked seasoning.
My color-obsessed boyfriend was heartbroken when the Monochromatic Salad ($7) arrived and the tomatoes were plain old red ones instead of green like the cucumbers, snow peas, artichoke hearts and chives. They also weren't heirlooms, as listed on the menu.
We were all rooting for the mini-burgers, which come in six flavors and are served until 4 a.m. on weekends. Moroccan Chicken ($7) was flavorless and tough, so we tried Kobe Beef ($12), thinking it's difficult to mess up Kobe. But then I've never had Kobe well done before.
Chicken and Waffles ($19) looked great on that TV tray, but the chicken was tough and the waffles mushy. Everything in the other compartments was great: vinegar-stung collard greens and a tiny brownie from Embrace, real maple syrup and homemade chicken gravy.
The only unproblematic dish was a side of Yucca Balls and Sticks ($4), an exotic alternative to French fries. Ever since I shoveled a big one out of the ground in Costa Rica, I've been giddy about the potato-like root.
As the meal progressed, our reactions cycled through humor ("The shrimp taste like T-shirt!") to feeling insulted ("Nineteen bucks for tough chicken?") to disbelief ("Maybe we ordered wrong..."). Luckily, a bottle of Gruner Veltliner ($27) kept our spirits light.
Later I found out that the head chef hadn't been in the kitchen that night. Even so, Vinyl would do well to put more time into training, hire more experienced chefs or simplify the menu.
When the head chef was there on a follow-up visit, everything was excellent. Corn dogs had light corn breading and were juicy and spicy, while medium-rare Kobe burgers oozed that sweet, nutty flavor. We also tried Stacked Ribs ($12), which were fantastic, with vaguely Asian flavors of sour orange barbecue and sesame cucumber sticks. Finally, we enjoyed Deconstructed Tuna Casserole ($21), a twist on the "1950s housewife" classic with cooked-to-order tuna resting on flat noodles in creamy béchamel.
This time, I remembered to ask about desserts, and I'm glad -- they have all of my local favorites, from Take the Cake cupcakes to gelato and sorbet from Madison's at Findlay Market. (Have you had their lemon-basil sorbet? It kicks butt, in a light, delicate way.)
Vinyl has a lot of potential, so I'll definitely be back. But next time I'll order something small to test the waters before I commit to a feast. ©