I have such fond memories of Joe’s in a previous incarnation, as The Diner on Sycamore. Saturday nights, the girls and I would begin our evening with a few delicious nibbles, have some wine, then make our way up the hill to Milton’s, finally ending up at Fries (where many of us still end up). When I heard that Joe’s was opening, my good memories gave me high expectations. But, like projecting experiences with a former flame onto the present one, it’s not especially fair.
Diners have such potential. They are not pigeonholed into a particular culinary perspective, so they can experiment with ingredients and take classics like meatloaf, burgers, sandwiches and breakfast to a new level with unexpected ingredients and interpretations.
When I looked at Joe’s menu online in anticipation of our first visit, I imagined that the burgers and battered fish and chips would be like nothing I had ever tasted before. Unfortunately, the food was exactly as it reads — not creative and not innovative.
The mission of Joe’s Diner, however, is not to blow the minds of foodies in the city; it is to provide diners with food that “hits the spot,” as our server told us. Not a bad mission, but I liken that phrase to “He’s got a great personality” or “The house is charming.” We both know what they mean: Don’t get too excited.
I've eaten two meals at Joe’s.
On my first visit, my partner and I sat at the bar so we could watch the Reds game. While the service was friendly and attentive, the kitchen was functioning with only one cook on a Saturday night. (Two called in sick; can you imagine? In this economy?). There were many apologies around the dining room for food being late and, once the food arrived, it was forgettable. Under the circumstances, we went back to give it another try.
Can I blame the Reds for our second experience? They'd just lost a big series to the Cardinals, and, although feeling pretty dejected, we were hungry. To drown our sorrows, we started with a round of beers: three Stellas ($4 each) and one PBR ($2). I ordered the House Salad with homemade Balsamic Vinaigrette dressing ($3.95) and a Grilled Cheese with Tomato ($4.95). I was looking for a gooey, cheesy, decadent sandwich on crunchy sourdough bread. Instead, I got a warm cheese sandwich that didn’t spend enough time on the griddle. I might have forgiven this grilled cheese faux pas had there been homemade potato chips, but, alas, they were from a bag. Strike one.
My partner ordered the Vegetable Nachos ($6.95) and a Turkey Sandwich ($5.95). The nachos were pretty damn good, with chips smothered in warm beans, onions, jalapeños, red peppers, corn and shredded cheese that left me wondering why Joe’s doesn’t serve vegetarian chili. The Turkey Sandwich on sourdough could have been served on white bread for all we could tell. Though roasted in-house, the turkey was nothing to write home about, as it was as dry and as nondescript as the bread. Strike two.
Our friends ordered a bowl of the Texas Chili ($4.95) and the Buffalo Bleu Burger ($7.99). The chili was good — a little spicy and thick. Comforting. When I go to a place that has “Burgers!” with the exclamation point on the menu, I expect thick, juicy, hand-formed patties cooked medium rare for maximum enjoyment. Joe’s burgers are so thin that asking for anything but well done is pointless. Strike three.
Did Joe’s Diner fulfill its mission and “hit the spot”? Well, I was no longer hungry. Will I suggest it to hungry friends looking for a place for cheap eats and drinks? Probably.
There are many items that have the potential to hit it out of the park: Chicken and Waffles ($8.99), Jack Potts Cheddar Penne and Crab ($7.95) and Neon’s Chicago Style Dawg ($2.95), just to name a few. Just like our beloved Reds, sometimes a new restaurant needs to strike out a few times before it finds its groove and becomes something to talk about.
Go: 1203 Sycamore St., Over-the-Rhine
Hours: 7 a.m.-midnight Monday-Thursday; 7 a.m.-4 a.m. Friday-Saturday; 8 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday
Entrée Prices: $ 4.50-$11.99
Red Meat Alternatives: Varied
Accessibility: Fully accessible