Staff Picks from CityBeat's 2014 Best Of Cincinnati guide, an annual manual to the best people, places, shops, eats and more Cincinnati has to offer — compiled by CityBeat readers and staff.
BEST ASIAN-INSPIRED KARAOKE
Recently ranked as one of the top 100 restaurants in the nation by OpenTable’s Diners’ Choice Awards, Kaze serves up delicious Japanese gastropub food throughout its dining room, bar and year-round beer garden. And while the food is great, Kaze also offers some great nightlife from frequent dance parties to their weekly Karaoke night, Karaoke Fantastic with Sean P. Hafer. Every Wednesday from 8 p.m. to midnight, get ready to belt out some Ace of Base while enjoying a crunchy scallop roll. Kaze, 1400 Vine St., Over-the-Rhine, 513-898-7991, kazeotr.com.
BEST FREE CONCERTS THAT WOULD COST MONEY ELSEWHERE
When promoting tours by national bands, publicists often contact CityBeat to request preview coverage and offer tickets to the show. But when the band is playing MOTR Pub and we tell the publicist we don’t need to be put on the guest list because all shows there are free, the usual response is, “Free?! Wow!” On many acts’ itineraries, a stop at MOTR is often the only freebie on the whole tour. While music fans in other cities paid $10 or more, locals who caught MOTR shows by artists like Mike Watt, Freedy Johnston, Tav Falco and Sebadoh didn’t have to pay a cent. There are many other great local clubs that present free shows on a regular basis, but none has a calendar as full of notable touring acts
BEST HOLE IN THE WALL WITH LOCAL ART AND MUSIC
Art and live music go together like rum and Coke, and Covington, Ky.’s Three Kings Bar brings all four — art, music, rum and Coke — together in one venue. Local artists exhibit their work (which is usually for sale) along the bar’s walls while local musicians perform on an intimate stage. Every Sunday, Three Kings even hosts their version of the bar staple: open mic night. Entitled the “Open Mic/Drink and Draw,” attendees are invited to use any of the provided instruments or art materials to create their own masterpiece. Or they can simply drink ‘til inspiration inevitably strikes. Three Kings Bar, 8 W. Pike St., Covington, Ky., 859-815-8252, facebook.com/threekingsbar.
BEST PLACE TO REHEARSE FOR AMATEUR NIGHT AT THE APOLLO
Eighty years ago, the world-famous Apollo Theater in New York City’s Harlem launched its “Amateur Night,” which helped kick off the careers of icons like Ella Fitzgerald and James Brown and set the stage for the success of TV talent shows like America’s Got Talent. Local performers convinced they could win an Apollo Amateur Night with ease might want to practice first at Head Rush Entertainment’s “Apollo @ The Greenwich” before booking that flight to NYC. Legendary Walnut Hills nightclub The Greenwich has been hosting the event every Wednesday, turning its stage over to an array of performers (singers, dancers, comedians, rappers, musicians, poets and more), young and old. Like a cross between an open mic night and a variety show, Apollo @ The Greenwich offers a unique and unpredictable night of entertainment at one of the city’s most unique (and enduring) clubs. The Greenwich, 2442 Gilbert Ave., Walnut Hills, 513-221-1151, the-greenwich.com.
BEST BREWERY IN WHICH TO EXPERIENCE LIVE MUSIC
Rhinegeist, one of Cincinnati’s newest breweries, not only has a vast warehouse space to brew their Cougar, Truth IPA and Ink beers, but the venue is large enough for them to throw rad parties that are open to the public. During Oktoberfest this past September, they invited patrons to wear lederhosen, play bags (i.e. cornhole), eat German food and listen to a few live bands play, pairing the beats with their beers. For the MidPoint Music Festival, they once again booked bands to play a shindig, and last month they hosted a Beerfest after-party.
They’re constantly throwing beer release parties and other themed events, so check their event page and dress accordingly. Rhinegeist, 1910 Elm St., Over-the-Rhine, rhinegeist.com.
BEST SPORTS BAR FOR METALHEADS AND PUNKS TO FREQUENT
It’s been a long time since Cincinnati’s local Metal and Punk scenes have had a venue that they could truly call home, but Covington, Ky.’s new Backstage Café (next to the Madison Theater) might be just what they’ve been looking for. While sports might be on the TVs during the day, at night the stage is filled with all manner of misfits. Tons of up-and-coming bands have squeezed onto the small stage and more are joining in all the time. Line-ups a mile long of the area’s loudest bands and cheap beer will keep the fans happy (even if the regulars are a little scared). Backstage Café, 724 Madison Ave. Covington, Ky., 859-491-2445.
BEST NEW NIGHT DOWNTOWN FOR HUNGRY JAZZ LOVERS
Though it’s far from the Jazz music wonderland it was decades ago, downtown Cincinnati still has a few great places to catch live Jazz on a regular basis. One of the best is Washington Platform Saloon & Restaurant, which celebrated the first anniversary of its Friday night live Jazz series last September. In honor of the anniversary, dozens of Cincinnati Jazz greats past and present (many of whom play there) gathered in front of the restaurant for a photo — shot by local legend Melvin Grier — in the spirit of the classic “A Great Day in Harlem” 1950s group photograph, which featured nearly 60 Jazz giants. Already beloved for its food (Cajun, seafood and more), Washington Platform’s music nights have been so popular, live Jazz was recently introduced on Saturday nights as well. Washington Platform Saloon & Restaurant, 1000 Elm St., Downtown, 513-421-0110, washingtonplatform.com.
BEST FREE POPCORN AT A BAR
Bars should always have good booze and good free snacks — emphasis on free. Downtown’s Mainstay Rock Bar places their popcorn popper conveniently next to the bar, with wooden bowls stacked on top of the popper to encase the fluffy, salty popcorn that eventually will be shoveled into your maw. The free popcorn comes in handy especially during the MidPoint Music Festival, when it’s midnight and you’re checking out a weird and loud band named Ghost Wolves and you’re starving and suddenly there’s free popcorn to subsist on. Thank God. (It should be noted Ei8ght Ball Brewing pops some pretty great free popcorn, too.) Mainstay Rock Bar, 301 W. Fifth St., Downtown, 513-721-7625, mainstayrockbar.com.
BEST BAR TO DRIVE YOUR BOAT UP TO
Summer time in Cincinnati means full-speed ahead on the Ohio River. The Ludlow Bromley Yacht Club is the perfect place to drive up and park your boat while enjoying all-American food and slinging back a cold one. But don’t let the words “yacht club” deter you. The extremely laid-back atmosphere is ideal to sit back and relax with a spectacular view of the riverbank. Once the sun goes down, the docked barge turns into a full-fledged bar with drink specials, live band events and dancing. The Ludlow Bromley Yacht Club, 860 Elm St., Ludlow, Ky., 859-291-8132, ludlowbromleyyachtclub.com.
BEST ’HOOD FOR PINBALL ACTION
Local pinball wizards who haven’t discovered the pinball haven developing in Over-the-Rhine, take note! At MOTR Pub you’ll find four pinball machines, including a few that are Rock-centric, like ones based on Metallica and AC/DC, and the creepy Funhouse game. A stone’s throw away, Brian Porter opened his pinball parlor last year. Porter’s Pinball Parlor showcases more than 15 machines, including Terminator 2, Indiana Jones and Playboy ones. Like MOTR, the machines only take old-fashioned quarters, so scrounge up some coins and hit the circuit. MOTR Pub, 1345 Main St., 513-381-6687, motrpub.com; Porter’s Pinball Parlor, 1334 Main St., 513-381-2136.
BEST SELECTION OF LOCAL BEERS (AND REGIONAL, NATIONAL) ON DRAFT AT A COLLEGE-Y BAR
One of the most recent additions to U-Square, the entertainment district developing next to the University of Cincinnati campus, is The Brass Tap, which has more than 40 quality beers on draft, including an entire selection dedicated to local finds like Rhinegeist, Mad Tree and Bad Tom. For a centrally located college bar, this place isn’t douche-y at all — it turns out college kids do like drinking beer other than Natty Lite. Even though the daily specials ($3 local drafts during happy hour!) are geared toward poor students, beerophiles are also welcome to take a seat at the long bar and pore over the long and detailed draft list. If you ask nicely, the bartenders will give you gratis samples of beer, which enables you to try an array of new suds. The Brass Tap, 251 Calhoun St., Clifton, 513-242-2337, brasstapbeerbar.com.
BEST EXCUSE NOT TO DRIVE TO NASHVILLE TO HEAR NASHVILLE BANDS
We lost The Greenhornes’ rhythm section and Peter Frampton to Nashville and enough’s enough — it’s time to reclaim our city. Noticing the trend of musicians leaving here to pursue a career in Music City, proprietor Clay Deaton opened Little Nashville in Newport, Ky., last year to bring a lot of Nashville-based acts to Northern Kentucky. They have live music most nights — Friday and Saturday nights are reserved exclusively for Nashville acts — and a full food menu, including a weekly crawfish boil. The next time you consider a four-hour drive to see a show in Nashville, think about staying on your own turf instead. Little Nashville of Newport, 828 Monmouth St., Newport, Ky., 859-415-0057, thelittlenashvilleofnewport.com.
BEST NEW LOUNGE FOR CLASSY COCKTAIL ADVENTURERS
The gorgeously decorated Obscura opened last year near the Aronoff Center, but it’s so much more than just a before-or-after spot for those attending events at the downtown venue. Especially if you’re a fan of unique cocktails. The lounge offers classic cocktails, many of which Obscura’s mixologists give truly unique twists. You can order quality coffee, tea, wine, straight-up classic cocktails and even appetizers and sweets, but the real reason to go is the atmosphere (classy but warm and welcoming) and the cool cocktail concoctions. You can have a Bloody Obscura (a Bloody Mary that can be made with Old Forester bourbon and has a dazzling array of spices) or a Clover Clubbed (a spin on the Clover Club, with fresh raspberries and topped with “berry muffin tea foam,” instead of the egg white used in the classic version). Obscura’s Cosmowobbleton, a “jellied” version of a Cosmopolitan created for the club by a noted Chicago mixologist, even scored national attention when Newsweek included it in a story about the rise of gelatin-based cocktails. We’ll never look at a Jell-O shot the same way ever again. Obscura, 645 Walnut St., Downtown, 513-421-3800, obscuracincinnati.com.
BEST HUB OF DIVERSE ELECTRONIC MUSIC
Located a stone’s throw from the University of Cincinnati, The Mad Frog is one of the longest-running live music clubs in the area. While still presenting performers from a wide range of genres (Rock, Hip Hop, Reggae, Salsa), in recent years, the venue has found a successful niche with its full slate of Electronic and Dance music shows. And we’re not just talking your standard one-DJ-pumping-House-music type of shows, but full-on events loaded with numerous turntablists and musicians exploring every shade of EDM. Besides recurring festival-esque events like Bass Sick and Up All Nite Productions’ “Cinci” showcases (like CinciGlow and CinciBass), the Frog also has a free “Cincy Showcase” night every Tuesday, exclusively spotlighting local artists. The Mad Frog, 1 E. McMillan St., Corryville, 513-784-9119, themadfrog.net.