For more than six years, Suzanne McGarry searched throughout Cincinnati to find the ideal spot for the restaurant she dreamed of owning. When Honey — on Hamilton Avenue in Northside — closed earlier this year, she seized the opportunity.
“It needed a lot of work,” McGarry says, “but otherwise it seemed perfect.”
She wanted a medium-sized dining room in a building she could own, not lease, with plenty of parking in a neighborhood that felt welcoming.
A native of the Chicago area, McGarry marvels at how much Northside reminds her of the neighborhood she hails from, the Southside Chicago community of Hyde Park. She sees similarities in the diversity of people who live in the two neighborhoods: academics, journalists, students, folks from many different walks of life and all income levels. She believes Bistro Grace — named for her young granddaughter — fits wonderfully into the Northside scene.
She moved to Cincinnati in 2007 for a job as director of information technology for Christ Hospital; she still teaches a course in the health sciences department at Xavier University. But she always hoped to get back into the restaurant business that she had experienced in Chicago, where she worked in multiple capacities ranging from in kitchens to management. And after years of false starts and dead ends, she saw this property in Northside.
“Everything came together and it just felt right,” McGarry says. “It was the right location and the right time in my life to make a change.”
Giving up a salaried position as the head of a major hospital department for the risky restaurant business may seem like a bold choice, but she knew it was the right move.
“I love working with food, the interaction with people, and the constant energy of the restaurant business,” she says.
McGarry closed on the purchase Oct. 1 and then sunk thousands of dollars into kitchen and dining room renovations and repairs, installing a new stove, oven, tables, chairs and dishware; adding six feet to the bar; and completely redecorating and improving acoustics in the dining room. She and her team accomplished all that in less than two months in order to open on Nov. 29.
The restaurant interior has been transformed from beige-and-white — unchanged since it housed the original location of Boca more than 15 years ago — to a vibrant, multi-textured space with a tin ceiling and reclaimed barn wood along the back wall and extended bar. Most impressive is the lighting, not only the fixtures throughout the dining room but also the multi-colored, changeable lights on the high tin ceiling, designed and installed by Prestige, a company involved with Lumenocity at Music Hall this summer.
Food prices are mid-range, with appetizers and salads from about $6 to $14 for a bowl of mussels or Duck Poutine (a French-Canadian dish with “hand cut fries, duck confit, cheese curds and gravy”). Main courses start at $12 for a beef burger or a quinoa veggie burger and slide upward through chicken and scallops entrées ($16-$18) and top out at $21 for duck breast or grilled hangar steak.
We hesitated to put the kitchen and McGarry’s team of cooks to a test so soon after launch, but of course wanted to check out the food. Turns out, Bistro Grace was ready for prime time.
My dining partner (my husband) and I started with French onion soup ($6) and a generously portioned beet salad ($8) with almonds, goat cheese and orange-mint vinaigrette. General manager Melissa Hart recommended the soup, saying that both she and McGarry wanted a credible version of one of their favorites on their debut menu, and it was a winner.
For main dishes, I tried the Five-Spiced Duck Breast ($21), another generous portion, served with quinoa and spaghetti squash; my husband had the Airline Chicken Breast ($16) with coconut-mushroom sauce over asparagus spears. The quality of cooking in both entrées was impressive, and everything looked appetizing on the artsy, square plates.
The bar serves six local beers on tap at $5 a pint, with a couple dozen more by the bottle. Hart developed the beer list and worked with McGarry on a 45-bottle wine list, including 17 available by the glass. Eight “signature cocktails” round out the drinks list. We tried a couple of wines including a Pinot Gris from Oregon that went beautifully with the onion soup and a Rhone-style red blend from Joel Gott to accompany the duck.
In-town residents, especially those of Northside, Clifton and other nearby neighborhoods should welcome this highly promising addition to our dining scene.
Bistro GraceGo: 4034 Hamilton Ave., Northside
Hours: 4-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 4-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday