When Joe Creighton opened The Rookwood Bar & Restaurant in 2008, he was met with naysayers suggesting things like the foundational craft cocktails of Rookwood’s bar menu were silly. Flash forward six years and craft drinks appear on local menus to a sickening degree. This month, Creighton and his partners are attempting to reinvent the diner scene in Cincinnati with Cheapside Café, a place that looks like nothing else in town — or anywhere else, for that matter.
Situated in the burgeoning Eighth Street Design District downtown, Cheapside took over an abandoned space that was once a gyro restaurant. The place isn’t huge — approximately 35 seats — but it’s the welcoming aesthetics that draw you in.
“I thought it would be cool to put the effort you put into a restaurant with cocktails, put that effort into a café, because I just don’t feel like there’s any café in the city doing that,” Creighton says.
The floors are white, shiny epoxy modeled after racecar driver Mario Andretti’s garage. The walls are also white, simultaneously exuding a ski lodge vibe mixed with a Zen-like quality. The tables, benches and coffee bar are fashioned from reclaimed pine from an old factory in Hamilton. Grooves were cut into the tables so they can click together with other tables like a jigsaw puzzle. They’re planning on populating the space with College Hill shop Fern Studio’s plants and will grow their own microgreens. It’s a minimalist approach — the opposite of Rookwood.
“We wanted to make sure we did something that looked different,” Creighton says.
“The Rookwood, for me, it’s beautiful and comforting, but it’s just visual overload,” adds Rom Wells, beverage director at Rookwood and one of the three partners of Cheapside.
There’s a lot of simplicity to the look of Cheapside, but it’s all in the details: fixed stools, Plumen lights, a triangular shelf piece above the coffee bar, white, childlike chairs. Wells adds his personal touch with hand-carved wooden spoons he made himself. Basically, the guys want customers to feel at home.
“I feel like the breakfast-lunch-coffee kind of daytime place that you could feel comfortable with getting good quality food at was kind of lacking in the city up until pretty recently,” Wells says.
Cheapside, named after the street intersecting east Eighth between Sycamore and Broadway, will only be open during the day (although there’s a possibility of evening events) and will cater to the designers and P&G employees who work in the area. “Everyone’s trying to do a cool, hip restaurant; we wanted to do something that serves a purpose,” Creighton says. Creighton and the team caught some flack back in the day for The Rookwood’s punk ethos. Customers were baffled the restaurant didn’t serve Budweiser and the menus were on clipboards, which is now de rigueur at a lot of trendy eateries.
“When you call Rookwood, the answering machine is Joan Jett [singing] ‘I don’t give damn about my bad reputation.’ Because when we first opened, it was sort of like everyone was questioning us,” Creighton says. “We had that moment when we’re like, ‘Fuck this. We’re going to do us and I hope to God people like it.’”
Former Nada chef and Rookwood and Cheapside partner Jon Mouch designed the menu for the café. The approach is healthy, quick-made sandwiches and salads — no greasy-spoon foods like fries and burgers. The food is “something you can eat every day” Creighton says.
Wells chimes in: “You’re not going to pay $8 for a sandwich and feel like you’re not getting your money’s worth.”
Sandwiches include smoked salmon, a breakfast sandwich with pimento cheese and a muffuletta with mortadella. They’ll also serve oatmeal, a smoked salmon Niçoise salad and tomato soup topped with crème fraiche, all in the $5-$11 price range. As for the coffee, Wells will be brewing espressos and cappuccinos made with local Deeper Roots Coffee beans and Wooster, Ohio’s Hartzler milk; he’ll also be making craft sodas instead of cocktails.
Unlike most restaurants these days, Cheapside eschews a social media presence. “We’re not trying to be the cool whatever,” Creighton says. “We’re not trying to hype it. Yes, we want people to come in here, but this is for this district.”
Being at the forefront of a new restaurant concept can take its toll. The guys are nervous about how people will react to their creation, but it’s all coming from a place of love for their city.
“You’re making this food, you’re making the drinks, you’re making the utensils that you’re eating with,” Wells says. “We put so much time and ourselves into the space. I want people to feel that when they walk in and sit down. I want people to realize that we tailor-made this to be a comfortable, inspiring place to be, to have a sandwich and a cup of coffee.”
is located at 326 E. Eighth St., Downtown, and will tentatively be open 7 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Saturday starting May 16. Follow them on Instagram: instagram.com/cheapsidecincinnati. cheapsidecafe.com