Chances are if you’re a local Cincinnatian, you’ve experienced outdoor dining on the Ohio River at some point — probably downtown at The Banks or a spot just across the river, like Newport on the Levee. But you might not know that just about 20 minutes west, down Route 50, you can find some of the best riverfront dining the city has to offer.
Cabana on the River is a breezy, no frills (paper plates!) restaurant tucked away on some prime riverfront real estate on the West Side. On a recent overcast July Sunday, my boyfriend and I met my parents there for lunch. The open-air cabana offers a spacious dining area, filled with round outdoor tables, some of which are on an uncovered deck, but all with a view of the water. My dad remarked how it reminded him a bit of a vacation in Orlando, with the eatery’s vibrant teal and mauve accents and casual atmosphere.
Being that three of the four us have a dietary restriction — a vegetarian, a low-carb dieter and a gluten sensitivity — we had fears that at least one of us would be eating light for the afternoon. However, we were pleasantly surprised by the large and varied menu, with plenty of options for everyone. And our eager waitress was willing to make sure that everything was safe for our specific restrictions.
We started with four appetizers. The potato skins ($8.99) were pretty standard issue, just what one would expect. My personal favorites were the Fiesta Sticks ($7.99), a creative twist on mozzarella sticks. Lengths of spicy, melty nacho cheese were battered with a tri-color tortilla crust and fried. Crunchy on the outside and gooey on the inside with little bits of peppers in the melted orange cheese, they came with a zippy salsa on the side for dipping.
The grilled Cajun shrimp ($10.99) were large and lightly dusted with a Cajun seasoning, served on a skewer on a piece of pita bread. They came with a creamy and spicy sauce and were a close second, worth the premium price for the sizable portion. My parents, who spent many of their formative years in Mississippi, just a couple of hours from the bayou, gave them their stamp of approval. The pickle chips ($6.99) were battered with black pepper and flour, fried and served perfectly crisp with a side of chipotle ranch. Our only regret was that we tried just four of the 15 appetizers.
Choices for the main course were equally plentiful. My boyfriend ordered the Black & Bleu California Steak Salad ($13.99). The plate was a massive mound of mixed greens topped with perfectly cooked filet mignon, bacon, tomatoes and bleu cheese. He ordered it exactly off the menu and didn’t need to make any modifications for his gluten allergy. He had no complaints and even wolfed down the leftovers a few hours after returning home.
My dad elected to build his own salad and chose a Caesar topped with a hefty piece of grilled salmon ($12.99). His salad was just as large and satisfying.
My portobello mushroom sandwich ($8.99) was so tall I almost wondered if it was a mistake. The multigrain hamburger bun was packed with two large marinated portobello mushrooms, each with their own melty slice of provolone, lots of onions, lettuce, tomato and pickle. It was just as tasty as it was sloppy. The sauce served on the side was their chilisabi sauce, which tasted like horseradish with some other slightly spicy seasoning. I chose to upgrade my side from potato chips to a sizable mound of french fries ($1.99).
Mom ordered the haddock filet ($10.99). It looked to be about 12 inches of battered fish served on two thick slices of white bread. Plenty for one sandwich — and then another for dinner. She chose to upgrade to onion rings ($1.99) and we agreed that they could use a little more onion and a little less batter.
Cabana on the River also has a full bar and lots of bar seating. Drink specials are mostly rum-based with an island vibe, and they have an updated, large selection of premium and craft beers (including Hawaii’s craft Kona Brewing Company on tap), plus local selections from MadTree, Mt. Carmel and Rhinegeist.
Service overall was a little slower than we were used to. We couldn’t complain, though — the restaurant made up for it with the food, the view and relaxing atmosphere. If you’re due for a staycation this summer, Cabana on the River should be at the top of your list of places to spend a few leisurely hours — most weekend nights you can even catch a live band.
Cabana on the River
Go: 7445 Forbes Road, Sayler Park;
Hours: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Friday-Saturday; 11 a.m.-midnight Sunday.