Chain restaurants come and go, but favorite neighborhood spots have an appeal that transcends flashy marketing campaigns and trendy food fads. Cincinnati is blessed with many neighborhood gems, from family-friendly to corner dives.
The common denominator in what defines a neighborhood spot is neither the uncomplicated menu of burgers and sandwiches -- although most have them -- nor the simple décor. No, the common theme is comfort. From the food to the service to the surroundings, including the other patrons, what truly makes a spot a neighborhood gem is how good the folks feel who visit it.
At SALEM GARDENS in Anderson Township, we felt like we fit right in. Even though we're West-siders who sneaked across the border for some of the Gardens' famous wings, we were treated like long-time friends. In fact, every time we've visited, we've run into the same friendly server, who goes above and beyond to keep us happy.
There's not much to say about the décor. The place is usually very dark, with the main dining room simply four-top tables and a few booths surrounded by a couple TVs. On all of our stays, the room was usually packed and noisy with laughter and conversation from the many families, most with young children.
Even though the Gardens has the feel of a bar, the fact that it attracts so many families with children isn't surprising: The simple, inexpensive menu is appealing to parents and kids alike. Appetizers consist of mostly fried stuff: Mozzarella Sticks ($4.75), Chicken Fingers ($4.75) and the famous Wings ($5.25), which my husband swears are probably the best in the city. Sandwiches are kid friendly, too, and include burgers ($2.50-$5.95), grilled Ham and Cheese ($3), grilled chicken ($4) and the Banquet Basket ($5.50), a fried haddock sandwich with fries and slaw. The food isn't especially memorable, except for maybe the wings -- the Gardens has won Best of Cincinnati awards for its burgers -- but it's reliably decent and cheap.
Across town and across the railroad tracks at Glendale's FRIENDLY STOP, the name says it all.
Although there's not much room here for diners versus drinkers at the bar, the place was still bustling on the weekday night we visited. Like Salem Gardens, The Friendly Stop appeals to families, couples and drinkin' loiterers, too. On this night we were surrounded by a group of women -- looked like "girls' night out" in Glendale -- a young couple, and a dad and daughter. One server hustled as best she could to take care of us all.
Décor includes flea market finds and Glendale memora-bilia -- from an old Glendale fire sign to the stadium-style seats (old Crosley seats?) we dined in. We especially liked the dollar draft beers and sucked down a couple of those with our plate of Garbage Nachos ($5.50), a completely indulgent mix of chili, shredded lettuce, tomatoes, onions and sour cream. It was disgusting and delicious.
The menu sparks some similarity with Salem Gardens: burgers, sandwiches and a few fried appetizers, but I think the food was much better here. The C.B.S. (grilled chicken breast sandwich, $5.50) was huge. Our friends ordered theirs Cajun style, and they were loaded with seasoning. My husband wasn't as enthusiastic about his Fried Chicken Sandwich ($4.25). He thought it was probably a frozen cutlet, deep-fried a little too long. I blew my New Year's resolution on Bubba's B.L.T. ($3.95), a delicious, messy, BLT grilled with provolone on an upside-down bun. We all devoured our Cajun fries, which were perfectly cooked and seasoned.
The fun atmosphere and good food will more than likely beckon us back, especially for dollar drafts.
The MARKET STREET GRILLE in Harrison, although a little more upscale than others, is still a neighborhood favorite in my book. Not too many folks know about this place, but they should.
I discovered it looking for a quick spot to grab lunch and finish some paperwork during the week while in Harrison and was impressed by the friendly service and delicious food. Soon thereafter, I found myself making excuses to do more business west of town.
Tucked in the heart of the business district in downtown Harrison, the Market Street Grille would offer a great spot to end a day of antiquing at local shops. Although I couldn't talk my husband into the antiquing part, I could lure him to Harrison for the Grille's impressive selection of draft beers: Guinness, Bass, a Barrelhouse Nut Brown Ale, Honey Brown Lager and a few others in a full, cold pint for a fair price ($2.50-$3.75).
The menu is much more extensive than most neighborhood spots. Yes, it offers burgers, sandwiches and appetizers, but much more, too. We started with the Chicken Satay ($3.95) appetizer, described as three marinated chicken skewers with Thai peanut sauce. We actually received a plate-sized portion of delicious marinated chicken strips (minus the skewers) and several hunks of fresh bread to soak up the sauce. My Fish and Chips Dinner ($10.95) consisted of three huge beer-battered filets and crispy fries. Although I have yet to find any that can compare with the fish and chips at Nicholson's downtown, I'd rank the Grille's right behind them. And far better than those at a few popular Irish pubs.
Soups are homemade here daily and are delicious. Ditto for the salad dressings.
Don't get me wrong -- I'm happy to see all the new restaurants opening up in Cincinnati. But now and then, nothing satisfies like an old, comfortable and reliable neighborhood favorite.
Being a resident of the neighborhood is not a requirement and, fortunately, Cincinnati has many diverse neighborhoods to explore. ©
Go: 6396 Salem Road, Anderson Twp.
Hours: Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-2:30 a.m.; Sundays, noon-midnight
Payment: Major credit cards
Vegetarian Friendliness: Not much here soft pretzels, grilled cheese
Other: Carryout available
The Friendly Stop
Go: 985 Congress Ave., Glendale
Hours: Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-2 a.m.; Sundays, noon-9 p.m. (bar until midnight)
Vegetarian Friendliness: Fried appetizers, grilled cheese, grilled portabella, side salad
Other: Carryout available
Market Street Grille
Go: 205 Harrison Ave., Harrison
Hours: Tuesday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sunday brunch, 10 a.m.-2 p.m., Sunday Dinner, 2-8 p.m.
Payment: Major Credit Cards
Vegetarian Friendliness: Hummus, grilled portabella, salads and baked potatoes, pastas, black beans and rice, fresh fruit plate
Other: Carryout available. Private party room available.