Cincinnatians take great pride in their singularly unique versions of chili, barbecue sauce, ice cream and breakfast meat, among other tasty dishes. If you want to eat where locals go to enjoy such things while you are visiting Cincinnati, I would advise you to head to the parks along the Ohio River, Fountain Square or Over-the-Rhine Historic Neighborhood for the best restaurants in Cincinnati.
Best Restaurants in Cincinnati
Montgomery Inn Boathouse
Montgomery Inn Boathouse, located within sight of the Theodore M Berry International Friendship Park, has a 700-seat capacity and a sweeping view of the river. The floor-to-ceiling windows take full advantage of the sights along the Ohio River, and the décor uses lots of wood, mirrors, sports memorabilia and the color red. After all, the Cincinnati Reds have thousands of avid fans in this town.
Ted and Matula Gregory opened the first Montgomery Inn location in 1951. The Gregory family expanded to the Boathouse site in 1989 and later to Fort Mitchell, Kentucky. Ted died in 2001, but Matula is still living, and her recipes for meatloaf and baked beans, using the Montgomery Inn Barbecue Sauce of course, are on the website for all to enjoy.
The specialty at Montgomery Inn is undoubtedly the ribs, and the cook staff prepares more than 500,000 pounds of them every year.
Every diner gets a bib, because, in the words of a savvy server, “You’re either sloppy or you’re a pro” when it comes to eating ribs. There are no white tablecloths, and the napkins are black. Here, it is all about the sauce!
Celebrities such as Johnny Cash, Dinah Shore, Bob Hope, Britney Spears, Bill Cosby and Cameron Diaz have enjoyed the offerings at the original Montgomery Inn or at the Boathouse, and it is easy to imagine regular sightings of Reds baseball players or Bengals football stars coming through the front door. If you can’t make it to Cincinnati soon, then feel free to take advantage of their mail order service which has been going strong since 1994.
Graeter’s Ice Cream Store
In Fountain Square, you will find a Graeter’s Ice Cream store, which tempts customers with one of Cincinnati’s great desserts. Graeter’s uses a French Pot Process dating back over a hundred years. The method, freezing in 2 ½-gallon batches, then hand-packing into pint containers, makes it even more special. Available in a variety of flavors, try their signature Black Raspberry Chocolate Chip, with the chocolate broken into generous chunks.
You can find Graeter’s retail stores throughout Ohio, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Illinois, Indiana and Pennsylvania, plus it is distributed to selected grocery stores throughout the United States.
For breakfast, lunch or dinner, walk across the street from the fountain to Hathaway’s Diner on the first floor of Carew Tower. In this 1950’s-style diner you can sample another Cincinnati favorite, this one with a German origin, called goetta (“get-uh”).
It is a mixture of pork, beef, steel-cut oats, onions and spices that is fried and generally served for breakfast. Think of it as a grainy, crunchy sausage of sorts. Glier’s Goetta in Cincinnati produces about 1,000,000 pounds of goetta every year, 99% of that consumed in the Greater Cincinnati area, which probably explains why the rest of the country has never heard of it.
Adjacent to the fountain in Fountain Square sits a sleek, modern Italian restaurant called Via Vite. In Italian, that means “way of life” or “way of the vine.” The wine list at Via Vite IS extensive, but the name might also refer to its location on Vine Street.
It is an upbeat, trendy kind of place with soft rock playing and both indoor and outdoor seating. The windows allow for people-watching with all the comings and goings around Fountain Square.
I found the Summer Minestrone at be full of flavor with great ingredients such as rapini pesto, zucchini, green beans, tomatoes, celery, onions and Parmigiano Reggiano.
The Golden Trout with braised fennel was a nice change from usual menu choices.
You can also select from a variety of soups, salads, pastas, paninis and pizzas at lunch, and the dinner menu features a wide array of authentic Italian dishes.
Favorite restaurant choices of mine in the Over-the-Rhine Historic Neighborhood include The Eagle and Skyline Chili. Over-the-Rhine is considered to be one of the largest urban historic districts still intact in the United States. The past decade has seen impressive revitalization in the area, now known for its architecture, colorful buildings, array of restaurants and eye-catching murals.
The Eagle, at 14th Street and Vine, is housed in a historic post office building in the heart of the action of Over-the-Rhine.
With brick walls and wood floors, the music is loud, and the vibe is pulsing with a multi-ethnic clientele of young singles, families, couples and senior adults. A large bar holds court in the center with plenty of seats all around it and tables for diners on the perimeter. Go early because the seats fill quickly. Some diners even agree to share larger tables with strangers in order to be seated, without uttering a complaint.
The legendary free-range fried chicken uses a (mostly) secret preparation method of an overnight brine. They follow that with pressure-frying to hold in the moisture. The crust is crisp and peppery, and served with a spicy honey for dipping. Be warned. The honey at The Eagle is VERY spicy and most definitely an acquired taste.
The southern greens and artichoke dip served with warm chips is a great meal-starter, but the spoonbread is certifiably swoon-producing.
Imagine a cross between cornbread and cake cooked in an iron skillet and then slathered with a generous layer of maple butter while it’s still hot from the oven. Heavenly!
No list of best restaurants in Cincinnati is complete without at least one specializing in chili. Cincinnati’s version of chili is distinctive because it is sweet with a strong hint of cinnamon. Chili ladled over a plate of spaghetti noodles and topped with a generous portion of shredded cheddar cheese makes up the “three-way’, the most common offering. To become a “four-way,” diners ask for the addition of either beans OR onions. And, naturally, the “five-way” includes both beans AND onions. Many Cincinnatians enjoy this chili on top of a coney and bun.
Skyline Chili, said to be the “Official Chili of the Cincinnati Reds” baseball team, boasts at least nine locations scattered throughout the city, its suburbs and Northern Kentucky with many more in surrounding states.
My husband and I found the café on Vine and E. Court Street to be a perfect example of eating with the locals.
Our server had been with Skyline for 38 years and was a fount of information. As she helped with our bibs, she instructed us to turn the chili to a vertical position and to eat it like a piece of pie. “Don’t twirl it,” she said, even though you might be tempted to because of the spaghetti on the bottom layer.
So Many Choices, So Little Time
You are probably getting the picture that you need several days to soak up the many sights and flavors of the best restaurants in Cincinnati, and I would agree. My list of places I want to try when I return is getting longer. It’s always fun to sample the cuisine in the various regions of the U.S. And, eating what the locals eat in their very own popular places is one of the keys to understanding what gives Cincinnatians their civic and cultural pride.