I am torn between touting Cincinnati’s treasures and keeping the city under wraps so I can continue to easily park my car downtown. The spirit of Cincinnati is what I image the spirit of Florence was during the Renaissance: so much happening and most of it creative, innovative and exciting. The streetcar is a work in progress and will add to the city’s charm and convenience.
The eight-story Hotel Cincinnatian, built in 1882 in the French Second Empire style, was a surprise even before I entered. On the street, a London taxi idled. Its name is Maxwell and the driver knows all the best restaurants. When I complimented the hotel doorman on his impressive top hat, he pointed across the street. Batsakes Hat Shop has been a modest corner store since 1907. The owner, Gus Miller, has be crafting hats for more than fifty years the old way. He measures heads and uses equipment that would make prized museum pieces: a steam cleaner and re-shaper, wooden blocks to shape hats, and razors in wooden brim cutters. His customers include both Presidents Bush, Pavarotti, Bill Cosby, Red Skeleton, Tony Bennett and other celebrities.
Inside the Cincinnatian, I was surprised to meet Don Pigiovanni, one of the hundred fiberglass pigs scattered around town during Cincinnati’s 2012 Big Pig Gig. The bejeweled porker stands in the elegant lobby near an original walnut and marble staircase. This grand hotel once had 300 rooms and boasted a shared bathroom at the end of each corridor. Renovated in 1987, the hotel has 146 rooms surrounding a sizable atrium with sky lights. The rooms have ample space, fine furnishings and old world charm.
Old World, until you enter your futuristic bathroom with heated floors. An eight-foot long walk-in shower has rain showerheads at both ends plus body sprayers that can blast away the most stubborn aches. The deep soaking bubble tub has chromo-therapy lights. Or you can watch the TV suspended from the ceiling. Perhaps some multi-tasking overachievers do both. The toilet is closeted like a Victorian unmentionable. I appreciated the vanity table and Gilchrist & Soames toiletries.
Exploring Mainstrasse Village
I was struck with a novel dilemma: abandon myself to the bathtub or drive to Kentucky. My traveling spirit won, and I was soon exploring Mainstrasse Village in Covington, Kentucky, just over the river. Covering five blocks, the village is a restored 19th Century German neighborhood. Shops and restaurants are in renovated houses. There are no “souvenir stores” just shops owned by people sharing their particular interests. An old fashioned candy shop, a cymbal shop, a magic shop, a general store are as unique as the little restaurants serving German, Italian, and Cajun food.
I debated between the English pub and an interesting little place called The Main Bite. Once a narrow shotgun house, the owner lives in the back and serves guests in the parlor. For an appetizer I enjoyed pita with sundried tomato and artichoke dip that was obviously and deliciously homemade. The mac ‘n’ cheese was made with gouda and cheddar and topped with caramelized onions and bacon. All the herbs used by the owner are grown by her. Once skeptical of the culinary trend of turning kitchen staples into gourmet dishes, I am now a believer.
Goodbye England’s Rose
That afternoon, I had a timed ticket to the award-winning “Diana, a Celebration” exhibit that ends its 11-year global tour in August 2014. It is displayed in Cincinnati’s museum complex, once the busy Union (train) Terminal. The exhibit begins with Diana’s family tree and ancestral portraits followed by photographs of her family and predictably large family jewels. The next room is more personal with artifacts from Diana’s childhood including toys, books, and diaries. Home movies play on the video monitor.
A room is devoted to her engagement and is a fitting prelude to the stunning hall of the wedding. Her wedding dress, train fully extended, is in a glass case. Her intricately designed dress is of such fine silk, it can be lifted with one finger (minus the train). Her wedding shoes have suede soles so she would not slip during the most televised wedding in history. Only two people in the world are authorized to handle this national treasure of a wedding dress. They fly in from London to set up and dismantle the exhibit as it moves around the world.
Another room displays 28 of her designer outfits. Her evolution as a style setter can be seen as she refines her fashion sense through her royal years. She had a brief Jackie phase with the first lady’s iconic pill box hats and then moves on to the style that was uniquely her own. My favorite is an Easter suit displayed with coats for her little sons made with the same fabric. The dress she wore to her last public function is black, foreshadowing her untimely death.
The next room is the most difficult for those who remember the People’s Princess. A video display of her funeral cortege is surrounded with thousands of real rose pedals, now brown and curling. Elton John’s adaptation of “Candle in the Wind” that he sang at her funeral plays softly. The first draft of her brother’s eulogy has his bitter words against the paparazzi crossed out
Cincinnati, known as the Queen City, celebrates the Princess with English teas served at some hotels and also celebrates philanthropic women of the city with a companion gallery “Princesses of the Queen City.”
Hanky Pankys and Hot Dogs
The Rookwood Restaurant is an 1892 repurposed Rookwood Pottery Plant. pottery plant serving locally sourced and locally loved food. You can eat in one of the original kilns that can accommodate a table of ten. Cincinnati is famous for its chili, so I ordered the Rookwood’s version with smoked Anaheim peppers, four types of beans, scallions, white cheddar and the homey touch of goldfish crackers. The chili had an initial burn that I quickly got used to and now expect in future chilies. It is serious chili for people who are serious about chili. Of course, I had to try the Hanky Panky as I had never heard of it. Simply put, it is a satisfying mixture of textures and flavors all in one bite. There are many versions, but mine had Glier’s goetta, emmentaller béchamel, and house giardinera on marble rye. Goetta was another mystery ingredient and goes back to the town’s German roots. It is a crispy-tender, fried sausage patty made from ground pork shoulder combined with steel cut oats and flavored with bay leaves and rosemary. Once peasant fare, it tastes as gourmet as the mac ‘n’ cheese over at The Main Bite.
The next morning, Maxwell and I toodledto The French Crust in Cincinnati’s Over the Rhine neighborhood. This authentic little café even gets the accent right. I reluctantly passed up the Croque Monsieur for puff pastry with goetta, poached egg and hollandaise sauce. While it may sound like an adventure in French-German fusion food, it was a delicious breakfast served in a French casserole.
Over the Rhine is an intriguing strolling neighborhood, particularly when I learned that less than 15 years ago it was slum housing scheduled for demolition. The city fathers (and mothers) campaigned to save the neighborhood. It contains the largest collection of Italianate architecture in the United States. Eclectic shops include a poster store, a book café, a floral boutique, specialty food markets, antique shops, and Rookwood Pottery. It also has a variety of European and Asian restaurants.
But I settled for a good old American hot dog. The Senate bar and grill is tucked into one of the historic homes and is famous for its hot dogs. As Cate Blanchette was in town filming the movie Carol, their hot dog offerings included an off-the-menu Cate selection that looked about as tasteful as a hot dog can look. I ordered the Lindsay Lohan. “It’s a mess because she’s a mess,” the waiter explained. My beef hot dog was buried under goat cheese, caramelized onions, bacon, arugula, balsamic, and “lots of drama.” Lots of taste as well.
Cincinnati was a city I changed planes in or drove around on my way to Lexington or Columbus. Who knew, the little noticed port city on the Ohio is now a Renaissance town with a great sense of humor.