Alabama Fish Bar Stays and Shines

Renovations prepare the iconic restaurant for its next decade of success under a new lease.

Renovations prepare the iconic restaurant for its next decade of success under a new lease.

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When Alabama Fish Bar reopened in late January after three months of renovations, a line of hungry customers stretched two blocks down Race Street. It was a testament to the restaurant’s roots in Over-the-Rhine. Thanks to a wider renovation initiative by the Cincinnati City Center Development Corporation (3CDC), the family-owned fish joint stepped into 2022 with a new lease and a fresh makeover.

MARCH 2022

PHOTOGRAPH PROVIDED BY 3CDC

“Alabama’s is an institution in Over-the-Rhine and the really the entire Cincinnati region,” says Katie Westbrook, 3CDC’s development director. “3CDC was very excited to work with Alabama’s and feels the renovations to the restaurant will allow them to continue operating for another 30 years.”

Originally opened as Mr. Pizza USA, the restaurant has been feeding the community from the same venue since 1992. A simple menu with three kinds of fish (whiting, cod, and perch) fried in batter from the family’s own recipe, established itself in the hearts and stomachs of local diners long ago. The restaurant is a shining example of not only great food and a practical business model, but also the value of good service.

“I’ve always been taught and always told my employees, ‘you treat people the same, how you want to be treated,’” Fillis said in a press release shortly before the restaurant closed last fall. “I’ve always lived by that.”

Even with big changes altering Over-the-Rhine’s landscape, Alabama Fish Bar’s reputation earned the restaurant special consideration. After purchasing the building from the city three years ago, 3CDC expressed immediate interest in keeping it in place as part of the Willkommen mixed-use, mixed-income housing project, which consists of 16 historic rehabs and four new infill buildings throughout Over-the-Rhine.

“As the project progressed, we started thinking through how construction above the restaurant would impact operations, so we did explore the possibility of relocating Alabama’s to two other nearby commercial spaces,” Westbrook explains. “However, after looking at layout configurations and costs to renovate, it was ultimately decided that staying in the current location was the best decision for both the owners and the project as a whole.”

MARCH 2022

PHOTOGRAPH PROVIDED BY 3CDC

The restaurant received some practical and aesthetic touch-ups as part of its agreement with 3CDC. This included updated kitchen equipment for the back-of-house and a storefront facelift. New paint and flooring gave it the periodic touch-up every busy venue requires. A brief closure gave workers time to revitalize the local staple’s look, but the flow of hot, fried fish returned to the streets of Over-the-Rhine in January, and there are no plans for it to freeze again.

Fans can think of these changes as maintenance rather than rebranding because it really is a case of “if it isn’t broken, why fix it?”

3CDC appreciates the importance of Alabama Fish Bar in its own success. It’s hard to miss what the restaurant’s continuation means to the people of the area when so many literally show up in support.

“The renovation of Alabama’s will hopefully spur other businesses to open in the recently completed commercial spaces nearby,” Westbrook says. “Seeing a successful business stand in the same place for 30 years is a great selling point for anyone considering opening a business in Over-the-Rhine.”

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