In 2003, this magazine released its first Best Restaurants list. Of the 25 restaurants originally featured, nine are still open. Most of these remaining restaurants have gone through seismic changes over the past two decades: new menus, new chefs, new managers, and for some, new locations and new owners. They have also weathered external threats, including a financial meltdown and a pandemic. Rather than compile a new Best Restaurants list in a year when our restaurant industry is still recovering from the setbacks of said pandemic, we thought we would do a revisit to find out what’s helped these institutions thrive for so many years in the face of so many challenges.
A lot has changed at The Brown Dog Café since it was included on our 2003 list. For one, it’s changed owners: Mary Swortwood sold the restaurant to Chef Shawn McCoy and his business partner, Saundra Richey, that same year. It has also moved from its strip mall location on Pfeiffer Road to front and center at the swanky development at Summit Park in Blue Ash.
The restaurant suits its Summit Park location well. The finished wood walls and ample light from massive windows overlooking the park give the restaurant a contemporary cabin feel. And with its large park-side patio, it’s a good place to enjoy nature year-round.
It’s safe to say that the menu has undergone several changes in the last two decades, but McCoy and Richey have kept a playfully refined spirit alive. In 2003, we described the place as “fun-loving, eclectic, and upscale,” and this description still fits perfectly. Creatively titled (and prepared) dishes like Lipstick on a Pig—a shaved ham sandwich with brie and fig jam—show that its sense of flavorful whimsy is still going strong.
When I asked the manager, Max Pelkey, what has helped The Brown Dog Café stand the test of time, he credited the restaurant’s strong customer base. His answer, by the way, came up in some form or another at every restaurant I visited. At The Brown Dog Café, like so many other great local restaurants, regulars matter.
4335 Glendale Milford Rd., Blue Ash, (513) 794-1610
When Matt Loomis bought China Gourmet in 2016, he was anxious about owning a family-owned restaurant with such deep roots in the community. But the Moy family—China Gourmet’s owners since 1977—wanted to sell to him, so he set his reluctance aside and took over the beloved and long-standing eatery. Lucky for us, Loomis was able to keep Chef Larry Brutschi and most of the original staff. When you’ve got a chef who has been manning the kitchen for 35 years, making sauces and dumplings by hand, you hang onto him for as long as you can.
To be sure, Loomis has been involved with China Gourmet for quite a long time himself, having started in the kitchen in 1995 at age 15. When he took over, he wanted to do right by the restaurant’s core group of loyal customers, whom he credits for the restaurant’s continued success. He also wanted to do right by his employees, which is why, during the Great Shutdown of 2020, he let them handle the delivery orders rather than contracting with services like DoorDash or Grubhub.
The dynamics have changed a little these days, with carryout driving a quarter of the restaurant’s sales. But regulars still come in to share dishes like bacon-wrapped scallops in black bean sauce and perfectly crispy five-spice Cornish hen. In fact, when I was there, the Moy family was having a party at a big banquet table near the bar. How’s that for a ringing endorsement?
3340 Erie Ave., East Hyde Park, (513) 871-6612
It’s worth mentioning that at No. 5 on our 2003 list, Jeff Ruby’s is the highest-ranking restaurant still in business (Pigall’s, Maisonette, The Palace, and Daveed’s have all, sadly, shuttered). It’s a reminder of exceptional leadership that permeates the brand and the robust family business that Ruby created. Because amid the flashiness and filets, it’s sometimes easy to forget that this is, at heart, a family business.
And it looks like the family is ready for a next-level upgrade when the restaurant moves into its new home in the old Tiffany & Co. building across from Fountain Square, now rebranded as The Foundry. It’s a move that seems like destiny—the city’s prime restaurateur moving into its prime real estate. Diners can expect the same vibe as in the current space on Seventh Street, just taken to Jeff Ruby–like extremes. Manager Griffin Urlage is ecstatic about the new location. “It will be Jeff Ruby’s legacy,” he says. “The culmination of everything he has achieved over the past 40 years.”
So you can expect the glitz and glamor to be, somehow, amplified. You can also, I imagine, expect the same Old Hollywood elegance and charming, attentive service that make you feel like a member of the Rat Pack, even if you’re only stopping in for a beer and a quick bite. To me, that’s its legacy: a restaurant that rolls out the red carpet for countless Cincinnatians, regular and famous alike.
700 Walnut St., downtown, (513) 784-1200
Trio’s surrounding neighborhood has changed dramatically over the past 19 years. Kenwood Towne Centre went from an up-and-coming shopping destination to one of the most congested commercial arteries of the northern suburbs. Despite the constant traffic and fixed flock of construction cranes, Trio still feels like a place for regulars.
Proprietor Gregg Pancero was quick to mention the couple that drives up from Over-the-Rhine every day for a meal and the customer who couldn’t wait to come back after recovering from shoulder surgery. “We’ve met so many good friends, generational friends,” he says. “We’re now on grandchildren whose grandparents we’ve served. In a way, we’ve grown with our customers.”
It’s not just the personal connection that keeps them coming back; it’s also the restaurant’s focus on quality and consistency. As Pancero notes, consistency means “making sure your soup is hot, your salad is crisp, and your seafood is fresh.” This is the mantra that has kept Trio going strong since its founding in 1988.
With its focus on relationships and consistency, Trio is the kind of restaurant that can easily feel like home. I certainly felt this way, chatting with the bartenders, enjoying a cold glass of beer and a warm plate of rustic pork and veal meatballs. Kenwood was awash with shoppers, but it was all quiet comfort and friendly banter at Trio. Same, I imagine, as it was in 2003. And same as it will be, no matter how many new buildings go up around it.
7565 Kenwood Rd., Kenwood, (513) 984-1905
When you’ve got it, you’ve got it. The company now known as Jeff Ruby Culinary Entertainment had three restaurants on our 2003 list, and they’re all still going strong. The Precinct, of course, was the original—the go-to spot for anniversaries, birthday dinners, holiday parties, and star athletes since 1981.
And it still feels like an original. Despite its elegance (and decadence), The Precinct is a neighborhood restaurant in Columbia-Tusculum. The chalkboard sign in the parking lot entices you to “Buy Jeff Ruby’s steaks for home.” You can smell the steaks, the rich charcoal smoke, as you approach the brick building that used to house the Cincinnati Police Department’s Sixth Precinct (I can’t think of a better advertisement for any steakhouse than that smell).
You can still expect to find classic steaks named for classic Cincinnati ballplayers: The Steak Collinsworth—an eight ounce filet with king crab, asparagus, bordelaise, and béarnaise—remains a hit. But The Precinct—along with other Ruby’s steakhouses—has made way for the city’s latest sports heroes as well. Take the Steak Burrow: a bayou-inspired blackened strip with creole crawfish sauce. A namesake steak at The Precinct is the least this city can do for our young franchise quarterback, given all the Super Bowl hopes we’ve pinned on him. And if—dare I dream—the Bengals do win it all, I would be willing to place a bet on where they’ll go to celebrate.
311 Delta Ave., Columbia-Tusculum, (513) 321-5454
While reading our 2003 profile of Boca, I came across a line that struck me: “Faulk also earns bonus points for bringing gourmet fare to the future of Cincinnati fine dining: the twentysomethings who savor a meal before heading off to a night of warehouse dancing.” Boca, it turns out, wasn’t just feeding the future of Cincinnati fine dining; it was becoming it.
Those twentysomethings grew up (exchanging their warehouse dancing shoes for flats and loafers in the process) and so did Boca. The restaurant moved from its hip Hamilton Avenue storefront to a comfortable space in Oakley to a sleek fine dining cathedral downtown and expanding into a multi-city restaurant group that would set the pace for fine dining in Cincinnati for years.
And it’s never grown complacent. The restaurant has two mantras—“never stay idle” and “BPA” (“blow people away”). It would be easy to dismiss this as inspirational speak if they weren’t so unbelievably good at it. Plus, these same mantras are what got Boca through the most challenging portion of its existence. “Never staying idle” means opening a gourmet takeout service (Domo) when a pandemic shuts down the dining room. It also means pivoting around supply chain issues to create imaginative, seasonal menus from what’s available.
Bonus points to Falk for paying his employees’ health insurance throughout the eight-month shutdown. Of course, it’s important to keep them happy and healthy—they, too, are a big part of this city’s fine dining future.
114 E. Sixth St., downtown, (513) 542-2022
Nicola’s is a study in staying power. It was a destination restaurant long before Over-the-Rhine, let alone Pendleton, was a restaurant destination (it was the spot in either neighborhood to make our list nearly 20 years ago). Owner Cristian Pietoso took over the place from his father, Nicola, in April 2021. That’s right. Nicola’s is a second-generation fine dining restaurant in the city’s hottest neighborhood, one where restaurants rise and fall with the trends. The establishment has stayed on top of fine dining trends without being merely “trendy.” It has somehow managed to be both cutting-edge and classic.
Cristian credits his father with the restaurant’s continued success. “He helped Nicola’s stay in business day in and day out, with his sweat and tears.” Not content to rest on his father’s laurels, Cristian has already put in some sweat of his own. He brought in a new chef de cuisine, Brian Williams. And he’s added some new second-floor seating, expanded the wine cellar, and diversified the wine list beyond Italian varietals.
Despite the changes, many of the core staff remains, including Casey Gilmore, a server who has been with the restaurant for 20 years. She also works as a real estate agent, and sold Cristian a condo in the neighborhood back in 2004. He recently sold that condo to Anna Pfirrman, his sous chef of 10 years. Like his father, he was proud to pass on his piece of Over-the-Rhine.
1420 Sycamore St., Pendleton, (513) 721-6200
Built more than 100 years ago, the converted mansion that houses Carlo & Johnny, Jeff Ruby’s elegant suburban outpost in Montgomery, was, at different times, a stagecoach stop, a gangster hideout, and a casino. Amid the busy dinner-hour din, the place feels alive with decades’ worth of excited chatter and clinked martini glasses.
Aside from the sense of history that permeates each room like smoke from a fine cigar, the attentive, welcoming service is the most noticeable thing about the restaurant. Valets greet you as you walk up the brick steps to the gleaming double doors. The hosts smile at you as you enter the vast, wood-paneled foyer. Servers in white jackets rush about the dining room, all business, but not too busy to nod and say hello. They take care of you here, and that’s what has kept the house packed all these years. Carlo & Johnny, like so many other Jeff Ruby joints, has built a culture around taking care of its guests. And those guests haven’t gone anywhere: despite the challenges of COVID-19, the restaurant is busier than ever.
Since we’re talking about staying power, some of Carlo & Johnny’s staff members have been around just as long as the restaurant itself (if not longer). Sales Manager Kevin Lehman started out parking cars in 1981. Just another interesting story in a restaurant that’s full of them.
9769 Montgomery Rd., Montgomery, (513) 936-8600
The Tousey House is a paradox. Few restaurants on this list have gone through more changes since the early aughts, yet have remained so constant. The version we profiled in 2003—the one with chef/owner Kristy Schalk at the helm—is gone. Its current owners, Butch and Mary Ann Wainscott (who used to own the Greyhound Tavern in Ft. Mitchell), reopened it in 2008. With the change in ownership, The Tousey House shifted its focus from experimental Southern cooking to classic down-home fare.
But it’s the traditional favorites that keep the customers coming back. Which is understandable, since this is, after all, one of the oldest and most comforting spaces in Greater Cincinnati. The brick Federalist mansion was built in 1822 and it still feels like a mansion: the bar is in the parlor, and the dining room is, well, a dining room. Not only does it still feel like a house, it still feels like a home, thanks to the fireplace, the oil paintings, and little touches like the old whiskey ads on the wall.
And that is how The Tousey House has remained constant, despite changes in ownership and menu. It still feels like a warm, elegant old home, and you still feel like a welcome guest in it. Could there be a more perfect place to enjoy a rich Kentucky hot brown or a glass of Old Forester?
5963 N. Jefferson St., Burlington, (859) 586-9900
Orchids missed our initial top 25 list by a couple of years. The restaurant reopened its doors in late 2004, hitting No. 3 the following year. Then, in 2009, it went on a five-year run in the top spot, the longest of any restaurant on the list since its inception. That’s why the last couple of years for the eatery have been so hard to watch.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been challenging for every restaurant, but none more so than Orchids. That’s because it lies at the intersection of two of the hardest hit industries—restaurants and hotels. As such, the main dining area is currently closed and the restaurant menu is currently unavailable. But don’t worry, the Hilton Netherland’s sales and marketing director, Bob Louis, told me that Orchids should fully reopen by the second quarter of this year. And when it does, it’ll have a new chef. The restaurant—which has been helmed by male chefs since, well, forever—will roll out a slightly tweaked menu under the watch of recently promoted female executive chef, Mallory Hemmer.
But the iconic Art Deco space in the Carew Tower isn’t just sitting empty: the bar is open for business and a bar menu is available. The bar menu, a collaborative effort of the Orchids kitchen staff, features the kind of elevated seasonal food one would expect from the restaurant, albeit in a less formal form. Hungry bargoers can fill up on gnocchi with garlic fondue, flank steak, and chai shortbread. And there were plenty of lively bargoers when I was there on a festive December night, the timeless bar buzzing as a jazz duo played Christmas music. The future looks bright for Orchids, but it always has. It’ll be even brighter when the restaurant is back in full bloom.
35 W. Fifth St., downtown, (513) 564-6465