Editor’s Note: Cincinnati Magazine selected Royce as number eight on our 2023 Best Restaurants list, and PearlStar made our list of honorable mentions. However, both restaurants closed suddenly as the print issue was being shipped to subscribers and stores. Below, we have revised the Best Restaurants list by adding three restaurants, all tied for tenth place. We have also updated our free digital issue with a new cover and spread featuring the added restaurants. For details on how we revised our list, read more from Senior Editor Aiesha D. Little.
Cincinnati'sBest Restaurants 2023
Cincinnati Magazine’s 21st Best Restaurants issue offers our definitive ranking of the area’s top dining destinations and the year’s best new spots.
A lot has changed since the start of COVID-19 in 2020, but our love for the food, chefs, and eateries that make the Queen City’s culinary scene shine burns brighter than ever. Our dining critic ate his way across the tri-state to catalogue old favorites and new standouts for this year’s list of the 10 best restaurants and dishes.
By Brandon Wuske; Photographs by Catherine Viox
Edited by Aiesha D. Little
From ceviche to empanadas, Mita’s menu will take you on a culinary journey across Latin America.
A quick fine-dining tip: always start with a salad. Not only will it provide pre-atonement for the caloric sins you are about to commit, it will also help set your expectations. In the same way that the opening scene of a movie will let you know if you are in for brilliance or boredom, the salad will tell you if you are in for a memorable meal or a miserable one.
The beguilingly simple jicama and green mango salad at Mita’s sets the tone for what will almost certainly be the most flavorful meal in the city. The jungle-green mango is slightly sweet, slightly chewy, and balanced perfectly by the crunchier, tarter jicama. Simplicity never tasted so good, and neither did mango, this side of the tropics.
501 Race St., downtown, (513) 421-6482, mitas.co
Vibrant simplicity has fueled proprietor Jose Salazar’s superb Latin American restaurant—named in honor of his Colombian grandmother—since its opening in 2015. Such simplicity shines through in the brochettes, skewers of harissa-rubbed chicken thighs that stand peerless above the entire flock of chicken dishes in this city.
But this isn’t simplicity shorn of creativity. That’s not enough to land a restaurant on our list, let alone in the top spot. Salazar’s and Executive Chef Tim McClane’s subtle creative touches abound, like in the ginger-hibiscus marinade for the black grouper ceviche (part of a daily rotation of ceviche offerings); or the truffles, mushrooms, and artichokes that luxuriate the hummus in the Alcochofas Y Hongos (artichokes and mushrooms). That dish was the brainchild of Chef McClane, who came over from Bouquet in 2021. There’s plenty of room for such inspiration on Mita’s menu. It’s reworked as many as six times a year, with minor tweaks occurring on a nearly monthly basis. The classics, I’m told, stay put. Although on a menu like this, I’m not sure how one even begins to make such designations.
The plates may be small, but the flavors are big and bold at this Mediterranean wine bar, like this Well-Provisioned Hummus with zhug sauce, chickpeas, labneh (strained yogurt), and red za’atar.
Much of the produce that comprises the Mediterranean small plates at Abigail Street—Dan and Lana Wright’s expanded “Mediterranean wine bar”—comes out of a hatchback. Every week, vendors like “Farmer Sallie” and “Farmer Eli” pull up to the back of the hip Over-the-Rhine eatery, pop the hatch, and unload their verdant wares. Abigail Street’s menu, never entirely fixed (though don’t expect the fattoush or wood-grilled octopus to go anywhere), depends on what they bring in.
That menu, a collaboration between the core team and Executive Chef Joe Bedel, features some of the freshest and most vibrant plant-based dishes in Cincinnati. The most notable of these offerings and the best dish I’ve had all year is the Moroccan Spiced Broccoli.
Chef/Owner Dan Wright conceived this dish with former Chef de Cuisine Yousef Shtiewi (who is now the Wrights’ culinary director) as an answer to the roasted Brussels sprouts that have become obligatory. Long stalks of perfectly charred broccoli are seasoned with berbere and a touch of sugar to temper the bitterness from the char. A miso-tahini sauce adds umami, so that all five basic flavors can be had in each bite.
1214 Vine St., Over-the- Rhine, (513) 421-4040, abigailstreet.com
While the plates are small, the flavors at Abigail Street are big and bold. House-made pita is puffed up to the size of a soccer ball and dusted in za’atar, a smoky Lebanese spice blend that includes thyme, dry oregano, and sesame seeds. The kefta, abundantly spiced wood-grilled minced beef (some variations contain lamb), gets an acidic burst from the accompanying blistered tomatoes.
Even the cocktails here are suffused with fragrant Middle Eastern flavors. Ras al Hanout syrup brought fall flavors of cinnamon and cumin to the Le Souk, a frothy bourbon cocktail. (Yes, even the drinks change seasonally.) While Abigail Street has been slinging cocktails and small plates for more than 10 years, it still feels like the freshest restaurant in OTR.
Best Dish:Abigail Street’s Morroccan Spiced Broccoli
Broccoli haters, we dare you to try a bite and come away unchanged. Served with berbere, sesame seeds, miso, and tahini.
3.Le Bar a Boeuf
Jean-Robert de Cavel's neo-bistro provides approachable yet sophisticated cuisine, like this decadent pumpkin ravioli, with impeccable service.
I don’t know if there is a better restaurant reinvention story in Cincinnati than Jean-Robert de Cavel’s wonderful Le Bar a Boeuf. The restaurant— perched high above the Ohio River in East Walnut Hills’s Edgecliff Building—was mainly a gourmet burger joint when it first opened in 2015. It has since been refined into a full-on French bistro, and as such, it is the best place in town to sample de Cavel’s approachable-but-sophisticated cuisine.
They take care of you here, those black-shirted servers. On the night of my first visit, I got stuck in a particularly brutal Cincinnati rush hour crush that I somehow didn’t anticipate, certain to miss my 6 o’clock reservation. When I sheepishly called the restaurant to inform them of my tardiness, longtime maître d’ Marilou Lind replied with the warmth of a fresh-baked baguette: “It’s no problem. Is there anything we need to know about? Theater tickets, anything like that?” They’re thinking about the pace of your meal before you even arrive.
2200 Victory Pkwy., East Walnut Hills, (513) 751-2333, lebaraboeuf.com
Speaking of theater, for a front-row seat to some of the best monologue this city has to offer, listen to server Daren Dixon recite the lengthy list of nightly specials with poetic precision. Specials here are not just creative ways to dump off unsold inventory: they’re opportunities for both the back and front of the house to explore the full range of their talents.
A warmth permeates this cozy bistro, a heartiness that can steel you for the coldest Cincinnati winter. This could take the form of a buttery local chicken served over a seasonal vegetable fondue and topped with a rich morel cream sauce. Or it could take the form of a seared duck breast served over creamy grits, in a dish that seamlessly melds the North of France with the American South. And it will always, always emanate from the staff.
Rest Well, Chef:Remembering Jean-Robert de Cavel
The powerhouse chef and restaurateur passed away in late December, but his impact on our culinary scene, and the city itself, will continue to be felt wherever chefs and food lovers gather.
This Italian staple for more than 25 years takes pride in its extensive wine list, knowledgable staff, and rotating menu of artisanal and creative dishes, like these seared scallops with mushrooms and truffle brown butter vinaigrette.
While Nicola’s location has stayed fixed on the corner of Sycamore and Liberty for more than 25 years, ownership passed from founder Nicola Pietoso to his son, Cristian, last year. And the younger Pietoso and his team, including Chef de Cuisine Josh Brenner and Pastry Chef Erin Fledderjohn, have continued the Nicola’s tradition of serving inspired, standard-setting Italian food in the Queen City.
1420 Sycamore St., Pendleton, (513) 721-6200, nicolasotr.com
As with most of the other restaurants on this list, the menu here is seasonal. It’s also artisanal; both the pastas and breads are made by hand. The comforting fall menu I sampled started off with a crisp alpine salad flecked with pears and candied walnuts, and thin slices of speck (air-cured pork, similar to prosciutto) for a delightful salty contrast. Nicola’s thrives on such contrasts, from the pickled giardiniera that added heat and crunch to a delicate grilled octopus to the Calabrian chiles that emboldened a sweet, barbacoa-like lamb ragout served over spaghetti. It helps that the menu is focused, offering a few perfectly prepared Italian dishes rather than the panoply of Italian cuisine.
The wine list, by contrast, is one of the most extensive collections of regional Italian wine that you will find in Greater Cincinnati, with Tuscany, Piedmont, and Veneto all well represented. The friendly, well-versed servers are good at making recommendations. They’re also just plain good: service at Nicola’s has consistently been among the quickest, friendliest, and most knowledgeable I have come across in my dining career.
All of this is offered in one of the most beautiful spaces I’ve had the pleasure of eating in: a chapel-like room whose lofty ceilings somehow make the space seem more intimate. It’s a space and experience that offers a rare commodity in a trendy, ever-changing neighborhood—timelessness.
Painstakingly precise Italian cooking, simple adornments, and a perfect pasta recipe—seen in this rigatoni con pomodoro tomato served with baby arugula and ricotta salata—equals one of the best dining experiences in the city.
Sotto, as owner David Falk is quick to point out, is not a “riff” on Italian food. Nor is it a “reimagining” or a “contemporary take” on the cuisine. It’s something much more ambitious than any of that. It’s an attempt to transmit the soul of Italian cooking. And what a successful attempt it is.
This is classic and painstakingly precise Italian cooking as seen at Italy’s finest restaurants. And Falk should know; he and members of his team frequently take trips to Italy for research. Chef de Cuisine Jacob “Woody” Wood (recently promoted from sous chef) will embark on his first official research trip to the motherland this month.
118 E. Sixth St., downtown, (513) 977-6886, sottocincinnati.com
Sotto’s tight, seasonal menu prizes freshness and simplicity. This is why the smoky, crispy wood-grilled branzino arrives with few embellishments aside from the beautiful color striations and latticework of grill marks. It’s also why a hearty breaded pork loin only needs capers and a squeeze of lemon. At Sotto, adornments underscore flavors, but never conceal them.
Of course, to come anywhere close to capturing the soul of Italian cuisine, you have to nail the pasta. Falk and team go to great lengths to source ultra-refined double zero flour for their pasta. But even more important than the ingredients are the talent and experience. Sotto’s longtime pasta maker Ismael “Ish” Tamayo knows when the pasta needs more moisture or needs stretched a touch thinner.
Perhaps that’s why the short rib cappellacci—arguably the city’s most famous pasta dish without chili on top—melts as soon as it hits the tongue. Sotto recently had a social media contest to see if anyone could guess how many of those delicate pasta pillows Tamayo has hand-rolled during his tenure at the restaurant. The answer was a little over 1 million. That, it turns out, is the secret to a good cappellacci.
The tavern doesn't just perfectly execute Lebanese classics,—it adds unique touches that demonstrate a deep love and knowledge of the cuisine. Take your pick from the small mezze appetizer with tabbouleh, falafel, hummus, baba ghanoush, labneh (strained yogurt), kibbe, moussaka, grape leaf, and sambousek.
Does any local restaurant explore its respective cuisine more fully than Phoenician Taverna explores Lebanese food? On a menu this robust, one might expect some filler dishes, but everything that has come out of Owner Wassim Matar and Chef Safa Ghanen’s kitchen has been exquisitely prepared.
That’s because the restaurant is Matar’s ode to his native Lebanon. And when a cuisine is cooked this authentically, people tend to question their past notions of it.
7944 Mason-Montgomery Rd., Mason, (513) 770-0027, phoeniciantaverna.com
Take the tabbouleh, for instance. Early on, Matar’s customers were complaining that Phoenician’s version of the iconic Lebanese bulgur wheat salad was too crunchy. The oil and finely chopped vegetables sodden the bulgur in a matter of minutes, so that the pre-made tabbouleh frequently served here in the states is always soggy. At Phoenician, as in Lebanon, it’s made to order and served immediately, resulting in that crunch of authenticity.
It’s one thing to perfectly execute the classics; it’s another to add the kind of unique touches that can only come from such an encyclopedic knowledge of the cuisine. The Tavern Falafel is served on a bed of eggplant puree (Matar’s concoction) for a delightful textural contrast. Sujok, a garlicky, made-from-scratch beef sausage, is served with a clean tomato sauce that brings in flavors from the north Mediterranean.
The best way to enjoy those sausages is to wrap them in Phoenician’s complementary, fresh-baked pita. Matar told me this himself; he stops by every table every night the restaurant is open. As he was singing the praises of Lebanon’s criminally overlooked winemaking region, it struck me that he doesn’t make his nightly rounds just to be friendly (although he certainly is). He’s acting as emissary for the cuisine he loves so much.
For the operations team, chefs, and service staff, each dish is a labor of love—and no detail is too small to overlook.
To make Boca’s pommes soufflés, aged, peeled potatoes (fresh won’t work, as owner David Falk found out) are cooked in oil at a low temperature until perfectly puffy, placed on a tray to cool, then fried to a golden brown before service. It’s a lot of work for an hors d’oeuvre, but the ends justify the means.
The result is a dish so delicate that touching it with too much force can cause it to crumple (far better to ever so slightly pinch it and pop what tastes like the distilled essence of French fry into your mouth). In a way, these delicious morsels serve as a metaphor for fine dining itself. When atmosphere, service, and food are absolutely pristine, we hold our breath, hoping that no wrong move deflates the tenuously perfect evening.
114 E. Sixth St., downtown, (513) 542-2022, bocacincinnati.com
At Boca, that wrong move never comes. Service is impeccable. Food gets fired out of the massive kitchen with the consistency of German trains. And it’s always good. The beet mezzaluna, thin and oily like a good crudo, offers the perfect balance between sweet and salty flavors. The Amish chicken is as soft and buttery as the mushroom truffle risotto it sits on top of.
One of the reasons that Boca operates so seamlessly is Falk’s knack for putting the right people in the right places. Over his 20-plus years of running top-tier restaurants, he’s realized that some chefs are better innovators and some are better executors. That’s why Boca has an operations team, including Chefs David Mattern and Kyle Roberts, that helps research and refine the dishes that will come out of Boca’s immaculate kitchen. It’s an unorthodox style of management for an independent restaurant, but it’s clearly working.
Best Dessert: Boca’s The Candy Bar 3.0
This nutty, chocolaty dessert coats the flavors of childhood in an adult decadence with grand cru chocolate, nougat, brownie, rocher, and hazelnut ice cream.
The Westwood restaurant offers all the classic steakhouse menu items—and a few surprises.
Steakhouses are typically in a neighborhood but not of it. That’s what’s so refreshing about Ivory House. It’s both a destination restaurant and a beloved neighborhood joint in Westwood.
Ivory House seems to have been designed with that duality in mind. With its subdued cream colors, its black and white photos of the old neighborhood stretched over canvas, and its player piano tucked into a corner across from the cozy bar, the restaurant is elegant, but not lavish.
2998 Harrison Ave., Westwood, (513) 389-0175, ivoryhousecincy.com
Oh, the food can get lavish. You could shell out more than $200 for a Japanese Wagyu New York Strip, but you don’t have to order hand-massaged steer for a tender, buttery cut of steak. My peppery filet mignon exceeded all expectations for the ubiquitous cut. This is a chef-driven steakhouse, where meat-and-potatoes fare is given surprising, almost whimsical touches.
Take, for instance, the wonderful breadcrumbs in the creamed corn side dish, which ate like the classic steakhouse side was well as a down-home cornbread. The crab deviled eggs, with a hint of horseradish, was another dish that pulled double duty, evoking shrimp cocktail as well as the creamy hors d’oeuvres. Such whimsy extends to the dessert menu, which includes a bourbon glazed cinnamon roll. Cinnamon rolls are a rare sighting on a steakhouse menu, but one in perfect keeping with the restaurant’s homey-yet-sumptuous vibe.
At Ivory House, such whimsy is grounded in conscientious technique. With the grilled wedge salad, the lettuce is lightly charred on the grill, so it soaks up savory steak flavor. The chicken and gnocchi entrée features juicy chicken, crispy-skinned chicken breast and housemade gnocchi cooked in a chicken confit sauce, combining three different textures of chicken into one of the most comforting dishes you’re likely to find. Why can’t every neighborhood have a steakhouse like this?
Some of the best Japanese cuisine in the city includes this Shio ramen with chicken broth, pork belly, green onion, tea marinated egg, and chili oil.
When the James Beard Foundation comes knocking, you know you’re doing something right. As of this writing, Kiki’s Chefs/Owners, Hideki and Yuko Harada, were jointly named as James Beard Award semifinalists for “Best Chef: Great Lakes Region.” After sampling the small plates and bowls at this funky College Hill izakaya, it becomes obvious that the nomination was well-deserved.
Kiki’s taut, highly sharable menu consists of about 15 dishes, all lumped together on a single page. Each dish gets all the love and attention it deserves—food here is prepared with the same painstaking detail and respect for ingredients one expects from Japanese fine dining, though the prices are affordable and the atmosphere laid-back.
5932 Hamilton Ave., College Hill, (513) 541-0381, kikicincinnati.com
Take the curry pan. At just $4, it might be one of the best values in the city. Potato, onion, and carrot, mixed with a bold curry, are breaded and deep fried to a golden brown. The curry flavor is pleasingly strong, though it doesn’t overwhelm the taste of the fresh vegetables. This sort of balance is central to Kiki’s technique.
It is perhaps most evident in Kiki’s celebrated shio ramen. The noodles have the perfect combination of chew and slurp and the chicken-stock broth, with a touch of chili oil, is both comforting and piquant. It’s the best ramen in a city brimming with flavorful options. And while we’re on the subject of top choices, Kiki’s pan-fried pork gyoza dumplings are best in class as well.
Kiki’s got some funky roots, starting out as a pop-up at Northside Yacht Club. That funkiness still pervades the restaurant, from the whimsical mural of Tokyo on the walls to the indie rock blaring over the stereo. And we can’t forget the drink menu, with its simple-but-refined cocktails, Japanese beers, extensive sake list, and Suntory Whiskey highballs on tap.
A place that serves food and drinks this exquisite, and at such accessible prices, was bound to garner attention from the top tastemakers in the nation.
This family-owned Covington eatery elevates an inspired menu with fresh, local ingredients.
A Covington gem that stands out for its fresh, locally sourced ingredients and seasonal menu. And true to its name, the wine pairings are superb. A single dish here can bring in a medley of flavors from across the world. My Maple Leaf Farm duck came with daikon, Asian pears, poblano peppers, and smoked corn puree. This global—ahem—bouquet of flavors simultaneously bolstered and contrasted the duck’s sweetness. This is the kind of restaurant where each bite reveals new depths.
519 Main St., Covington, (859) 491-7777, bouquetrestaurant.com
The Over-the-Rhine steakhouse leans into authentic Italian cuisine with handmade pastas and fine cuts of beef. Be sure to order that extra meatball.
This eatery differs from other area steakhouses by leaning into its Italian influences. House-made pastas pair wonderfully with prime steaks, and the massive meatballs are not to be missed. As with most of our city’s best restaurants, Losanti sources many of its ingredients locally. The tender “Steak and Frites,” for instance, uses perfectly marbled Ohio Wagyu. At Losanti, this classic dish feels familiar-yet-novel, thanks to unique touches like golden raisin chimichurri and parmesan fries. Enjoying such a dish on Losanti’s tranquil patio overlooking Washington Park is one of the city’s great pleasures.
1401 Race St., Over-the-Rhine, (513) 246-4213, losantiotr.com
The steakhouse continues to deliver prime cuts by its stellar staff in a lavish east side restaurant.
Jeff Ruby’s original steakhouse still delivers the singular service and perfectly cooked steaks one has come to expect from this east side institution. This is still the area’s go-to spot for that glitzy, special occasion meal. Ironically for such a big, bold restaurant, it’s the little things that set The Precinct apart: the mushroom truffle chive butter that’s served with the bread, the black pepper that gets hand-cranked over a Greek salad, and the Steak Burrow’s palate-surprising come-from-behind heat. This attention to detail is what has kept The Precinct at the pinnacle of Cincinnati dining for over 40 years.
311 Delta Ave., Columbia-Tusculum, (513) 321-5454, jeffruby.com/precinct
The Best of the Rest
These restaurants may not have made our Best Restaurants list, but we still think their dishes are a cut above.