This weekend is the inaugural Cincinnati Food and Wine Classic, a celebration of Cincinnati’s re-emergence as a tasty flavor destination in the Midwest. The event comes in the middle of a culinary boom, with new chefs and restaurants popping up around every corner in Topic’s backyard. It’s the best exhibition of culinary talent here to date, and definitely something to get excited about.
We can trace the root of all the beverage and culinary magic happening here to Cincinnati’s rich history – our brewing history, Italianate construction and world-class food reputation are all re-discoverable roots that are driving creativity, possibility and demand in every direction for the food and beverage scene. Our culinary culture has evolved from the fancy gourmet fare of the Maisonette and Pigall’s downtown towards the gastropub model with small plates and street food that now dot the city’s central core. So, how did the movement pick up momentum?
After the Maisonette and Pigall’s closed, the downtown area found itself without great eateries, with money and talent rippling to the immediate buffer neighborhoods - Northside, Clifton, Mt. Lookout, Hyde Park, Covington. Since then, it’s slowly come back from the hills to the central core. Cincinnatians want to feel like they’re having individually made fare every time they eat now, but without the formalities of older, more formal dining. Fine French went the way of American adaptation, specifically referring to street-style food and small plates - the most popular form of dining in Cincinnati right now.
But what needed to happen to eliminate diner fear or reservation for the things that are popular now? What made those things – $5 coffees, $7 beers, $10 cocktails, small tapas plates – not only less scary, but acceptable and desirable? It started with the beverage scene and what was “cool,” much like the speakeasy culture 100 years ago.
The craft beer community started to find its way about 20 years ago, with flavors like Sam Smith at the Celestial. But, the craft beer movement got its start at places like Olive’s in the Clifton Gaslight, The Comet in Northside and Dutch’s in Hyde Park before it bled into the mainstream. The scale and consumption of craft beer allowed Cincinnati to bring more craft orders and interest to the market, which in turn re-created the demand for new and resurrected local breweries.
From there, a homebrewer’s culture is taking root. Now, restaurants like Boca have led the charge in revolutionizing both gourmet fare and beverage curation; they have a foot in all fields from both new and old perspectives. Cocktails played a major role in this shift, as is evident at Boca’s bar and every booming establishment right now. It’s a continuation of the idea that people want to feel like they’re having individually made excellence every time.
One huge dichotomy in the cocktail scene is the difference in approaches that drove change. Rom Wells started with an East Coast pre-prohibition style rooted in respect for history, whereas Molly Wellmann came from San Francisco with a slow-foods style rooted in sustainability and organic creation. This is extremely evident in food, too; Jose Salazar is a big believer in slow foods, and is doing on the eatery side what Molly has done on the drinkery side. The cocktail scene preempted the food scene by birthing a greater consciousness of quality.
In the central core, The Rookwood in Mt. Adams was the first to do pre-prohibition style drinks under Rom, and they also introduced street-style foods like corn, hot dogs, tuna poke, etc. to the scene. They did it in a pocket on a hill though, which gave way for establishments like The Senate to polish and push it out. That’s what started the wave we see as a phenomenon today.
So here we are, in the midst of a convergence of all the evolution into a focal point of quality. At Topic, we’re proud to be affiliated with such an amazing celebration of our heritage and future culinary possibilities. It’s one more thing that makes Cincinnati awesome, something that no other city or region can replicate… and we wouldn’t have it any other way.