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Downtown Cincinnati {Road Trip Roundup}

cincinnati museum center muralJust a week after visiting Cleveland, we hit the road again for two nights in Cincinnati. Our trip last Friday - Sunday was motivated by my participation in the 5B Conference and Cincy Winter Beer Fest. In between drinking and talking about blogging, we visited Terry's Turf Club, the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History & Science, the Cincinnati Art Museum, Senate Pub, and Findlay Market.

Terry's Turf Club

terry's turf club signs

The Restaurant Widow (RIP and may Lisa write again soon!) has a thorough review of the burgers at Terry's. I want to add some footnotes on the experience beyond the food.

The decor at Terry's is an expertly curated array of sign memorabilia from the last 100 years. Much of the neon, posters, and signs are of local Midwestern brands. Three classic Bevador beer coolers chill a great selection of craft brews. There is no better way to distract your dining partners from the delicious meat juice dripping down your arm than to point at one of the thousand neato things on the wall.

Staff at Terry's also gets major props for providing first class diner service. They are welcoming without being overbearing, quick without rushing, and a tight knit group. Turnover is obviously very low as we've seen the same people working each time we go and we overheard a waitress say they don't even accept applications because openings are so rare.

Go for the burgers, go for the museum-quality memorabilia, go for the service - just go!

Cincinnati Museum of Natural History & Science

child looking at bird eggs at cincy museum center

The Cincy Museum Center first wows you with its amazing location. On a hill overlooking a valley in one direction and city in another, a family can spend a long time just taking in the scenery. Step inside, and you are taken aback again by the stunning Art Deco architecture of the old Union Terminal. 22-foot tall mosaics illustrating the history of Cincinnati line the rotunda of the common area. Witnessing the beauty of the Union Terminal is reason enough to go to the History, Children's or Science Museum housed in the building.

Though the Natural History & Science Museum was largely unoccupied (it was late in the afternoon during a snowfall), we managed to lose each other in a darkened exhibit. I walked through the hall several times looking for Alex and nothing caught my attention; I couldn't even tell you what the hall intended to display.

We reunited to go through the limestone cave experience.  The recreated limestone cave was safe for kids* to touch, climb, and explore. We all enjoyed walking through without the worry of disturbing a natural system. *This cave might not be safe for rambunctous toddlers or early walkers as there are many steps, slippery areas, and small pools.

The dinosaur hall was fun for Lil. I found it circutous in routing and information beyond observation of fossils hard for a child to absorb. Several interactive exhibits did not function fully.

We all enjoyed the Nature's Trading Post, though we brought nothing to trade. Apparently those in the know bring in natural treasures (hopefully collected under legal circumstances) to trade for others. They had a great collection of rocks, fossils, and shells for trading as well as live animals and displays of nature collections like the eggs pictured.

Overall, the quality of the Natural History & Science Museum did not live up to the beauty of the building. It was a fine way to spend an hour, but next time we will check out the children's museum instead. As a reciprocal museum, admission is free for COSI members.

Cincy Winter Beerfest and 5B

cincy beerfest cake

I like beer, it's true. But at the Cincy Beerfest and 5B conference, I was in the company of people who LOVE beer.

Because I was a conference speaker I was given a VIP pass to the beerfest for Friday and Saturday nights. This entitled me to local restaurant and rare beer samples in a private area plus early entry into the main hall. With over 300 beers on hand, the time before the crowds was key to sampling without long waits. The best bite I ate was the braunschweiger from Virgil's Cafe and best beer was North Coast's Le Merle, though I can't claim to have tasted them all by a long shot.

Mini-rant 1: Many people at the beerfest wore necklaces made of pretzels. This is unsanitaryish (I clearly don't have high sanitary standards), unfashionable, and just plain weird.

Mini-rant 2: The longest line was for Yuengling. Seriously? People paid $35 to come to a beerfest and stand in line for Yuengling. I was dumbfounded.

5b conference

Thankfully the 5B conference surprised me in a good way. The leader, Carla, is clearly a master at friendly organization. She lined up casual, knowledgeable speakers and kept registration limited to allow for genuine interaction among participants. I met Jen from Our Good Food Life and Lori from Fake Food Free in person for the first time and caught up with Diana from Cookerati and Julie from Wine Me, Dine Me Cincinnati.

Everyone was approachable, swag was minimal, and the obvious focus was on community. I can share my session notes on building your blog through groups if anyone wants them. I consider the first year of 5B a huge success and hope to see it grow in the future.

Cincinnati Art Museum

nick cave fiber art mobile

When we drove up to the art museum on Saturday afternoon, the attendant told us parking was free. While most people might think this is a great thing, I started to get a sinking feeling in my stomach. A special event must be going on. This place is going to be crowded.

I was right. Nick Cave, fiber artist, was visiting, the museum was hosting a fundraiser, and it was a family fun day. The historic building was simply crawling with people.

We immediately happened into the source for some of the chaos - a three story interactive fiber installation. White wigged and clothed women helped visitors make yarn pompoms to keep or add to the jellyfish-like oversized mobile pictured above. We never did understand why the assistants were in white but their costuming added to the absurdity and beauty of our crowded visit.

Though our senses were overstimulated with a very loud band and so many visitors, the art pulled us in. Cincinnati has an amazing collection of everything from ancient world artworks to two Tiffany loving cups to modern paintings.

The curators display their excellent array in a interesting ways. Some is grouped by style and age as one might expect. The Nick Cave visiting exhibit (January 21, 2012 - April 29, 2012) is installed in galleries throughout the museum and connected by green lines on the floor. Another rotating exhibit, Monet in Giverney (February 04, 2012 - May 13, 2012), is housed in a single room with paper decorated ceiling and careful artwork placement to compare how garden sights inspired Monet. An entire hall on the 2nd floor is filled with art in a display so compact that there is no space for information placards and instead a booklet provides details.

We had to leave after an hour and a half because the crowd was just too much. Do as I say, not as I do - plan to spend an entire week day at the art museum to peacefully absorb the very fine collection. If you are a fiber artist or appreciate recycled materials, go before the end of April to see the Nick Cave works - they are fun and provocative.

Senate Pub

senate pub poutine

Senate is the darling of the Cincinnati dining scene, so far as I can tell from recommendations and reviews. The last two times we've been in the area, we haven't made it to Senate and I was determined to do so this visit.

We missed our first opportunity when we left later than expected on Friday and exceeded the lunch hours. We almost missed Saturday dinner because we were hungry before they opened but I insisted that we wait.

I thought that arriving right at opening time would be a good way to beat the crowds. Somehow the restaurant was almost full when we arrived! We grabbed the last table, one right by the door. It was a little chilly but the food more than made up for the location.

Senate is decorated in a modern classy pub style. Flat screen televisions over the bar play old movies. A fabulous country eastern music selection blared over the speakers. Most of the seating was either at the bar or at tables with shared bench seating. Senate has a solid cocktail menu and beer list prepared by informed bartenders.

The pub atmosphere continues to the menu where the selection largely consists of sandwiches and hot dogs. These are no ordinary patties and sausages, though. They are creative combinations made in house and served with house-made condiments.

We started with poutine, a current favorite of mine. Senate serves the classic fries-gravy-cheese curds melange on top of bechamel. I thought this combination would be over the top indulgent but somehow it worked. The 'gravy' was a very meaty topping of beef short ribs and the creamy bechemal covered for the lack of saucy gravy. This is a heart-stopping dish that must be shared among diners.

Alex ordered the lobster BLT. Again, we suspected that a BLT with lobster would be a waste of amazing seafood. Alex said this sandwich was perfectly balanced, however, and he ate it so quickly I didn't even get to share a bite.

danny devito dog at senate pub

I chose the daily special hot dog, the 'Danny DeVito'. A spicy andoullie sausage was smothered in Chimay cheese sauce, a few bits of broccoli, bacon, and shoe string potatoes. The bacon and potatoes seemed unnecessary and I wished there was more broccoli but I wouldn't hesitate to order this again.

Lil, with her expensive tastes, ordered the duck leg entree. Duck leg is not hard to do well and Senate excelled with a wine sauce and perfectly prepared vegetable accompaniments. Indeed, the roasted brussels sprouts, parsnips, and carrots were my favorite parts of the dish.

I was a little confused by the loud bar feel and pricey gourmet food paired together. On the upside, the loudness would cover almost any noise a kid could make and the staff was very accommodating to Lil, even making her lemonade from hand when she ordered. I, personally, enjoy conversation without shouting and would have preferred a bit more space and quiet.

By the time we left, Senate was bustling with a line practically out the door. I can understand the appeal for the food. To take advantage of the demand and the needs of those who want a softer experience, perhaps management will open a second Senate in a more spacious quiet location. Even if they stick with the single noisy bar, I know we will return.

Findlay Market

findlay market

On the way out of town we hit up Findlay Market for breakfast and meat for dinner. The 'market' is actually a series of buildings that include permanent and week-to-week vendors.

We limited our visit to the main indoor market for lack of time to explore more. A half dozen meat vendors offer a variety of quality and price points. Several from-scratch baked goods and prepared food vendors stand at the ready to supply home cooks. A coffee shop, creperie, Asian, Mexican, juice, and gelato stands are available for ordering freshly made meals. Tables and chairs are scattered through the market for those wanting to eat at Findlay. The late breakfast we ate (smoothies, coffee, and a Mexican rice bowl) was acceptable, though not the gourmet fare offered at the North Market.

In the growing season, farmers line the walkways with local produce. The fresh produce offerings this time of year were scarce. Though I may have missed them, fine cheese and alcohol also seem to be missing from the market. Even though we clearly visited in the slow season, Findlay Market is big and could support nearly all of a family's grocery needs.

Final Notes

findlay market floor emblem

Beyond the fantastic art museum and plenty of places for good eats, Cincinnati boasts a more hilly landscape and older architecture than Columbus. The Netherland Plaza Hotel (now owned by Hilton and open to friendly tourists who don't bother the paying guests) shares Art Deco stylings similar to the Cincinnati Museum Center. Homes and businesses are wedged onto steep streets reminiscent of San Francisco. I enjoy simply driving around Cincy to the top of the hills and looking around.

What are your favorites in downtown Cincinnati?

Plan Your Trip

Terry's Turf Club 4618 Eastern Ave Cincinnati, OH 45226 (513) 533-4222 burgers $7 and up, peanuts in shells free

Cincinnati Museum Center 1301 Western Avenue Cincinnati, OH 45203 (513) 287-7000 $12.50 Adult/ $11.50 Senior (60+)/ $8.50 Children (3-12)/ $4.50 Toddlers (1-2), reciprocal with COSI

Cincinnati Art Museum 953 Eden Park Drive Cincinnati, OH 45202 (513) 721-2787 Free admission

Senate Pub 1212 VINE ST Cincinnati, OH 45202 1 513.421.2020 cocktails $9, gourmet sandwiches $11, entrees $16

Findlay Market 1801 Race Street, Cincinnati, OH 45202 (513) 665-4839

PS. My apologies that pictures are again taken with my crummy camera phone. I am accepting donations towards a faster better phone camera. If enough of you care about travelogues, I might be convinced to take the big camera. Tell me what you think in the comments.

PPS. Interested diners may want to read Columbus Underground's recent review of the Taste of Belgium Bistro near Senate in Cincinnati.