In Search of Food and the Truth

The sign on the door at Za, the restaurant across from the Aronoff Center on Walnut Street, might say, “Closed for remodeling.” But the reality seems to be that their doors have closed forever. The same holds true for the Red Squirrel restaurant on Vine Street. I found this out when I went there for lunch this week.

I write a column for CityBeat called “Living Out Loud”; and in November 2004, I wrote a satire about the restaurant closings downtown (They Closed). Now, more than a year and a half later, the situation hasn’t gotten any better.

I got taken to task on my essay in 2004 by Nick Spencer, then a candidate for Cincinnati City Council. On his Web site, he said the essay was silly, deceptive and called it “Cincinnati bashing.” In the essay, I mourned the loss of Mullane’s, a restaurant that was located next to the Shakespeare Festival on Race Street. On his Web site, Spencer told me, “Oh Christ, just shut up. Mullane’s is closed for expansion.” Well, gee, Nick, that expansion sure is taking a long time. Do you think those doors are still going to open?

In fairness, Nick’s a good guy and a strong supporter of downtown. I’m just having a little fun with him here. The only reason I bring him up at all is that I don’t consider myself a Cincinnati basher. I’ve lived many years in this city and, as the old saying goes, you always hurt the ones you love — hurt, in this case, meaning telling the truth about what’s wrong with downtown Cincinnati. Let’s talk about that — and why not start with the restaurant closings? Why can’t downtown Cincinnati keep them open? What are the problems, what are the issues and what can we do to fix them?

I’m looking for debate and discussion here. Please don’t tell me to “just shut up.”

— Larry Gross

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17 Comments on “In Search of Food and the Truth”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    RE: Nick Spencer. He’s not too happy with downtown these days. Spencer wrote on his website that he has moved to Clifton, abandoning OTR.

    He’s also talking about moving the nightclub to Covington or Newport.

  2. Anonymous Says:

    you just now noticed it was closed? How many weeks has it been? 3? 4?

  3. Natasha Says:

    It’s amazing to me that the powers that be in Cincinnati will spend mega-bucks to do a project like The Banks. Yet, their interest in keeping small businesses going, do and say nothing (indeed, they cover up the problem).

    And they wonder what is wrong with Cincinnati.

  4. Larry Gross Says:

    Let me get defensive about not noticing the closings sooner. I had foot surgery awhile back – then I was out of town.

    I find it interesting that Nick is thinking about moving his nightclub over to Covington or Newport. He is (or was?) such a strong supporter of downtown Cincinnati. If Nick Spencer has given on on downtown Cincinnati, then I think we’re in trouble.

    You’re right, Natasha, spending big bucks on the The Banks project while ignoring the small businesses is pretty screwed up – but isn’t that the way business is run in this town?

  5. david gallaher Says:

    natasha and larry gross,
    It’s worse than you describe.
    The “powers that be” in Sinincincinnati have the mind-set of Dubya: My vision is the correct vision, and I have the power to make it prevail.

    Two problems only:
    1. Wrong vision.
    2. It won’t prevail.


  6. I think The Banks project and the remodeling of Fountain Square will certainly boost patronage for downtown’s businesses, but these projects are too late, along with the reinvestment plans for Over-the-Rhine. Dumping most of the city’s efforts into these large projects leaves the current struggling businesses in the dust. How many more of them will close before these projects are finally completed? Yes, Cincinnati should still get these projects underway, and legalizing gambling in the city will generate more tax revenue, but I think the greater problem is the city dishing out welfare to corporations like Converges and Kroger. How many years will it take before the city sees gains from these “investments?” These corporate extortionists have looted the city’s funds over the years by threatening to leave if the city refuses to bow to their demands and it is time the City of Cincinnati and State of Ohio realize tax rates must have the greatest focus on income – the more money persons/ companies make, the higher their tax rates, while lowering taxes and increasing welfare for lower class persons and businesses. Starring at monstrous skyscrapers with vacant lots of once-successful shops below is so depressing.

  7. Nick Says:

    Geez… again with this..

    Let’s take a look at that old column, shall we? You named the Cavern, Moose on Main, Manna, Nick & Tony’s in VERY deceptive fashion.

    Why? Every single one of those places had their doors open at the time. In each case, remodeling/new ownership/new concept meant increased business.

    In the example you selectively site here, Aubrey, the former owner of Mullane’s, is now the head chef at Arnold’s, a wonderful marriage if there ever was one. She didn’t want to do the business end of a restaurant.

    And last time I checked, Newport on the Levee has lost Fat Fish Blue, Empire, Bamboo Club, The IMAX Theatre, Ladybug, and American Eagle in its very short existence. No column about that? You infer that its where everything’s happening, but that sure is a lot of closings, isn’t it?

    News flash: bars and restaurants have high failure rates. Period. They change names and ownership frequently. Za on Ludlow Ave. is closed too. Does that mean Ludlow is suddenly in trouble? This isn’t unique to Cincinnati by any stretch, but you love to act like it is. 50 percent of all new bars close within a year. That’s a national statistic.

    The Main Street Entertainment District is another story, but saying the CBD is suffering some full scale loss of bars and restaurants is just silly.

    The CBD has a LOT of new businesses coming soon, and with any luck, mine will be one of them. Look at Fountain Square and the 580 Building. Those spots will be filled with places to eat, like McCormick and Schmidt’s.

    OTR is a different story, and I’ll be the first to admit that making it work there is pretty hard, though I think it can still be done right in the heart of the entertainment district. Alchemize is a block removed from that, in a pretty poor location. We are looking at relocation spots all over the region (though I haven’t taken any serious walk-throughs in Cov/Newport, I don’t think my customers would follow us).

    The column was really, really bad, Larry, and you know it. It was really dishonest and unfair.

  8. Larry Gross Says:

    Jeremy’s right. Seeing the small business owner go under while the big corporations – like Kroger – cry a little and get what they want is depressing and WRONG. The problem isn’t only restaurents that can’t stay open but also the rest of the mom and pop stores that city council pays no attention to. I find it amazing that a lot of everyday people GET what’s wrong with downtown and our city council can’t figure it out. I mean is Mallory really any different than Luken? Does he care about small business? So far, he’s wearing the same suit as Luken.

  9. Nick Says:

    As one of those small business owners, I couldn’t disagree more.

    You cite Kroger. I’d assume you mean the Gateway Garage, which was built by the city to acommodate Kroger’s employees. Well, having a business less than a block away, I can tell you we benefited greatly from it. It provided safe, convenient parking for us, too– as it has for the Ensemble Theatre and Know Theatre.

    Same with Fountain Square. That improved streetscape, improved parking, and the new tenants will increase business for Fountain News, McFadden’s, Nicholson’s, Bella, etc.

    The sad thing is every time Council does something for downtown, they build a public-private partnership with an entity in town that has the capital to do so– and in the process they get accused of being corrupt sell-outs. Please. We can disagree on the merits or impact of a particular project, but I can tell you the city shouldn’t start handing out money to small businesses. The business’ accounting is usually too lax, the failure rate is too high. Its not a good way for the city to invest very limited tax dollars. No small business owner down here that I know is asking for that. Most of us are very exciting about the anchor projects like The Banks, Fountain Square, Washington Park, etc.

  10. Larry Gross Says:

    “The column was really, really bad, Larry, and you know it. It was really dishonest and unfair.”
    Nick Spencer

    Always good to hear from you, Nick, but we don’t seem to agree on much – but hey! – I did vote for you, because you’re a strong supporter of downtown and you want to see change – but I think you like to sugar coat issues.

    I don’t think the column I wrote a year and a half ago was dishonest and unfair. Look – The Cavern. THEY CLOSED. Sometime later, you yourself put a new club there. That’s great, but the other business closed.

    Nick & Tony’s? THEY CLOSED. It was months before McFadden’ts moved into that spot.

    Moose on Main? THEY CLOSED. Much like the Cavern, another business person took a shot on reopening.

    Manna? THEY CLOSED. They couldn’t generate enough business in the old location, so they ended up going someplace else.

    And the owner of Mullane’s closed because she didn’t like the business end? Maybe that’s right. I know Audrey and she told me they did a great lunch business, but was completely dead in the evening. That’s why she had to close it down – NO BUSINESS.

    I’m not trying to pick a fight here, but restaurants downtown are still a revoling door and it’s not like that in other cities. We can’t even keep at McDonalds’ open downtown? That’s sad and very telling.

    It’s true, I haven’t written about the Newport closings and maybe I should. I do know whenever I go over there, the sidewalks are crowded and the city seems busy. When I look over at Cincinnati, the lights are out.

    As for the projects going on right now – The Banks, Fountain Square, etc. I hope they do bring some life to our city. I’m not holding my breath. Our past history shows we really know how to blow opportunity.

  11. Nick Says:

    Thanks for your vote, but honestly, this makes no sense to me.

    In three of those cases, a new business moved in, lasted longer, and had improved business. Shouldn’t that tell you its not the location, but the business?

    And Manna expanded.

    Nationally, MOST BARS AND RESTAURANTS FAIL. This is not something unique to Cincinnati.

    Finally, the column does infer that Downtown is now dead due to all these closings. In this moronic imaginary conversation of yours, wouldn’t you have said ANY of the following:

    “Well, the Cavern is closed, but alchemize moved in less than a month later, and its a lot busier. Maybe that’s cause hair metal went out like 20 years ago.”

    “Moose isn’t closed, never did, its now called Cooper’s and is run by the guys who did Main City Bar.”

    “Nick & Tony’s? If you want steak, let’s go to Ruby’s, not some chain. Or we can go to McFadden’s for a packed happy hour, watch some ESPN at our booth.”

    “The Maisonette? That place was for senior citizens. Jean-Robert’s is the place to be now.”

    Its not a revolving door in other cities? Dude, you have no idea what you’re talking about. Its a tough business with competition popping up constantly. The margins are razor thin. That’s EVERYWHERE.

    Again, its a 50 percent success rate, NATIONALLY:
    http://www.startupjournal.com/columnists/smalltalk/20050620-qa.html

  12. Nick Says:

    Oh, and Christ, if you love McDonald’s so much, please, move to Westchester. I hear they got like 15 of them. Most of us could really care less about the Wal-Mart of burger chains. I’ll go to Courtyard Cafe’, Cooper’s, or Arnold’s for mine, thanks.

  13. Bob Little Says:

    What joy to see honest concern and honest response about real issues that repeatedly sink this great city on the river. we need a change from – “same folks, same dialogue, same result, same story of cinci downtown”.
    At least in the years I’ve been here it’s been boringly repetitious.
    In each letter response I read I see gems of wisdom.
    So I ask myself, when do the people who want it to be a great city speak-up and support this town?
    If each of us did one good thing each day to support cinci, this town would be unstoppable!

  14. Larry Gross Says:

    I think the difference between Nick Spencer and I is that he’s a cheerleader and I’m coming from reality. Case in point: my “love” for McDonald’s.

    No, Nick, I don’t love McDonalds. The point is every major city that I’m been in – and I’ve been in a few – always has some kind of fast food place for people who can’t afford anything else. McDonalds is a staple in major cities. Do you consider Cincinnati a major city? I like to think we are and that’s why I used McDonalds as an example as to what’s screwed up here. I’m not having a Big Mac attack.

    Enjoy your lunch at the Courtyard, Cooper’s or Arnold’s. Not everyone can afford to eat at these places and don’t have the means to go out to West Chester.

  15. Nick Says:

    Wow… are you trying to say there’s no fast food downtown?

    No Arby’s, Sbarro, Chick-Fil-A, Skyline, A&W, Auntie Anne’s, Subway, Great Steak, Penn Station, Donato’s, or Izzy’s, to name a few?

    And I know that $4 lunch menu at Arnold’s must really be beyond the reach of most people’s budgets.

    Your reality sure is funny, given that you don’t seem to notice how much fast food we have downtown, or to call Cooper’s “expensive.”

    Yeah, very realistic, Larry.

  16. Larry Gross Says:

    Jesus, Nick.

    I didn’t say we didn’t have ANY fast food downtown. Yes, we do have some sub places, some fast food pizza and thank god Izzy’s is still around. If they ever close, the writing would truly be on the wall for downtown.

    Do you get out much? I mean, do you go to other cities? If you do, do you notice that other downtowns are busy at night? That restaurants have the ability to stay open and not close down and/or change hands constantly?

    Doesn’t it upset you when you go over to Newport and see their crowded shops and sidewalks? Don’t you think something is wrong when you look across the river and see the sidewalks in Cincinnati have been rolled up?

    Apparently, it doesn’t. Your last post basically says you want us to be happy with what we got. Well, I for one I’m not.

    You are just TOTALLY missing the point and this blog has become the “Nick & Larry” show and I think it’s time to stop.

    You and I are never going to agree here. There’s only one way to settle this………

    I challenge you to a duel!!!!!!

  17. Roscoe Says:

    “Enjoy your lunch at the Courtyard, Cooper’s or Arnold’s. Not everyone can afford to eat at these places and don’t have the means to go out to West Chester. ”

    You just made a convincing argument for Wal-Mart.

    Not everybody can afford shopping at more expensive mom-and-pops. When I lived in Mt.Lookout Square I found Bracke’s charming, but had to do the majority of my shopping at Kroger. The same holds true for Wal-Mart customers. Try explaining this to limousine liberals like the Dean.


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