A new way to explore the best of Cincinnati restaurants
Pretty much everyone has heard of Cincinnati chili. But for Barb Cooper, the city’s culinary scene is much richer than a single iconic dish. Cooper’s Cincinnati Food Tours spotlight famous and not so famous dishes, giving visitors the inside scoop on Cincinnati restaurants and food vendors.
For the last eight years, Cooper has led culinary tours of the city’s iconic Findlay Market and the nearby Over-The-Rhine neighborhood, helping tourists and locals alike discover hidden gems and hyper-local treasures.
Cooper, her husband and brother-in-law ran the famed Findlay Market produce stand Daisy Mae’s for almost a decade. As a vendor, Cooper became known as the go-to source for recommendations and little-known facts on all things edible at the market and beyond.
“You become friends with your customers and they want to know things like, ‘Where’s your favorite place to get a bowl of soup?’ and ‘Where’s the waffle guy I read about in the newspaper?’” she said.
A former teacher, Cooper decided there was an opportunity in educating visitors about the city’s culinary history and the booming Cincinnati restaurant scene. She launched Cincinnati Food Tours in 2012, starting out with guided tours of Findlay Market, where visitors could sample food, meet vendors and learn some of the backstory of the market and the folks who bring it to life.
“I thought this is a chance for me to teach more people about Findlay Market and get them acquainted with the community there that’s so unique and really tight-knit,” Cooper said.
Eating and drinking in Over-The-Rhine
As her business caught on, Cooper expanded her tours from the market to the up-and-coming Over-The Rhine neighborhood.
The 19th century German neighborhood, known as one of the most architecturally intact districts in America, is famous for its stunning Greek Revival and Italianate buildings. But it had also developed a reputation as a high-crime area in the 90s and early 2000s.
In 2009, a financial news website named Over-The Rhine the most dangerous neighborhood in the nation. But after a decade-long redevelopment effort from the city and local corporations via the Cincinnati Center City Development Corp., the neighborhood has become home to trendy bars, craft breweries, and top Cincinnati restaurants in recent years.
Cooper loves sharing the OTR’s “unique small spaces” and diverse culinary offerings with visitors.
“It’s a microcosm of the greater Cincinnati area,” she said.
Food and art Cincinnati style
Cooper’s pre-COVID culinary tours involved taking visitors to four or five restaurants for small plates and dessert in a progressive lunch-style format. She also offers specialized tours, including the All-American Food Tour in Pendleton, Over-The-Rhine’s emerging arts district. In addition to a cluster of trendy eateries, the tour spotlights Pendleton’s famous Bolivar Alley, a public art hub known for a series of striking murals created with support from the nonprofit ArtWorks.
Cooper also offers an appetizer and drinks tour exploring the city’s brewing history and thriving craft brewing scene along with the urban winery The Skeleton Root, which makes unique wines from heritage American grape varietals in a historic Over-The-Rhine warehouse.
While COVID has shaken up Cooper’s business model, Cincinnati Food Tours still offers in-person tours, but with a picnic-style approach. Instead of moving from restaurant to restaurant for a bite, participants grab carry-out from several restaurants and enjoy samples in a nearby park with history and commentary from Cooper. Cooper has also launched a self-guided audio tour that allows guests to grab food from the market while enjoying recorded stories and fun facts on their own devices. For now, Cooper’s focus is on helping the restaurants and vendors with whom she’s built relationships during a challenging time.
“Right now, it’s not a money-maker,” Cooper said. “It’s a way to support the restaurants and keep my profile out there.”
Samples and stories from Cincinnati restaurants
If you’re looking for the best plate of chili in Cincinnati, Cooper is happy to give recommendations. But don’t look for it on her tour.
“Cincinnati chili is what people have heard of. But I actually don’t serve it on any of my tours,” she said.
When it comes to the Cincinnati food scene, the city’s famous chili is what often comes to mind: a spicy meat sauce served on spaghetti or on a hot dog–never by the bowl. And there are hundreds of chili parlors all over town. But for Cooper, there’s so much more to sample — and so many great stories to tell — in Cincinnati restaurants.
Cooper says around 75 percent of her customer base is from the tri-state area of Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky. Most visitors are looking for something representative but also something new. And they’ve already tasted plenty of chili. Cooper loves wowing visitors with a craft version of a classic regional breakfast dish called goetta, similar to a scrapple or sausage. The handmade version from sixth-generation craft butcher Eckerlin Meats in Findlay Market is a far cry from the mass-produced product available in regional grocery chains, she says.
Another favorite stop on the tour is authentic Liege-style waffles from Belgian-born restaurateur Jean-François Flechet. Flechet launched a small waffle stand, Taste of Belgium, in Findlay Market in 2007 and now has six bistros serving waffles and Belgian cuisine across the city.
“It’s a great story about growth and how people use Findlay Market as an incubator,” Cooper said.
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Jan Mercker is a freelance journalist, wine lover and arts enthusiast. A former public relations pro and lifelong Francophile, she helped French Champagne houses navigate the U.S. media landscape leading up to Y2K and ran the wine and spirits department at the French Embassy Trade Office in New York before moving into a writing career. She’s an underachieving but enthusiastic tennis player and parent of teens.