Restaurants of Over-the-Rhine Are the Kitchen Table

Creating a neighborhood together

The Eagle OTR, part of the Thunderdome Group, announced they were closing their restaurants and would no longer provide carryout as of end of day, Friday, March 20, 2020.

In an effort to plan something/anything, I felt this called for a special commemoration.

At 3:30 p.m., I placed my chicken pickup order for 6:30 and by 4 o’clock, I hopped online to place an order for wine at The Rhined. How could I not? They carried a unique orange wine by Day Wines, discovered during one of my self(ish)-discovery trips to Oregon. The wine was labeled Tears of the Vulcan, an apt description for these viral times.

My husband, Mark, walked with me up Elm Street to the wine shop. All of five blocks. He had been called off that day from the hospital after elective surgeries were canceled. Now he waited to be needed, waiting for the surge. The round of phone calls to postpone, posit, and prep had ceased before the end of day and he had resorted to feeding his crickets and watering his terrariums to take up his time.

We entered The Rhined and one of the owners, Dave, immediately rushed to ensure we didn’t step another foot inside. He handed us the bag of wine and we turned around, feeling the despondency from lack of social engagement, and headed back down Pleasant Street, noting more traffic than usual on Liberty. Of course, anyone who had been in the city was now heading home, or at least out of it for now.

We passed the Standard Beer shop, opened only two weeks ago. We hadn’t yet become wave-through-the-window friends, but I hoped Brett lasted with his carryout model. The owner of Pleasantry peered out the front window, looking anxious, looking for more people like us. But we were only two persons. We couldn’t eat, drink, or spend enough to sustain all the restaurants through this down turn — perhaps a true sign our neighborhood of Over-the-Rhine had not reached the density hoped for. We relied on tourism and Airbnb more than we cared to admit.

An hour later, and many pages into a book that should have entertained me but one page appeared to read like the next, I jumped up and threw on my coat. The temperature had dropped twenty degrees from the sweltering humidity of the morning.

The streets had already been emptied of construction workers. Their weekday presence was a sign of work as usual on the surface at least. Now the weekend would turn silent. The streetcar announced shortened hours of rumbling and the drivers had been blaring their horns less because there were no cars parked outside the lines. The typical Friday night throbbing pulse in the streets was soft and low.

I bumped into friends, Nic and Em, walking their Cavalier King Charles dogs. Ironically, we had bonded over dogs when we first moved here with our Enzo. Normally, we would have made plans for dinner or drinks, now was anything but normal.

I approached Thunderdome’s gray tent outside the Eagle, setup for carryout. They had planned for more crowds than had transpired. Not everyone felt the same tug I did. The emotional pull their restaurants, all of the restaurants, in Over-the-Rhine represented.

Bakersfield — the first time we took our oldest, Cheryl, there, after a drop off from the Megabus. And our family, like goslings, walked the streets of downtown and Over-the-Rhine, she rolling her suitcase, to celebrate her return home. Our son, Davis, despondent after the management removed the chalkboard near the restrooms, because every time he visited, he wrote something like, ‘Sco (Oregon) Ducks. Whenever he returned from Oregon, even if on the late night flight, a visit to Bakersfield happened precisely five minutes after he dropped his bags in the door. Introducing Shannon’s fiancé, Michael, to The Eagle’s bacon. Both wondering if they could replicate that for their wedding reception. Papa, my father-in-law. The Eagle was his only “favorite” place in Over-the-Rhine. And Krueger’s when we wanted a burger and a low-key night.

I saw that collage of memories in the reflection of the Eagle’s picture window. And through that same window, I spotted one last brown bag besides mine, probably the last order of the night. The restaurant was closing at eight p.m. I held tight to the bag, my precious cargo, the last of what represented routine in the neighborhood.

Yesterday, the mayor compared his management of the COVID crisis as of late on par with those actions taken while he served as a councilperson after the 2001 riots, when a young, unarmed black was shot by police while evading arrest. I remembered the riots. I was living in Loveland and had dragged my five-year-old son to “do the steps” on Good Friday in Mt. Adams soon after the riots. My friends said I was crazy. I shopped at Findlay Market because the vendors needed me.

The neighborhood now is not at that stage of abandonment. But I also recall, ten years after the riots, the quietude of our days while we sought properties for sale in Over-the-Rhine. Projects mid-construction. The whisper of a restaurant here and there. A fenced in park with no grass. People hoped for, but not yet counted in the numbers. We pushed on, again while our friends thought we were nuts.

Earlier in the day, Mark and I met a 65-year-old man, Tony, who worked in security for large events. Carrying a Holtman’s bag with him, he shouted to us from across the street, asking about Oregon, because Mark wore his Ducks jacket. Our son still lived there, far away from Bakersfield (though that didn’t stop him from begging through Twitter for them to expand west). From eight feet away, on each side of Mercer Street, we tried to imagine another Over-the-Rhine. Another incarnation. Another time in which our friends would tell us we are crazy.

“You’re a writer?” Tony learned. “Well, here’s your story.” Yes, the neighborhood had seeped into my writing, its lifeblood seeping into my skin, one way or the other. He was right.

Mark and I were a blended family. We had no children together. I joked, and meant it, whenever I claimed this home had become our love child. The neighborhood of Over-the-Rhine, the residents, the business owners, councilpersons, and those who experienced homelessness, all of them had become family.

And the restaurants — they were our kitchen table where we gathered to share in meals, and in our lives inspired by the energy of what they, singularly and as a whole, had brought to the neighborhood. Living and working side by side, we created together.

At home, we plated the meal of kale salad and quarter chickens, like it was the last supper. Mark made a cocktail with an American Amaro we had recently discovered. I opened the Vulcan wine, sniffed of a time in my life when I too had doubted the pace would return to usual. I drank more than my typical half-glass.

The manager at the Eagle had thanked me when he handed me the pickup order. I learned later I had accidentally (subconsciously?) ordered extra chicken. Maybe that’s why he had been filled with gratitude.

A long time ago, somewhere in the pulp of paper at the bottom of my closet, lay a poem I wrote about grounding ourselves in a neighborhood that needed a few more roots to join the stalwarts like the long-time owners of Washington Platform, the larger investors of Thunderdome or the individual contributors like Jim and Norma of B&A Kitchen who were early supporters of the streetcar, Vik Silberberg of Zula’s, who opened his doors when we opened ours and how we often stopped there — the last stop before home — and shared in a late night glass of wine.

That all came to mind as I replied to The Eagle manager, “We’ll be here when you open again, I promise.”

For a brief moment, among the signs along Vine Street that read, “Closed,” there was a sign that said, “Hope.”

** While many restaurants might close down, please take a moment to purchase a gift card to one of your favorites. I don’t have a crystal ball to tell you who will survive this crisis. I can tell you, many small business owners invested a significant portion of their income and savings, and dreamed into reality a space for residents, citizens and tourists to join them in their vision.