Mainstrasse Village Matures Into Family-Friendly Culinary Destination

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RIVER CITY NEWS | MICHAEL MONKS | JULY 30, 2015

Mainstrasse Village is growing up.

Covington’s go-to entertainment district, celebrated for its bountiful nightlife and annual festivals, appears to be coming of age with a new focus on amenities for families and a menu of restaurants that would rival any part of Northern Kentucky and Greater Cincinnati.

Even its cocktail offerings are more sophisticated than in years past with popular and skilled mixologists bringing their expertise to the Kentucky side of the Ohio River, and more bars voluntarily following Cincinnati’s lead in going smoke-free.

“We are seeing different faces at all different times of the day and what’s nice is, we’re able to offer something to earlier crowds and later crowds. We have very diverse offerings,” said Kim Blank, executive director of the Mainstrasse Village Association, the nonprofit organization that organizes festivals, activities, and neighborhood initiatives. The organic change taking shape in the Village is altering the perception of a part of the city that previously had a reputation heavily based on its affinity for late night partying.

But stroll along Main Street or the Sixth Street promenade, now proudly identified by banners as Steinford Park, and you may see an early morning outdoor yoga class, shoppers visiting the independent retail outlets, sidewalk tables full of the brunch crowd, and yes, friendly chatter over cocktails.

“It is giving is new opportunities for special events and our programming for healthy lifestyles and community gardens,” Blank said of the growing change. “It has changed the whole landscape of the Village.”

Much of the change is directly related to something else prevalent along the sidewalks: the sight of construction debris as multiple new restaurants come online this year. Otto’s and Bouquet continue to set a culinary standard in the neighborhood, near longtime staple and local favorite Dee Felice Cafe. The owners of both Otto’s and Bouquet are busily prepping for the launch of their second respective restaurants. Paul Weckman and Emily Wolff of Otto’s have saved a massive historic structure long-neglected at the prominent intersection of 6th & Main Streets and have impressively altered its appearance in anticipation of the opening of Frida, which will specialize in Mexican street food and will serve the liquor Mezcal. Stephen Williams of Bouquet, the upscale farm fresh-to-table restaurant and wine bar, will soon open Son & Soil, which the chef has referred to as a sort of “Bouquet to go”.

“We can’t really pull off lunch at Bouquet because the guys get here so early to start putting together dinner that it would take away what we do at dinner,” Williams said. Also, the farmers bring their products to the restaurant early in the morning. For Son & Soil, there will be fresh offerings for panini sandwiches and organic juice smoothies.

Williams is one of the many chefs in the Village who emphasize fresh ingredients and utilize the neighborhood’s community gardens.

“There is a trend in dining in general and you can trace it back to the internet where people are starting to research about what they are putting in their bodies and people want to be healthier,” Williams said. “A lot of the things they were eating as comfort food, they can get better quality and healthier at the same price. It’s not so much, everybody has to go to Whole Foods anymore.”

Also on the horizon are Commonwealth, the Kentucky-themed bistro from Chef Chris and Tess Burns that will open in a transformed pair historic buildings that had sat vacant on Main Street for years. A block away, another long vacant building that has been anything from a hookah lounge to a pizza joint will get a new shot as Crafts & Vines, a wine bar and tap room that will specialize in local craft beers and varietal wines. That spot will add to the growing emphasis on boutique cocktails and high-end drinks that have been found at other relatively new additions to Mainstrasse like Old Kentucky Bourbon Bar and Wiseguys Lounge which sits above the popular Goodfellas Pizzeria.

Oh yeah. There is also a pizza boom underway in the Village. Pizza Tower, the successful Mason, Ohio restaurant, just opened its newest location on Main Street, just ahead of the planned opening of Mac’s Pizza, which will be the fourth location of the wildly popular brand. Mac’s, which will also place a strong emphasis on beer offerings (and its menu has lots more than just pizza), replaces Cosmo’s, the now-closed former bar & restaurant that occupied a sprawling building on Main Street.

The new attitude and priorities of businesses in the Village are attracting outside investors to the neighborhood.

“We are seeing a lot of community building,” Blank said. “Here, a lot of people are investing and rehabbing and we are seeing vacant buildings being repurposed and coming back to life, and homes that are being rehabbed and sold. There is a lot of positive energy happening right now I think.”

Blank and her family renovated a building that is now home to the upscale small plate restaurant, Main Bite. Next door, where the iconic Chez Nora shocked the region with its abrupt closure in 2014, work is underway to open Lisse, a new restaurant named for a city in The Netherlands. Details have been tightly held by the new owners who bought the building at auction, but all three floors and the landmark rooftop deck will all be used.

Perhaps the most noticeable change in the neighborhood has come at its Goebel Park, where a grassroots group of community members and their children, lobbied for funds and volunteered many days to restore the playground and surrounding shelter structures. Goats now graze on the park’s hillside to keep the weeds and brush to a minimum, bringing new visitors to watch the urban farm animals and to take in the hourly show at one of Covington’s signature features, the Carroll Chimes Bell Tower, the glockenspiel that proudly stands over the neighborhood on Philadelphia Street, and is seen by thousands of motorists each day along Interstate 75.

Closest to Goebel Park is Hamelin Square, the mixed-use property developed by Charles Killian named in honor of the Pied Piper of Hamelin whose story has been told by the glockenspiel daily for more than 35 years. Killian and Chef Chip Adkins also operate Piper’s Cafe, another popular food destination that focuses on healthy and fresh items for its ever-changing menu.

“The biggest changes I observe in Mainstrasse Village dining are on two fronts,” Killian said. “There are more unique but market-driven business models, and also food service that is truly designed for the people who live and work here. Our newer food and drink service establishments have their own identities. They don’t just copy each other’s menus and rename the food.” Killian said that the emphasis on making resident lifestyle a cornerstone of local restaurants’ business models has been helpful in attracting and retaining a new, emerging residential demographic.

Chef Williams is also part of that emerging demographic. He and his wife Jessica welcomed a baby into their lives recently and live as a family on 9th Street. “A lot of people are moving to the Village as (Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine) has gotten full, and over here you can have a yard and there is much more of the young crowd moving in,” he said. “We are right in the middle of that. Even our street in the past year has seen a big turnaround.”

“It’s not just a party scene,” Williams continued. “You didn’t go past 6th Street when I moved here. The Village has gotten much more family-oriented. Raising a family has changed everything, there is more perspective on life. In the Village there are so many children right now, it’s amazing.”

The families in the neighborhood are not only leading the change in the presentation of its outdoor amenities and programming, but are also heavily supporting the committed businesses.

“We are more accessible as a carry-out operation and family ice cream stand,” Killian said of Piper’s. “As a result, we’ve got a strong base of customers who prefer us over the fast food chains down the street. Many are our resident neighbors and we often encourage them to save up money and indulge in the nicer restaurants they have felt uncomfortable about using here. Their perceptions are changing rapidly. Now they know that good food is worth good money. We are becoming a spawning ground for new foodies, I think.”

As Mainstrasse Village blossoms, the City of Covington is working to better connect the thriving neighborhood to its emerging downtown. Plans currently call for a major change to Sixth Street from Scott Boulevard and Madison Avenue downtown to Mainstrasse. With more projects underway downtown, such as Gateway Community & Technical College’s urban metro campus, new restaurants, and the $21.5 million Hotel Covington, it is key, city leaders have said, to improve connectivity to its established Mainstrasse Village. The project will focus heavily on streetscaping.

“All of the stuff that is happening all over Covington, it all plays together,” Blank said. “The 6th Street project, I think that is going to be one of the big selling points, the walkability, being able to live in the urban core and be so close to such great businesses and being able to walk. That’s going to be huge for all of Covington.”

Read the article online.