Cincinnati Bar Scene Embraces the Whimsical and the Sublime

By Rich Warren

It’s never been so much fun to grab a cocktail in the Queen City.

Innovative mixologists are throwing together unusual ingredients in whimsical ways, often in new venues surrounded by an ambience enhanced by enjoyable diversions. Here are a few delightful establishments in Cincinnati to check out.

Just north of downtown, in the hip-and-happening neighborhood of Over-the-Rhine, look for a business with signs above the door reading “Tinctures, Tonics, Remedies, and Elixirs.” In the windows are bottles of quinine, Schmidt’s Rheumatic Remedy and a couple of skulls. Don’t be fooled. Sundry and Vice is a bar with an old-time apothecary theme, which carries over to cocktails like the “Night Cure” that can be enjoyed during its “Restorative Happy Hour.”

Around the corner, The Rook OTR features a wall filled with nearly 1,000 board games. There are the usual suspects, such as Monopoly and Trivial Pursuit, but there are others you probably haven’t heard of, such as “Exploding Kittens” and “Pop the Pig.” Even the drinks menu has a gaming theme to it, making it possible to play Clue while enjoying a Mrs. Peacock’s Mojito.

Nearby, get ready to get your game on at 16-Bit Bar & Arcade, where more than 50 pinball and vintage video machines are on hand, including Donkey Kong, Mario Brothers, and yes, even Pac Man. Named for the computer architecture several of the vintage games use, 16-Bit offers two dozen craft beers, 40 bourbons, and a broad array of cocktails.

Closer to downtown Cincinnati, the Queen City Exchange is like a visit to a stock exchange. Its drinks are listed like stocks on an electronic board above the bar, but watch the pricing of your favorite beverage carefully: that monetary figure rises or falls every five minutes according to the selection’s popularity with customers. Root for a market crash!

Also downtown, Arnold’s Bar & Grill has been a fixture since 1861. The nostalgic decor includes historic photos and old-time radiators. Don’t miss the bathtub upstairs. Legend has it that it was the source of “bathtub gin” served during Prohibition.

Up on Mount Adams, overlooking downtown, the Blind Lemon can be found by walking through a narrow passage and down a stairway to an underground chamber that absolutely screams “cozy.” The walls and ceilings are adorned with copper cups, model trains, pocket watches and gold records. In the winter, enjoy drinks such as Hot-Buttered Rum beside the open fire, and in the summer, sip strawberry coladas on the brick patio outside.

For sheer innovation, the movie-themed bars owned by Jacob Trevino are not to be missed.

Tokyo Kitty, in the heart of downtown, is like the Japanese karaoke bar featured in the film “Lost in Translation.” Sing one of 500 numbers in the large main room with color-changing anime murals, or rent one of the smaller private rooms in back with decor ranging from pink wigs, Lucky Cats, or Godzilla. Your drinks will be delivered by a robot!

In East Walnut Hills, Video Archive appears to be just that: a video store where the person at the front desk recommends a film. Once a customer locates it and pulls it from the shelf, a secret sliding door opens, giving access to the bar in back that pays homage to the films of Quentin Tarantino.

And in the Pleasant Ridge neighborhood, the Overlook Tavern is all about “The Shining.” The men’s and women’s rooms are distinguished by photos of Jack Nicholson breaking through a door while Shelley Duval screams.

The best drink option? “The Hatchet,” of course!

Photo courtesy Gorilla Cinema.

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