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Queen For a Day (or Two) in Cincinnati

by Ryan Leeds
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Friday Jul 22, 2016

A strong current of pride runs through Cincinnati, dating back to 1820 when, after 40 years of rapid growth its residents dubbed it "The Queen City." But like many urban cities, it has experienced darker periods, including the 2001 riots in which Timothy Thomas, an unarmed African-American man was shot and killed by the Cincinnati police department. The incident triggered four nights of rioting and a long-standing community boycott of the downtown business area.

Until recently, Cincinnati has also endured a history of anti-gay discrimination. In 2004 however, the winds of change swept in and voters repealed Article XII, which blocked housing and job protections for the LGBT community.

In 2011, residents elected Chris Seelbach, the first openly gay politician elected to City Council. Three years later, Jim Obergefell, a Cincinnati native, made national news when he sued the state of Ohio for recognition of his same-sex marriage to his partner of 20 plus years, John Arthur. He won the case and documents the fight in, "Love Wins," a compelling and inspiring new book he co-wrote with Pulitzer Prize winner Debbie Cenziper.

Now, Cincinnati's civic and LGBT pride is at an all time high. Its renaissance of first-rate restaurants, watering holes, thriving arts scene, and stunning outdoor murals (thanks in large part to ArtWorks) help to make this universally friendly town an ideal destination spot. It takes a lot to exhaust this New Yorker, but after a recent weekend trip it was clear than Cincinnati is far from a sleepy midwestern town. It is, perhaps, one of the most underrated cities on the east coast.

Here's a quick guide to some of Cincinnati's best spots where you're likely to feel like a queen for the day:

Bites and Booze

Colombian born chef Jose Salazar's charming restaurant, Salazar, is located in the hip Over-The-Rhine neighborhood. Salazar worked in New York City at Thomas Keller's Per Se and was a semi-finalist (Great Lakes region) for a 2016 James Beard award. It's not surprising, given his careful attention to quality ingredients, 90 percent of which are sourced from local purveyors.

The menu changes seasonally, but the tender grilled chicken thigh sandwich with hoisin, cheddar, grilled onions and bacon is a perfect choice. Evenings are packed and it can be challenging to get a table, but lunch affords an easier dining opportunity. Salazar also offers craft beers and artisanal cocktails.

For unique and stylish cocktails, Sundry and Vice is perhaps one of the most coveted hotspots in town. The 18th century apothecary-style bar, co-founded by Julia Petiprin and Stuart King, has an extensive but focused list of drinks which include draft cocktails and, for non-drinkers, one the finest ginger beers (made with fresh ginger and lime) I've ever tasted. On weekends, introduce your inner child to your independent, adult self with their boozy ice cream sundae, a concoction of vanilla ice cream, bourbon, amaretto, and cacao. The idea for the establishment stemmed from a true passion. "We wanted to build something that was transformative and had a soul to it," said King. They've succeeded.

Japps, once a hair and wig shop, now serves as another watering outpost from prolific Cincinnati mixologist Molly Wellmann. The decor includes remnants of the former shop and presents weekly, hyper-seasonal drink specials. Japps also nurtures local entertainment, encouraging a true sense of Cincinnati camaraderie.

Artful Lodging

After a leisurely day of food and drink, check in to the 21c Museum Hotel, an original concept that combines art with lodging. This boutique chain started in Louisville, Kentucky, and presents global art, video installations, and special exhibitions in a 24/7 environment. The rooms are spacious and clean, adorned in thought-provoking art. Freebies include bottled water and Wi-Fi.

21c also displays a playful side with rubber duckies in the shower and iconic, plastic yellow penguins that "roam" the property. Guests are also encouraged to pamper themselves at their in-house spa.

Still hungry? 21c offers the award-winning farm-to-table Metropole on the ground level, a rooftop terrace bar with city views, cocktails, and bar snacks, and, for the less motivated, room service. When movie star Cate Blanchett was filming the 2015 movie, "Carol," (most of which was shot in Cincinnati), she stayed here. If its good enough for a two-time Academy Award winner, surely it is good enough for the rest of us.

Around Town

Art lovers can continue to their art fix directly beside the hotel at Cincinnati's Contemporary Arts Center. The museum garnered national attention in 1989 with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe's exhibit "The Perfect Moment." It featured explicit images of gay S&M culture and led to the arrest of the museum's director, Dennis Barrie. More than 25 years later, the museum is going strong and continues to push boundaries with fascinating exhibits and installations.

Across the street from 21c is the Aronoff Center, home to Broadway touring companies and the Cincinnati Opera. During my recent visit, I was fortunate enough to catch the opera company's premiere of "Fellow Travelers," a gay-themed opera set against the backdrop of Senator Joseph McCarthy's 1950s lavender scare.

Two more attractions before you go: Findlay Market, a colorful open air market with local merchants (including my personal favorite, Maverick Chocolate Company), restaurants, and live music.

Below Zero Lounge is the "go-to" gay bar in town and features more than 100 different types of vodka, drag shows, and two floors of dancing. There are comfortable nooks within the huge space, ideal for conversing with friends (or canoodling with a new one). The staff and guests are charming and will welcome you with a smile and conversation.

For more information on visiting Cincinnati, visit

Ryan Leeds is a freelance journalist who lives in Manhattan. He is the Chief Theater Critic for Manhattan Digest and a frequent contributor to Dramatics Magazine and The Broadway Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @Ry_Runner or on Facebook.


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