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Arnold’s Bar and Grill has been at 210 E. 8th St. between Main and Sycamore since 1861. Jack, the bartender who works Friday nights and only Friday nights has been here almost that long. Jack gets my award for most pleasant human being in Cincinnati. Anyone who is this consistently amiable can’t be quite right in the head. This is meant to be a compliment, Jack. I want a little of whatever Jack’s smoking to re-set my attitude.

 In a landscape increasingly dominated by cookie cutter corporate chains, Arnold’s is refreshingly unique and stubbornly old fashioned. Arnold’s might be the last place in America without air-conditioning and despite Cincinnati’s notoriously hot and humid summers the dimly lit bar and restaurant is never uncomfortable. A welcome departure from the “sealed-box-meat-locker” climate you endure in the pre-fabricated, formulaic chains. The bathrooms are not handicap accessible, unfortunate for handicapped customers, and another example of Arnold’s dated quirkiness. You couldn’t get a wheel chair into the men’s room (I can’t speak for the ladies) if you took it apart and threw it in piece by piece. I’ve been in bigger showers. The linoleum tile floor is worn and grungy where it isn’t absent altogether. The walls are lined with old photos, advertising signs and objects like a vintage radio and an oar. Everything looks like it belongs exactly where it is. It looks like Friday’s consulted this place for their décor but couldn’t quite pull it off. There are no televisions mounted on the walls with the sound turned off and that stupid indecipherable scrolling across the bottom of the screen. You’d think that to be an American requires a daily bath in the cold blue flickering light of the boob tube.

The draft beer line up is good. One tap is devoted to Barrel House beer (usually the Cumberland Pale Ale), another to Guinness, two Moerlein’s O.T.R. and Lager House Helles, one for Great Lakes (currently the Ed Fitz Porter), one for Smithwick’s (pronounced Smiddicks) and one for Stella (Euro-Bud we call it). I’ve petitioned for a revolving tap that features a wide range of great American craft beer offerings from the likes of Bell’s, Stone, Victory, Rogue, etc. So far my pleas have been ignored. So far. I’ll wear ‘em down, I swear. The bottled selections have too many industrial lagers eating up too much precious shelf space but you can find Dogfish Head’s 60 Minute and the Great Lakes Commodore Perry. If you want to go nostalgic, drink a Burger in the can, which tastes just as crappy in its reincarnation as it did in the olden days. Moerlein is resurrecting the old Schoenling-Hudepohl labels (Burger, Little Kings, Hudy 14K) though I can’t for the life of me figure out why.

The food is usually good and occasionally exceptional. The menu is extensive, maybe a little too extensive. I’d like a little more focus on fresh, locally produced ingredients, what I’d really like is to graft Mullane’s old menu onto my Arnold’s favorites, but I’ll take it for what it is. Owner and Chef Ronda Androski is prone to experimentation causing her to offer an occasional dish that is a little too haute cuisine for her regular clientele (I have on one occasion been a co-conspirator). The staples: spaghetti and meatballs, lasagna, TAB salad, etc. are affordable and date back to the Jim Tarbell days. Thursday lunch features the Turkey Feast, a Thanksgiving like plate of roast turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, green beans and gravy. It’s my favorite lunch in all of Cincinnati.

For years, back during the Tarbell era, I pretty much had my own little two-top table back by the door in the small dining area behind the bar, across from the old upright piano. Fred would often tickle the ivories, occasionaly accompanied by Dottie’s vocals. The door by my table was thrown open with the screen door locked in warmer weather, frustrating novice customers who sometimes took it for the main entrance. The little table, my table, shoved up against the steam heat radiator was especially cozy and toasty during the winter months. Jim Tarbell, a born impresario if ever there was one, would work the crowd like the politician he was about to become without so much as a whiff of the obligatory or manipulative. I was always there in my spot for my Friday lunch of fried cod and macaroni and cheese. The cod, I’m afraid to say, isn’t quite the same these days but neither am I.

The second floor dining room (I haven’t been up there in years) was originally living quarters for the Elmer Arnold household. During the Depression when the bar became a restaurant, the Arnold family moved to the third floor. The bathtub was left in the second floor space, legend holds, for the making of illegal gin. The bathtub is now motorized and parked out front and immortalized on Arnold’s t-shirts. The outdoor courtyard, the most pleasant dining space in Arnold’s, is open air in summer and closed and heated in the winter. There is a small stage for music and sometimes they will roll Fred’s old piano outside. The perfect way to while away an evening is in Arnold’s courtyard sipping a drink and listening to the Flying Pigs, a jug band comprised of Arnold’s regulars, or a Blue Grass band.

Laura, a cute little blonde (she can barely reach the top liquor shelf) with glasses tends bar Tuesday or Wednesday through Saturday. I remember her from her waitress days at Mullane’s on Race Street. She remembers me as the customer who usually ordered the KC salad. Laura has become a good friend. She’s well read and we talk books and movies, usually but not always agreeing, while I have one more Cumberland than I had planned. On any given night I’ll run into Keith Baker, a carpenter and a member of the Flying Pigs, Mark the lawyer who is somehow attached to the O.T.R. Brewery District crowd, the girl from Transylvania with her Eva Gabor accent or John Schneider who owns the apartment building across the street and is an activist for bringing streetcars to Cincinnati. Tarbell still shows up on occasion. Among many others. It’s a bar of regulars.

Arnold’s is a special place, in part because it reminds me of how much I, we, all of Cincinnati, have lost over the years. Gone is Mullane’s. Gone is the Reel Movies. Gone is the Barrel House Brew Pub. Gone are Kaldi’s and 1207 and Flanagan’s and Caddy’s and, in fact, the entire Main Street (because of the 2001 riots) and 2nd Street (because of Mike Brown’s unfettered greed) entertainment districts. But Arnold’s persists. It’s an institution and at least a couple of nights a week I find myself happily institutionalized.


November 2009

Categories: Haunts
  1. March 2, 2010 at 4:02 am

    Thanks for sharing this Mick. Not sure how it took me so long to find it but what a wonderful post.

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