June 2008 Issue
Dayton and environs are blessed with an array of dining choices, from fine French restaurants to contemporary bistros, steakhouses and seafood spots.
On the way home from a recent jaunt to Cincinnati, one in our group remarked on how long it had been since we’d made the hour-or-so drive from our suburban-Dayton homes down I-75 to the Queen City, with the intention of eating out.
“That’s because we don’t need to,” one of us piped up. We all understood the point and agreed wholeheartedly: The fine-dining scene in Dayton is fine enough, thank you, that one need not necessarily head out of town for great restaurant experiences.
This seems to be commonly known among Dayton folk, for whom dining out is the town’s main Friday night pastime — even, it seems, in these stingier economic times.
“For a town our size, we have so many more great restaurant options than people really realize, if they would just get out and get beyond the chains,” says Lisa Grigsby, executive director of the Miami Valley Restaurant Association, which promotes the cause of eating well in and around the Dayton area.
Chain restaurants are to be found in abundance, of course, as in any metro area — and that’s not the bad rap some critics might try to make it, since there is plenty of good food and lots of fun to be had in them. In the Dayton area, the chains tend to have clustered heavily in recent years around the malls at each compass point, while the area between is dotted with a multitude of locally owned and operated eateries that offer a bounty of specialized delights — from the Hungarian cuisine of the Amber Rose in North Dayton to the Greco-American exotics of Madison’s Bistro in Kettering.
“Dayton has lots and lots of fine places to dine,” Grigsby says, with the anecdotes and well-reasoned lists of favorites to back up the assertion. “One of the biggest things a lot of people may not realize is just how many unusual places we have where you can have great food and a great experience.”
To make the point, Grigsby offers El Meson in West Carrollton, just south of Dayton, a family-owned, Hispanic-fusion restaurant that tops local lists of the best in town and pleases palates aplenty with its lively blend of dishes from anyplace in the world where Spanish is the language spoken first. If you’re bringing in out-of-town guests, it’s a great place to make the visitors ask, “You have this in Dayton?”
Well, yes. “How many places do you know where they close down for two weeks out of the year and go on a study trip out of the country with their staff to come back with a whole new menu?” Grigsby asks — rhetorically, of course, since they do exactly that at El Meson annually to keep the place smart, hopping and fresh. “This year they went to Argentina, and came back with a totally new menu.”
High on the list of inventiveness and originality, too, is Rue Dumaine, the newest bright light on the local scene — located in south-suburban Centerville and specializing in adventurous Cajun-French cuisine. Owner/Chef Anne Kearney recently came home from having worked her art abroad, and has gotten appreciative tongues wagging with a new restaurant that’s bringing folks in from Columbus and Cincinnati. Want to try frog legs as the best appetizer you’ve had in a long while, or duck breast done in a way that will make you beg for more? Stop by. And be sure to call ahead.
“There is an audience in Dayton for fresh food done in a creative style at a good price,” Grigsby says, noting that Rue Dumaine is flourishing because it’s hitting all three. “It’s casually elegant, they print the menu daily, they buy their produce from local grocers — where else can you get one of the top chefs in New Orleans to come back to her hometown, open a restaurant and make it work?
“There’s a huge group of foodies in Dayton who want that.”
There are more international flavors to be had here. Dayton boasts at least two fine restaurants where France is the influence du jour — the perennially popular and always upper-crust L’Auberge, in Kettering, and C’est Tout in Oakwood, which flies its tri-color flag right out front where it can’t be missed.
L’Auberge, a longtime Mobil guide honoree and arguably the top restaurant in the area, offers a main dining room in which food has been raised to an art form, along with a more-affordable Bistro in the back, where the food is just as excellent but the atmosphere is considerably more laid back.
C’est Tout offers a more informal atmosphere and a splendid array of dining choices; do yourself a favor and order the lamb rack with pea pods and roasted potatoes, under a rosemary feta jus.
From is name alone, Coco’s Bistro may sound like another French-flavored spot, but it’s not. It’s a lively, energetic American bistro with a playful menu, crackerjack service, downtown sophistication and a smart owner whose great people skills and memory for names has made it the happening place in town. “Coco’s has become the place to see and be seen,” Grigsby notes. One of the Coco’s appealing aspects is that it’s right on the edge of Dayton’s fun Oregon District, a funky bar-restaurant-arts-boutique zone near downtown that has a lot of other restaurants that demand a visit.
There’s Jay’s Seafood, one of the mainstays of fine Dayton dining and the home of the greatest wine lists you’ll find anywhere in the state. Set in a historic gristmill and host to a large and loyal clientele, Jay’s has long been the bustling center of the Oregon dining scene. In recent years, it’s been joined by other fine places within a few blocks’ walk:Cafe Boulevard and its marvelous European flavors; Thai 9 and its cool Thai/Asian concoctions; Pacchia and its elegant jazz room; John Henry’s and its solid, friendly fare; Franco’s and its Italian delights; and the Dublin Pub, where one might be ordering a black-and-tan as well as a bit of Irish stew.
Speaking of Franco’s, it’s also known for its patio dining — something you can find a lot of in Dayton, from the aforementioned El Meson to what may be the best outdoor spot in the area, even if it’s a bit outside of it:The Dock in north-suburban Enon, where Jimmy Buffett and his beach aesthetic rule the roost, and where it’s a party all the time. “Oh, that’s a great place,” Grigsby said. “It’s where you want to go to feel like you’re on vacation, even if you’re not.”
Dayton dining has much more to offer, from old standby to new sizzle. For the former, you can’t pass up a visit to The Pine Club, the city’s premier steakhouse and place that’s known nationally not just for its food, but for its history, old-fashioned atmosphere and eccentric way of doing things — it doesn’t take credit cards or reservations, for instance, and doesn’t serve dessert. But trust us when we say that the top-notch meats served in a paneled dining room that takes you back to 1950s sophistication more than make up for it. Don’t come to Dayton and not stop by.
For laid-back sophistication, The Winds Cafe, in nearby Yellow Springs, can’t be beat. Set on the main downtown drag in this quaint Greene County village a half-hour from Dayton, The Winds offers a top-quality wine list alongside attentive service and some of the finest food in southwest Ohio.
New on the dining scene and getting headlines and good reviews are Cena, a lively spot that combines Brazilian and Mediterranean fare into something bracing and original, and Savona, an Italian restaurant that hasn’t been open very long, but still recently won a reader’s choice award from ActiveDayton.com, a local entertainment site.
“Cena is the place to go if you’ve got big group that you want to be served well,” Grigsby says, “and they have incredible tapas. Savona? I’m a huge fan. The chef has an unusual palate for combining things: He has a macaroni and cheese, which doesn’t sound like anything special — except he does it with truffle oil and sea scallops. It’s a wow dish. They’re northern Italian cuisine with a light touch, very good.”
Grigsby, who gets a chance (professionally, of course) to check out all the good places to eat, confesses to a liking for casual spots with fresh, ever-changing fare where one can find a table without waiting too long for it. The Dayton area actually has such spots in abundance, but a couple she likes are the family-friendly Sweeney’s Seafood in Centerville, Bahn Mai Tai Cafe in Centerville,La Piazza with its Italian food and downtown-square view in Troy, and a fairly new spot in the south suburbs that’s gotten a lot of notice — Chappy’s, an American-grill spot in Moraine that’s become quickly well-known around town for its 30-plus beers on tap.
“OK,” she admits, a tad sheepishly, “I go there mostly for the bar.”
Um, we can forgive her for that.