The appeal of Arnold’s Bar and Grill in downtown Cincinnati certainly doesn’t lie in anything being shiny and new. Founded first as a tavern in 1861 by Simon Arnold, it stands as Cincinnati’s oldest tavern, and is a compilation of two worn, but loved, brick buildings and a courtyard.
In a previous life, the building that houses the tavern was a barbershop, and the other was an animal feed store which utilized the courtyard as a stable and carriage house. Over the span of 98 years, three generations of the Arnold family dwelled above their business in these buildings, and while it is no longer run by an Arnold, it’s holding on to its roots as a family business under Ronda Androski.
Stepping within the darkened bar itself is like stepping back into history. One could imagine it looking similar to its original 1861 layout—all wood and brick, with most of the wall space adorned in artwork, artifacts, paintings, and even some instruments. One could spend an entire night admiring the history displayed on every wall or the flooring at the entrance, which some say dates back to 1860.
On a happily bustling Friday night, when my boyfriend and I visited, we were seated in the courtyard, which seemed to be a beacon of light compared to the dark of the bar. The courtyard has a vintage, rugged look to it with all the worn brick, paintings, historic signs, strands of lights, and a stage for live performance nestled in the corner. The night I visited, two live performers played a blend of old-time music and modern, featuring instruments such as a guitar, banjo, harmonica, and tambourine. The mixture of younger and older adults added to the welcoming atmosphere.
In addition to the pleasing atmosphere, the menu offers its own unique personality to the place, as it features a surprising blend of ethnicities and Cincinnati favorites. There are vegan and gluten-free options such as Cincy Lentils (CityBeat’s best alternative to Cincinnati chili), Asian Quinoa Bowl, and veggie burgers, as well as irregular “fancy restaurant” foods like grilled cheese and tomato soup, chicken and waffles, and deviled eggs. While here isn’t any pizza on the menu (shock!), Arnold’s offers hoagies with meatballs and sauce. The Cincinnati favorite, goetta, is served with the “Yo Mamma” burger. Surprisingly, Arnold’s specialty foods, which have been on their menu since 1957, are Greek pasta dishes. Pudding bread and tiramisu were the featured desserts during my visit, and I feel I can vouch for the quality and deliciousness of the grilled cheese, tomato soup, and the pudding bread.
As for drinks, Arnold’s extensive alcoholic beverage menu is reasonably priced and also features unique drinks, such as barrel-aged negroni (which is aged in-house in a used bourbon barrel) and Italian limoncello. Just like the atmosphere of the restaurant, the menu was homey with a blend of unique elements, too.
At the end of the evening, when we had eaten our fill, I felt that the food was a little pricey (at least to a college student like me) and the music a touch too loud, in my opinion, but ultimately, dining at Arnold’s was an eye-opening and enjoyable experience. Whether you go just for drinks or food and drinks, there is a unique historic feel and welcoming atmosphere where local history is kept alive. The entire experience is worth the money spent because with the setting, the atmosphere, the live music, and the bits of culture and history adorning the walls, there is something for everyone. Top marks.
Oh, and the bathtub outside? Legend has it that during the Prohibition, Hugo Arnold made bathtub gin on the second floor of the bar. Thanks, Prohibition.