The Cincinnati food scene has long maintained no shortage of wonderful dinner options, but when it came to a late weekend morning, feet propped up with the New York Times, there was nothing. There was a deafening weekend silence as this town ached for a solid brunch destination. A late breakfast has long been a staple to getting my weekend started. I can take my time because the day is mine. I may first head to Modo Yoga to sweat out the previous night’s toxins but I’ll always find my way to the tranquility of a good cup of coffee and eggs.
The routine of the weekend often resembles that of my week. Every Tuesday, though I’ve since switched it up, you could find me at The Rookwood noshing on the Barnesdale Burger and drinking a glass of pinot grigio. I know, it sounds weird to have wine and a burger but it somehow makes sense to my palette! As I used to sit at The Rookwood, then head bartender and cocktail mixologist extraordinaire, Rom Wells told me their team was opening a breakfast and lunch outpost downtown. I immediately pulled out my phone and put their opening date in my calendar.
Cheapside Café earned its name for the alley it sits adjacent to, which runs parallel to Broadway St. and was once used for a canal-boat turnaround in the 19th century. How’s that for a Throw-Back-Thursday? The Miami Canal used to be 274 miles of narrow waterways, much of which is now I-75. It connected Toledo with Cincinnati and featured short pit stops along the way in small towns like Piqua, Troy, Sharonville, and Lockland.
The most compelling elements of an establishment’s food and bar culture often has little to do with the actual food on the plate or libation in the glass. It’s the culture that happens behind the bar and in the seats that shapes its personality and appeal. Cheapside has accomplished what most organizations try to do but are not as successful. They’ve managed to create an authentic culture without forcing a false story upon the patrons. We had the lovely opportunity to chat with co-founder Rom Wells a few months ago, where he talked about building their concept and the path they took to get there.
You've been crafting cocktails before it was a popular trend. What interested you most in making the beverage & restaurant industry a career?
The short, not very exciting answer is that I needed to make money my senior year in college, so I started bartending as a means to do so. As it turned out, though, I was a fairly talented barkeep. When I moved to Cincinnati after graduating, I kept bartending and, even though I didn't really realize it initially, there was plenty of space here for someone who took the job seriously and treated it like a multifaceted craft with plenty of room for attention to detail. I made a good amount of connections in what was a rapidly-growing, creative food and beverage scene, including my current partners at Cheapside Café, and that helped lead me to where I am right now.
Cheapside has been very well received - what's the key to the brand’s success?
I believe a lot of factors make Cheapside work. Primarily, I think that it's such a straightforward, no frills concept. When we were conceptualizing the project, one of the first images that we had for reference was an image of, like, a club sandwich on a white background that said "simple ass lunch." It's more than that, of course, but it's still pretty much "simple ass coffee, breakfast and lunch." I think that makes people comfortable - the options aren't overwhelming, we don't really try to promise too many things, we just try to do a few things as well as we can and really service the area we're in. I think the simplicity of the design mirrors the philosophy behind what we offer; we obviously put a lot of thought into the design, but it's pretty minimal, really. We kept staring at this image of a very plain room where only the textures of the materials and negative space were really important. The more nuanced details in the space--the food, the beverages, the plants - really stand out in that environment. The experience of my partners and myself has a lot to do with it. Joe has experience founding and designing other restaurants, and he is familiar with the difficulties and pitfalls inherent in the endeavor. Jon is a very talented chef. His techniques, consistency, and culinary experience are invaluable to the success of Cheapside. My beverage training has helped me approach coffee with the same attention to detail and consistency as someone running a bar program. We had a really great team of people working on the concept as well; it would take a good amount of space here to thank everyone who helped personally, but if you did any work in or on the space, got erratic calls and emails, attended meetings that may or may not have seemed fruitful at the time, painted, sanded, or caulked, you know who you are and we thank you. Finally, the staff helps make the place work; never underestimate the staff.
There's something to the attitude of Cheapside that says "this is where the cool kids hang," how do you create that vibe that is almost undefinable?
Ha beats me. We knew we'd be spending a lot of time in the space, so that has a lot to do with the vibe. Nothing lasts forever, though, and hopefully it's still a solid place even if the cool kids don't wanna hang there anymore.
Where did you get your inspiration for the Cheapside aesthetic? The name?
I mentioned a couple images that we dwelled on during the design process above. There was one image in particular that Joe found that helped inspire the layout. Personally, I was in some imaginary Nordic landscape with a bunch of hand carved Swedish woodenware and ancient monoliths on snow white deserts, highly caffeinated, with Gorgoroth on repeat. As for the name, it's just the cross street we're located on; East Eighth Street Café sounded too vanilla.