Many years ago, my then-girlfriend, now-wife wondered aloud why I spent so much time sitting at my kitchen table.
“It’s a Sicilian thing,” I responded. “Everything that really matters in life is best discussed around a loving table in a good kitchen.”
That long-ago conversation recently came to mind as I was thinking about Ohio’s historic restaurants and how they’ve gone the distance. Before beginning my tasty research, I called upon the experts at the Ohio Restaurant Association to help me narrow down the wide field of contenders.
Association President and CEO John Barker and his team chose the following four restaurants based on longevity, length of family ownership, impact on the local community and name recognition across Ohio.
Guests enjoying meal at Golden Lamb Restaurant & Hotel; Photo courtesy of Golden Lamb Restaurant & Hotel
GOLDEN LAMB RESTAURANT & HOTEL — LEBANON, OH
In 1803, Jonas Seaman traveled from New Jersey to the newly founded Ohio village of Lebanon to operate a “house of public entertainment.” Ohio’s oldest continuously operated hotel has hosted the likes of Annie Oakley, 12 US presidents and Harriet Beecher Stowe.
The Golden Lamb is best known for three dishes: its super-juicy pan-fried chicken, a sauerkraut balls appetizer served with cocktail sauce and house mustard, and Sister Lizzie’s Shaker Sugar Pie (the recipe for which was found in a secret hutch drawer in 1927).
The truth is, though, that head chef Nick Roudebush is a magician in the kitchen no matter what he’s preparing. Everything he creates tastes surprising in some way. (Take the Original Sticky Burger, for example, which features house-made peanut butter.) Most ingredients are locally sourced. In fact, the inn has its own farm and ages its own bourbon for special dishes.
I offer you a fun challenge: Hanging throughout the inn are hundreds of historic photos and framed news stories about the restaurant and 17-guest-room hotel. One of my favorites is a letter from a famous woman discussing chocolate cake. Go find it.
Opened in 1861, Arnold’s is Cincinnati’s oldest tavern; Photo by William J Purpura
ARNOLD’S BAR & GRILL — CINCINNATI, OH
In the heart of downtown Cincinnati, you’ll find the oldest continuously operating bar in the Queen City: Arnold’s, established in 1861. It still lives on as one of the state’s hippest hangouts.
At first, Arnold’s may feel tight, with its long bar dominating the narrow entry. This might be a deterrent for the claustrophobic, but don’t give up. Arnold’s goes on and on, including accommodating a super-cool courtyard space where live music is featured on a porch-like stage. There are even a couple of chairs next to the bathtub that the owner allegedly kept filled with gin during Prohibition.
Chris Breeden and his wife, Bethany, who purchased Arnold’s from Chris’ mom in 2019, have no proof that their establishment ever served as a speakeasy, but everything points in that direction. Jazz bands, the rock stars of their time, played here often. And where there are rock stars, there are good, hard parties.
Two dishes you should try: Greek Spaghetti, which is made with olives, bacon, garlic, butter, olive oil and Parmesan cheese, and the Yo Mama Burger, featured on the Travel Channel’s Man v. Food. It’s topped with a meat-and-grain sausage called goetta, hash browns, an egg, chipotle aioli and American cheese.
Oh, I almost forgot to mention: Scenes from five films have been shot here. Last winter, Arnold’s was closed for six weeks for the filming of scenes for Wise Guys starring Robert De Niro, which is reportedly headed for the big screen in June 2024.
Mancy's Steakhouse; Photo courtesy of Mancy's Steakhouse
MANCY’S STEAKHOUSE — TOLEDO, OH
It’s time to move on to a great steak place, and Mancy’s must be top of mind. This is a restaurant that celebrates its on-site butcher as much as its head chef.
Mancy’s first opened in 1921 as The Ideal, a 24-hour restaurant located at the end of the streetcar line so that guests could stop for breakfast on the way to work or dinner on the way home. As they say in real estate: location, location, location.
Third-generation owner Gus Mancy attributes his restaurant’s success to its “perfect cuts of meat, always-fresh seafood, in-house-crafted sauces, and [experienced] staff—their average tenure is 11 years—who know how to serve you the finest dining experience.”
The restaurant’s brick and wood panel interior gives Mancy’s a warm, cozy feel. And while steaks and fresh seafood are king, you also should try the French onion soup; its broth is made from all those beef bones set aside by the butcher.
Dave Johnson, owner of Spread Eagle Tavern & Inn; Photo courtesy of Spread Eagle Tavern & Inn
SPREAD EAGLE TAVERN & INN — HANOVERTON, OH
The story of the Spread Eagle dates to the canal boom of the early 1800s, when Hanoverton was a thriving port on the Sandy and Beaver Canal. It is recognized today not only for its food and guest rooms but also as one of the area’s finest examples of Federal Period architecture.
The smell of wood smoke hangs deliciously in the air, ancient wood floors wind their way through seven dining rooms, and photos of early politicians and movers and shakers cover nearly every inch of wall space. George Washington never slept here, but Abraham Lincoln did make a stop while on the campaign trail. The place just breathes history.
The Spread Eagle’s menu highlights include double-cut pork chops topped with maple syrup, bacon and bourbon and hand-breaded tavern chicken stuffed with mushrooms and a blend of three cheeses. Honestly, though, given the Spread Eagle’s historical feel, you will likely feel compelled to order up the Beef Wellington. This pastry-wrapped Angus beef tenderloin features mushroom duxelle and is baked and paired with an Almaden Vineyards burgundy reduction.
If you hunger for a truly unique experience, clearly, the Buckeye State is ready to serve it up.