Review: Joe’s Diner on Sycamore

Do you ever really want to like a restaurant? Do you keep trying and trying, hoping that one day you’ll have some overwhelming, call-all-your-friends-and-tell-them-how-awesome-it-is experience, and it just never happens?

This has been my experience with Joe’s Diner.

Now, let me be clear.  I have a reputation for liking the higher end stuff, but I also love diner food done well.  It doesn’t have to be a “twist” on diner food;  straightforward is perfectly fine.   I love hamburgers, waffles, and all of the things that one thinks of when someone says “diner”.   The building istself is a favorite of mine, empty since late 2007, and previously home to Vinyl and the Diner on Sycamore.   Though Vinyl wasn’t successful (I had a soft spot in my heart for it and its chicken and waffles, though), The Diner on Sycamore was, and anyone who is capitalizing on that name and signage has some big shoes to fill.

The employees couldn’t be friendlier and more welcoming.  We went during their soft opening as well as several times since then, and always our servers were kind and gracious, and the manager really seemed to care about the customers, walking around to each table and asking for suggestions during their first week of business.

The atmosphere is great, too– classic diner up front, and some more mod remnants of Vinyl in back.  I love that they have classic TV (usually “I Love Lucy”, whenever I’ve been there) and that they’ve kept many of the classic elements of the restaurant.  There are some points that could use a bit of polish:  I wish they’d use actual dishes instead of paper trays that often don’t fit the burger, and the mason jars, while cute, don’t hold a lot of beverage.  This isn’t a problem if they’re refilled promptly, but read further for comments on service.

The menu might be what’s throwing them off– it’s entirely too big.  It’s one thing when a diner has a menu that are variations on a theme (i.e. multiple burgers, multiple presentations of pancakes, omelets, etc) but another when the menu is overwhelming to both guests and the kitchen.

We’ve had a variety of meals at Joe’s, mostly falling into the burger category.  Terry’s had the Joe’s Burger a couple of times, which he has said “was okay”– but nothing to write home about.

I’ve had the turkey burger, which, while a bit on the overly done side, wasn’t bad.  The menu says that it includes a chutney mayonnaise, but it doesn’t– there was just a gigantic piece of chutneyed mango on top of the burger, which honestly didn’t work (and had no mayonnaise).   The first time I ordered it, I also ordered fries, which were okay except they had been mixed with their funnel fries, which was disconcerting, as every bite was oddly sweet.  Later fry experiences were better (and not sugary), but the fries aren’t anything to write home about.

We’ve three times and gotten some variation of the above meal.  One time, though, we shook things up and Terry got shrimp and grits, which is a favorite dish of his.  This is a dish that can be done exceptionally well by a diner– see Tucker’s for reference– but fell short, as the shrimp weren’t terribly flavorful, and the grits had the appearance of being instant.  It’s a dish that could be great with just a couple of upgrades, but I think this falls under the “too broad of a menu” problem.

I’ve had many people complain to me about service, and I’ve experienced some slow service as well.  I’m not sure if this is because the servers are inexperience or because the kitchen is overwhelmed, but outside of the soft opening, the wait for food was long, and refills on drinks were nowhere to be found until our check was delivered.  We’ve never been there when it was packed, so there wasn’t much of an excuse as to why both the kitchen and service was slow.

Will I still go to Joe’s? Definitely.  It’s open late, and I want to try breakfast (which is available all day long, something that is not readily available downtown).  It’s convenient, and I can tell they’re trying (did I mention they were as nice as can be?) to be a great addition to the downtown community.   There’s a market in the neighborhood (and, indeed, all of downtown) for their kind of generally fast, honest, inexpensive food.    I really, really want them to be successful, but they’re going to have to reconsider their expansive menu, up their service, and focus on what they do well.

Joe's Diner on Sycamore on Urbanspoon

  • C_lint3pt0

    @winemedineme my only, and big, complaint about joes is the slow service. Everyone is really nice, just wish they weren’t so slow

    • http://twitoaster.com/country-us/winemedineme/ winemedineme

      @c_lint3pt0 they’re totally nice, and I can tell they really want to please, which is why I keep going back. They need to limit their menu.

      • C_lint3pt0

        @winemedineme yeah I will continue to go as well, especially since its so rare for a downtown/otr restaurant to have such good hours

        • http://twitoaster.com/country-us/winemedineme/ winemedineme

          @c_lint3pt0 and, you know, if you’ve been drinking on a saturday night, an order of fries– even if they’re not awesome–tastes pretty good.

          • C_lint3pt0

            @winemedineme Haha so true!

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  • http://www.danielledeskins.blogspot.com Danielle

    I’d love to hear your breakfast review once you go. What is your favorite breakfast/brunch spot? I read your last post and it sounds like you have a few favorites but if you had to choose just one?

    • http://winemedinemecincinnati.com julie

      In OTR, Tucker’s. We don’t go out for breakfast so much anymore, but when we do, definitely Tucker’s.

  • bshermcincy

    @winemedineme great review of Joe’s. I’m with you… rooting for them hard. #twitoaster

  • Brindle

    Their burgers are just burgers, but you missed their homemade corned beef hash, very delish, and my go-to order — the club sandwich (or just plain turkey sandwich) made with real turkey breast they roast themselves. There are *so* few places to find turkey that is NOT watery processed deli stuff. They also have my vote for staying open late!

  • http://cincinnaticocktails.com Craig Hochscheid

    I’m like you Julie, I love high end restaurants, from Orchids to True to La Grenouille to Les Crayères, but I also love well executed classic diner fare. I’m pulling for Joe’s, I hope that they can succeed there. Trying to please too many people with an overly large menu is a common problem with many restaurants, sort of a jack of all trades and master of none thing. Hopefully they will pare down their menu and redouble their efforts on what they keep.

  • http://flourpowerz.blogspot.com becky

    looks pretty tasty. i enjoy a good burger where ever I can find one.

    Have you had the gonzo burger at Keystone? It’s pretty fabulous.

    • http://winemedinemecincinnati.com julie

      It looks better than it tasted, I assure you. Very average, unfortunately.

  • John Augustin

    If you think Joe’s has a large menu, visit a traditional Greek diner in NY/NJ.

    • http://winemedinemecincinnati.com julie

      I’ve been to Greek diners in NY. How long have those traditional Greek diners been open, though? Everyone has to start somewhere, and an expansive menu isn’t a good thing for a restaurant that is just starting out.

  • Katie

    I have to throw in my two cents given that I live on Sycamore and have loved having this diner to walk to on the weekends. First of all, so LOVE their hours – we all know downtown businesses aren’t very user friendly when it comes to hours outside of M-F lunch. I have been to Joe’s four times since it opened and got breakfast food each time. I love their cheddar grits and their whole wheat french toast (served with turkey bacon and fresh fruit) was also delicious…how often do you see a truly healhty breakfast option like that? Their coffee is also delish in my humble opinion. Hopefully the diner will work out the kinks, but I’ve noticed a slight improvement everytime I’ve been…so that’s a good sign. I hope this is a mainstay in OTR, we NEED it!!

  • anon1

    agreed… chop the menu until it can be maintained. get the servers to focus on speed. maybe upgrade the quality on a few signature items and, wham bam bam, a fast, tasty, friendly diner with good hours. Please get better fries and burgers. Lose the sweet hamburger bun with sweet relish pickles. speed, speed, speed. Pulling for ya!

  • Elyse

    I was sad to see this post! Since Joe’s has opened, I have been there about 9 times, all different times of the day/night and various levels of sobriety, and I have had an excellent experience. Their omelettes, reuben sandwich, cheddar grits and late-night Mixx Wings have all been extremely satisfying. And those fries are like dredged in crack-cocaine or something. I hope their service level does improve as time goes by and they are more comfortable with what they are doing, but I honestly feel too many people have been too hard on them at this point in the game. I have had a serving of rubbery, under-cooked bacon at Tucker’s which has been around forever…no place is perfect. I’m glad you are still rooting for them, however!

    • Paul

      <>

      I haven’t had a good meal at Tuckers yet. Not, at least, worthy of the hype.

  • Paul

    Well done column. Unfortunately, so are the burgers. They need to drop the pre-fab patties and make their own. (Don’t give me two patties – just one that is hand-made, please.) The fries can be tossed, too (they are of the kind covered with those fryer grease nubby-things).

    OK, skip the burgers. I haven’t tried anything else and, no doubt they have some tasties hiding in that gargantuan menu. I love that the place is there and so close to home so, I’ll be back again.

  • http://willflyforfoodblog.com Christina Baita

    J and I have been there three times, all for breakfast. The one veggie omelet that I ordered where I asked for cheese, was fantastic. Mushrooms, onions, tomatoes and provolone. Perfectly cooked and a nice ratio of veggie to egg to cheese. Another time I got the breakfast sandwich with bacon on wheat and it was okay also. The last time that we were there, I ordered the same omelet but with no cheese…it was absolutely covered in cheddar, barely had any veggies and the eggs were overcooked! I couldn’t even eat it but was too shy to send it back.

    I have tried a bite of their pancakes and they are fantastic! Sweet cream just does it. I wouldn’t even need any syrup. So, I think you should try this option next time.

  • Aaron Roco

    They do have at least some beer there also. I’m not sure if they have a full bar or not though.

  • Megan

    Just had breakfast there yesterday and the service was great. The pancakes will keep me coming back and my dining mate loved the cheddar grits! You should definitely check out their breakfast.

  • Greg

    Great review! Objective (or even wanting to be positive), but accurate. I wanted so much for the experience I had there to be good, that I was already imagining frequent visits since I live downtown. The service was slow, the place was not so clean, and I’ve had better burgers & fries at McDonalds. Joe’s needs to make some SERIOUS changes or they may soon go the way of Vinyl…