By the way we Cincinnatians talk, you’d think that everyone with a blue-collar background lives on the West side, and everyone who drives a German import lives on the East side, and never the two shall meet. Obviously, Norwood has been left out of the equation. Norwood has the working-class history (as the home of the former Cincinnati Milacron and GM plant) and upscale cache (Rookwood Commons, as much as Hyde Park would like to claim it, is a part of Norwood). In one neighborhood, it’s got the whole range of Cincinnati culture– and it’s actually a separate city unto itself.
Cincinnati is also accused of wanting to live in the past. I think particularly of the West Side, where I grew up, and where people are quick to ask you which high school you went to, and if you went to a Catholic one, if you remember when Elder beat so-and-so, or La Salle did such-and-such, or if you remember when… There’s a nearly unhealthy level of nostalgia in Cincinnati. It’s what keeps us thinking about what was, and not what could be.
But this post is about the past, and the fact that you can relive it at Quatman Cafe. That’s not a slam– it’s a fact. This small, neighborhood joint in Norwood is so clearly reminiscent of my youth on the West Side, and possibly my parents’ youth, too. It’s West Side-ier than the West Side is, these days. The bar and bar stools are straight out of my grandpa’s basement bar on Westwood-Northern Boulevard, but where he had Wiedemann neon signs, these are Christian Moerlein (a brand that is both a throwback and progressive, all at the same time). The guys at the bar have an easy rapport with the customers, who good-naturedly throw in color commentary at the Reds game playing on the TV, which is flat screen, but slightly off-kilter. The chairs and tables are covered with red checked table cloths, and a friendly waitress takes your order. One of the guys at the bar was wearing an Elder pullover and ball cap (east of 71!), and there is a ton of sports memorabilia on the walls. It even has that slightly old smell– just a little musty– but oddly comforting to me. The only thing that was missing was smoke (thank you, Ohio smoking ban).
We went on a rainy Saturday, and I didn’t tell Terry where we were going. First stop: Sur la Table to cash in some gift certificates for a SodaStream (more on that in another post). Then, I just had him navigate via Google Maps until we got to Quatman’s– it’s easy to surprise him since he’s still kind of learning the city. You seat yourself, and check out the menu on the wall. It’s simple: Hamburger, Cheeseburger, Lunchmeat (I’m not sure what that is, and I didn’ t dare ask), Ham and Cheese, and fish (Fridays only). The special was a Cheeseburger, fries, and a drink for $6.19, and they featured their mock turtle soup (another throwback to the past– how often do you see mock turtle soup on a menu?). We ordered two specials and a bowl of turtle soup.
Beer lovers, you’re in luck: Quatman’s has five taps, 2 macros (Miller Lite and Bud Light, I believe) and three locals: Hudy Amber, Hudy Delight and Christian Moerlein OTR. Oh, and draft beer counts as your drink if you order a special. The soup is good– that complex, beefy, tartly tangy flavor I expected, and most certainly not Worthmore’s from a can. Terry had never had it– he was familiar with Louisiana turtle soup (made from actual turtles) but not its Yankee “mock” cousin. He approved. The soup served with local Shur-Good oyster crackers (the crackers I grew up on).
But you’re here for the burger, right? The burger is served, by default, exactly as it was served to me as a kid: squishy bun, thick slice of American cheese melted into a thick layer on top of the meat, and the only toppings are pickles and onions. The burger (sorry Grandma) is much better– fresh meat, very juicy, and not cooked within an inch of its life. The fries were pretty standard shoestring fries, but fresh out of the fryer. I don’t know that this burger sneaked into my top five, but it’s definitely in my top ten Cincinnati burgers.
I don’t know how there is even a contest between Zip’s and Quatman’s: Quatman’s is much better. But who can be objective when you’re talking about a memory? Both Quatman’s and Zip’s are places that hold memories. Quatman’s happens to be closest to mine.