By: CJ Haag
As a proud and enthusiastic citizen of Cleveland, Ohio, I’m plenty used to hearing “The mistake on the lake,” and plenty of other outdated and unfounded nicknames and stories regarding Cleveland’s “Armpit of the midwest” (if not the U.S.) reputation. Though I’d love to defend Cleveland throughout this entire piece, I’m not here to do that. Instead, my vigilance in defending the city has gotten me used to another thing, and that’s finding the city’s “hidden gems.” Be it delicious family owned restaurants, dive bars and microbrews alike, hikes for your perfect chilly Sunday, or breathtaking views into the next state, I can find my way around a town. Over the last few years here at UD, I’ve committed plenty of time trying to defend yet another lesser respected city in the Buckeye State. If you’re still reading, you’re in luck…I’m about to introduce you to a few of Dayton’s “hidden gems.”
Plenty of people at UD survive their first few months of Brown Street grub and the Greene’s Cheesecake Factory, but soon enough they want a great place to take their significant other or their parents visiting for the weekend to make them say “Wow. Dayton is not that bad.” They ask around and the first thing they’re told is “OH take them to The Pine Club!” Next, maybe Flemming’s, Thai 9, or even the Dublin Pub if they’ve been around the block in the Oregon District. Trust me, a small, overcrowded, ridiculously priced steakhouse does not qualify you as a hidden gem. In fact, it makes it just the opposite as a typical weekend wait time for dinner at The Pine Club can hit over an hour due to its popularity. Though the following establishments may not be “hidden” to all, I can almost promise you’ll be back next week with a group of friends displaying your newly found Daytonian expertise.
Oregon Express (Oregon District)
On an average day, one might pass right by this 100+ year old building, curious as to what’s inside due to the tinted front windows. If you’re smart enough to check inside, you’ll be delighted when you realize you’ve just discovered a time machine. Since 1976, this bar has been serving an incredibly wide range of drinks to its long-time patrons, but you wouldn’t be able to tell based on their hidden menu. Sitting at the bar, you must turn around to view the 15+ drinks they advertise, but don’t be fooled…most of the bartenders have been there since its beginning with the average age hitting about 50. Obviously, these seasoned veterans know how to make a drink, rattle off whatever your little heart desires and they’ll whip it up for you in no time, just don’t expect them to stick around for conversation (in a good way)…the OE has the classic “Holler if you need anything, Honey!” atmosphere so don’t look surprised when the barkeeper sits down at the end of the bar and reads the paper. They’ve got a small 3-tap draft selection, but over 30 bottled options with plenty of locals making the list. While you’re slurping your drink down, you’ll realize where you’re sitting: at a very old, oaky, glass case bar. You literally put your drink down onto a thin sheet of glass covering the most charming figurine display you’ve ever seen. Rolling hills and train tracks spanning the entire length of the bar (representing Dayton and the Oregon District) with small figurine people and cities scattered throughout. The cherry on top? An automated train actually runs back and forth underneath your drink and/or food…aka “The Oregon Express!”
Speaking of food, the first thing you’ll notice when you open the menu is the pizza, their specialty. Order one of these bad boys and you’re guaranteed to treat the entire room to the best smell their sniff holes have ever snuffed. Besides the pizza, their burgers are incredible. Your classic “truck-stop, grease hound” slabs of meat with some amazing craftsmanship regarding the toppings and construction of it all. If you’re lucky enough to come anywhere between Thursday through Sunday, you can enjoy live music (mainly indie-rock bands) in an adjacent room or otherwise reminisce to the jukebox-era music playing from the speakers. And if it’s warm enough? Hike up one story to the second floor patio which overlooks the entire downtown city of Dayton and the train, itself. Rumor has it, the conductor blows his whistle and waves at every pass as a tribute to the charming, friendly, welcoming atmosphere that is The Oregon Express.
Ollie’s Place Craft Beer and Whisky (Centerville)
NOTE: READ TO THE END. IT’S WORTH IT.
I’ve saved the best for last. Where do I even start with this beer and whisky emporium? First of all, it’s less than a year old. For its baby status, it certainly competes with the big dogs of the industry. Now let’s go with the restaurant. Upon entering Ollie’s, a hostess will ask you of your seating preferences…larger tables, booths, small section bars, or the main bar. Regardless of where you choose to sit, you’ll get tossed a menu filled with some crazy appetizers and entrees, my favorite is the Buffalo Chicken Egg Rolls. This place offers a great selection of quality appetizers and unique bar food. Next, choose a juicy, massive burger or a sandwich, a flatbread ($4 on Mondays!), or one of their signature entrées and slap another bar-type side dish on it to complete your perfect meal. Unfortunately, no vegan or vegetarian options in the meal department, but check out some of the apps and sides!
Not impressed? Well, behind the bar at Ollie’s sits an astonishing 61 taps, mostly very local or up and coming breweries. The beer menu, 6 full pages, separates each beer by its taste (fruity, sour, hoppy, dark, etc.) and then gives you the brewery, brew, ABV, and description of each beer to cater to your every taste along with different serving size options. It’s truly a beautiful sight for beer lovers. Not to be overlooked, however, is the wall to wall selection of top shelf whisky along with all the other booze you could want. Though it’s a fresh new place with some slightly inexperienced (compared to The OE) bartenders and servers scattered about, their friendly, “customer first” attitude will have them making the perfect concoction for whatever the mood may be. They’ve got a smaller 9 drink cocktail menu, complete with a list of each of their 13 rather classy wines and 4 entire pages of whisky with over 150 top-notch choices. Fancy yourself a whisky drinker? They’ve got a smooth, “reverse osmosis” blend of water for your tasting adjustments, something you don’t always see and is a sign of a great whisky bar.
For the grand finale, Ollie’s offers something very unique and special that easily puts them at the top of the list. Once you’ve finished your food, carefully choose another beer, get on your feet, and walk through the door just next to the bar (yes, with your beer). You, my friend, have just walked into an enormous beer emporium. Hundreds and hundreds of bottles and cans of the best craft beer you’ll find anywhere in Ohio, most likely in all of the Northwest, line the walls and shelves in this warehouse-style store connected to the bar. Sip on your precious drink while you browse the seemingly never-endless selection of everything from local breweries to labels you need google translate for, all in an attempt to build your own ultimate 6-pack. Yep, whatever you can find, you can pair with others and create your dream pack! Ollie’s emporium also offers a great wine selection and very impressive home brewing kits for beer and wine, complete with every piece you’ll need and much more.
As you can probably tell by now, I’ve done my fair share of research on these places (which I’ve thoroughly enjoyed). Dayton has incredible things to offer, much more than a lot of people seem to realize. Craft breweries, amazing views, and some pretty cool history fill this rich city and, much like Cleveland, make you proud to call it your home, no matter the reputation outsiders believe. So if you’re trying to impress a visitor or just flat out want a great place to eat, drink, and enjoy incredible company at incredible places, I highly recommend dipping into The OE, or Ollie’s. These two restaurant/bars have topped my list of Dayton’s hidden gems, but they’re not the only places you’ll be happily impressed by. For length’s sake, I didn’t have a chance to talk about these, but don’t let that fool you, they’re equally as gem-y.
Warped Wing This up and coming brewery has made a name for itself in the last few years. Make your way inside and enjoy some quality food in an open-concept, warehouse-style bar and eatery. Great food, great vibes.
Krispy Krunchy Chicken Hands down the best fried chicken you’ll have this far north. KFC-style fried chicken baskets that will make you want to move down south just to compare it. Oh, and want a shot of booze? They’ve got you covered on that, too.
Blind Bob’s (Oregon District) Yet another extremely charming, hipster-esque bar in the OD. Not as many beers on tap, but their liquor selection is brilliant and the conversations you’ll have with the locals and bartenders will keep you there for hours.
Wheat Penny (Centerville) Wheat Penny has been referred to have some of the best cocktails and mixed drinks you’ll find in Dayton. An Italian and California-style pizza kitchen, it’s got incredible food and top notch booze.
The Spot The best breakfast available. Located on the edge of the Oregon District, The Spot offers hospitality that is second to none. You’ll feel like a regular on your first trip in. Unbelievable home style cooking, nice and cheap, cash only.
The Dayton Metro Parks Looking for a nice place to take a walk or a hike? Check out the Dayton Metro Parks off of Patterson Boulevard. If you can make it through the hills, you’ll experience the second most breathtaking view in Dayton…if you can find the small “castle” and climb your way to the top, you’ll find the first.