North of Cincinnati, in the city of Forest Park: there was once a wonderful, little diner.
These days, local restaurants are far more celebrated than mundane chains. There's still plenty of people happily feasting on microwaved boneless wings at “TGI-O’-Chili-Bee’s,” but those dime-a-dozen sprawling parking lot kitchens don't receive nearly the attention, praise, or celebration that local eateries now find. Ten years ago in Cincinnati, you’d be hard-pressed to overhear an in-depth conversation at a bar about which locally owned establishment served the most eclectic dinner menu. But these days you can hear a full fledged argument between people claiming to have the most educated knowledge of local cuisine as they sip beer created in the confines of a brewery within the city limits. The local scene of dining establishments ranges from upscale to hole-in-the-wall while social media accounts and blogs are filled with images of those who are proud to venture to them. In Cincinnati, the alternative paper continues the detailed local dining coverage they’ve always provided, but now even the more tone-deaf daily publication and tv news have made an effort to hone in on what’s becoming an increasingly popular trend. At times, it can be hard to keep up with how many local restaurants are opening or the long established businesses finally getting the attention and press they deserve. There’s one restaurant though, that seemed to never be noticed much.
QC/D isn’t a food review site and I don’t place the word “foodie” in my Instagram or Twitter profiles. I’ve had the opportunity to visit and enjoy places such as Sotto, Boca, and soon Restaurant L, but I’m not above a good omelette from the Waffle House or a corn dog from a Speedway gas station. Nevertheless, I wanted to highlight the Forest Park Restaurant with a story at some point, because it was a place worth visiting, worth discovering. Like a lot things in life, though: I just never got around to writing about it.
It’s not really fair to have called the Forest Park Restaurant a “hole in the wall” or a “greasy spoon,” because even though it served up diner fare, the interior was immaculate. You wouldn’t find the place among Italianate row houses in a historic neighborhood or nestled between office towers downtown, rather, it was located within a suburban strip mall in the city from which it gleaned its straightforward name. Forest Park Restaurant was indeed everything it claimed to be: a restaurant in Forest Park. The name sold itself short though, because it wasn’t just a restaurant in Forest Park, it was the greatest restaurant in Forest Park, one of my favorite places in the greater metro area. A hidden gem amongst fast food, grocery stores, barber shops, and a pony keg.
My parent’s introduced me to this place, having come across it after they moved nearby and received a coupon in the mail. They were also the ones who found it surprisingly closed one Sunday morning while attempting to treat some out of town relatives to an amazing local breakfast. Back during their first visit a few years back, they were hooked. My dad, who had once worked across the street for years, had never even noticed the place before. Both he and my mom raved about it, the three of us eventually finding the time to go to dinner there. As soon as I walked in, I could see why they had fallen in love with the place.
The interior looked like a 1960’s East Coast diner straight out of central casting, the only modern aspect being a newer Pepsi fountain behind the v-shaped counter extending into the dining room. If smoking was ever allowed in here before Ohio banned it, you couldn’t tell: the ceiling tiles featured no yellow stains and the furniture looked like it had just been delivered from the showroom. But this place wasn’t “retro,” it was original. In the times I was there, the staff featured only the family who owned the place: mother, father, and son. The service was always welcoming, friendly, and polite. All around wonderful. The menu featured double-deckers, cheeseburgers, and even Cincinnati-style cheese coneys on certain days. Breakfast was just as good as lunch or dinner.
My best memory of the Forest Park Restaurant was when I had once gone there alone. At that point, I had only been there twice before. I strolled in one evening a few years back, stopping before on the way to get cash since that’s the only form of currency they accepted. I knew the hours didn’t go late and saw that the lights were still on. It was about 7:15 and I figured they’d be closing at 8. When I sat down, I noticed the hours on the menu: they closed at 7:30. I was the only customer inside, a customer who has worked in the service industry before and figured he was being one of “those people:” the kind of person who comes in at the last minute and still expects to dine in for as long as they’d like. I had no intention to be that way though. I stood and apologized to Lisa, stating that I didn’t want to keep them late and that I’d be on my way out. She smiled, told me to sit down and said they’d be happy to make me dinner. She was already bringing me a soda.
Although I was far from a regular, she remembered me from both of the previous visits with my family. Not only that, she remembered what I had ordered both times previously: a turkey double decker sandwich with chips once, a double cheeseburger and fries the other. She asked which one I wanted this time or if I’d like to try something new. I couldn’t pass up the burger. It was too damn good.
Lisa went back to the kitchen with the order as her husband, George, put down his paper and coffee cup to start cooking. In the back, their son Beni had the Reds game on the radio as he started closing up shop for the night. The burger was out in minutes and Lisa talked to me, asking how my parents were, all while she preserved the restaurant’s immaculate state.
As time went on, my parents became regulars. I’d join them when I could. We’d have casual dinners there and also go to celebrate events such as Mother's Day. I never made it back to Forest Park Restaurant as often as I now wish I could’ve. The place was really something special and didn’t seem to mind if anyone noticed. If you tried to look the place up on Google, you were more likely to find a list of area eateries than you were the businesses’ information or GPS directions. Forest Park Restaurant was a straightforward title created well before the age of internet search algorithms. On Yelp, there was only one review. It featured five stars.
When my parents showed up to find the place closed, they came across a dry erase board in the window next to the wood-panel breezeway entrance. It read:
“CLOSED. Due to unforeseen circumstances, we’ve had to close down our business permanently. Thank you for your patronage. We will miss all of you.
-George, Lisa & Family”
I went up to see the place one last time for myself. I wanted to get a photo that documented how classic the restaurant’s interior looked. Under an ominous rain, I pulled up to the plaza that Forest Park Restaurant had always called home even as the businesses around them and neighborhood changed. The Thriftway was long gone and now features an Indian & Nepali Grocery. The former Friendly’s ice cream out front was renovated into a local sports bar. The McDonald’s nearby was demolished and a new one was built a street over. Several of the strip mall’s doors were locked and advertised “available space” while an adjacent tax prep shop was closed for the day. A few doors down, one barbershop had a steady stream of customers, another was unloading equipment in anticipation of soon opening. Classical music poured from the speakers outside the pony keg near the end and the dry cleaners was closed for the day as the owner locked up and talked to me.
He told me what happened: Beni, Lisa and George’s adult son, had unexpectedly passed away. In the wake of a tragic loss, the decision was made to close the restaurant. The dry cleaner owner and I swapped stories of good meals, him fondly recalling how friendly his neighbors were to everyone and what he and his employees loved to get for breakfast. We talked about how the loss of their loved one reminded us of our own losses. It was an incredibly moving conversation for me, something brought about between two people who’s only common connection was the Forest Park Restaurant. The kind of place where they didn’t do it “like they used to,” because they still did it like they always had for over 50 years. I thanked him for the information and for the chance to chat before snapping one last photograph and heading out.
To George and Lisa: I’m so sorry for your loss. You’re in the thoughts of myself, my family, and I’m sure many others. Thank you for the opportunity to have been a guest at the Forest Park Restaurant. Every meal was wonderful and every friendly interaction, greatly appreciated.
The business and Beni will both be sorely missed.