Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Shuttered Restaurant Flotilla of Covington



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The Ohio River is the lifeblood from which Cincinnati was born. At one point in time, it was littered with steam boats and paddle wheels bound to head west. Even today, it's still a major shipping channel for freight barges. On the shores of Northern Kentucky, where the view of the Cincinnati skyline is a preeminent feature, floating restaurants and attractions took the place of steam boats.

But in Covington, there's a fleet of shuttered vessels that aren't currently serving any customers.



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- The Beer Sellar in Newport, KY - a restaurant/bar that accompanies a Hooters on a floating barge in the Ohio River across from Cincinnati.

It's a Wednesday evening in Newport, KY. The sun is starting to hang low behind the Cincinnati skyline across the river. On the patio of The Beer Sellar, I sit down to write and sip my second cold lager. No one else is outside, probably because on this side of the river you can still smoke indoors. There's about twenty people crowded around the bar while a few shoot pool and play darts as a musician sound checks his guitar before belting out an acoustic version of "desperately wanting" by Better than Ezra. A speedboat docks at the pier below, its passengers head to the Hooters next door on the floating barge where they'll join the crowd watching the televisions and well endowed waitresses. 

It's a slow night on the riverfront, The Reds played earlier in the afternoon. On a night when they're in town though, the two floating restaurants/bars are usually packed with people waiting for water taxis to ferry them over to the ballpark. A paddle wheel cruise trudges by as the musician dives into his next song following polite applause. The cruise departed from nearby BB Riverboats where two more river liners are docked at a shore that also features helicopter tours. The final floating attraction: an intentionally dilapidated looking boat known as the "USS Nightmare" is docked in anticipation of Halloween where it serves as a "haunted house."

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- BB Riverboats in Newport, Ky offers cruises and dining on the Ohio River.

Despite it being a lazy night at the end of the summer, Newport's riverfront attractions have life as they rise and fall with the current of the Ohio River, slightly moved by the wake of passing barges. Just a few miles to the west, Newport's riverfront twin also stares right at Cincinnati with a grand view of the skyscrapers and stadiums. Yet, it's eerily quiet on the shores of Covington. The two floating restaurants over there lay in the same river, closed and dark. The floating entertainment complex that was once there - It's three hours downriver, sunk to the bottom of the water. So while Newport invites people off the shore and onto the river, what happened to Covington's waterway attractions?

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- The Mike Fink closed and docked on the Covington shoreline.
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- Entrance of the Mike Fink.

Mike Fink is a legend in American folklore. His stories of hard drinking and brawling coincide with those of Davy Crocket and the settling of the American west. You can find his name in Covington, etched into a wooden sign with a tattered banner over it that reads: "CLOSED For Renovations." In the background rests a boat, named after the legendary riverman. Like its namesake, the boat has a colorful history of its own.

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In 1936, The John W. Hubbard was launched as a tow boat in Pennsylvania. It operated on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers while changing captains and owners numerous times. By 1960, it fell into the hands of John L. Beatty, a captain who rechristened the boat as The Mike Fink. Sometime in the mid 60's, it was docked in Covington and converted into a restaurant offering a selection of seafood with a dynamic view of the Cincinnati skyline.

In 1977, Ben Bernstein purchased the restaurant. Bernstein saw potential in the rising popularity of the boat and its river location. He opened a river boat cruise line from the same location two years later. Bernstein's new company, BB Riverboats, began by launching cruises from the second deck of The Mike Fink. The Fink itself could no longer operate as a boat with having its engine and crew quarters removed to make room for the restaurant and its kitchen. According to the BB Riverboats website, Bernstein got the idea for riverboat cruises after numerous restaurant guests inquired why The Mike Fink didn't actually operate as a boat.

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Throughout the years The Mike Fink gained a reputation for having some of the best sea food in the Cincinnati area. Local sports stars, celebrities and visiting dignitaries were among a long list of high profile visitors the boat hosted over the years. It's location directly across from the Cincinnati skyline made it a local landmark. Whenever the Reds or Bengals played on national television, the Fink was often used as a "scene setter" in between commercial breaks. In a recent televised game between the Reds and Los Angeles Dodgers, ESPN featured a shot of The Mike Fink's paddle wheel and the Cincinnati skyline - although given the corporate signage on the skyline and lack of the newer Great American Tower, the footage is clearly several years old and recycled.

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- Dated footage of an operating Mike Fink restaurant and the Cincinnati skyline are still used whenever the Reds play games televised on ESPN despite the restaurant now being closed and the skyline having changed dramatically.
Despite not functioning as a boat anymore, the Fink would get another chance at navigating the Ohio River. In February 2008, the 200 foot boat was released from the shore and towed 160 miles downriver to South Point, Ohio where it received a new hull. Once it was towed back to its mooring location in Covington, the interior was gutted in preparation for a renovation...

...but The Mike Fink hasn't reopened.

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- One of the Fink's dining rooms moored on the side of the main boat. Broken glass can be seen here.
According to The Cincinnati Enquirer, the renovation plans were put on hold due to the economic recession of 2008. Every now and then, rumors would swirl up about the boat's reopening or word would get to the press about the restaurant finally being ready to make another go at it, but nothing seemed to happen. The Fink's website went from detailing renovation plans to simply saying: "We hope to see you again in the future." The Fink has become a ghost ship.

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The last meals enjoyed on The Mike Fink took place on Valentines Day 2008, over five years ago, but in the summer of 2012 there was finally some news. The Bernstein family told the press that they planned to have the restaurant operating again by Opening Day of the Reds 2013 season. A $1.5 to $2.5 Million renovation would take place on the interior of the ship and the menu would be centered around a "farm-to-plate" experience with an emphasis on barbecue.

Five months later in January 2013 though, The Bernstein's announced that their planned partnership to reopen the boat had fallen through, but that they were confident in future efforts. Great American Ballpark welcomed crowds for the first game of the season on April 1, 2013, but across the river, The Mike Fink still sat closed. This coming weekend The Reds will play the final games of their 2013 season and The Mike Fink remains a floating enigma.

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The story of Covington's floating restaurants doesn't end there though. Just west of the Fink, there's two concrete docks jutting out from the walkway along the city's flood wall. They offer great views of Cincinnati's skyline, but there's this unfinished air about them. Orange construction netting and crowd barriers block off gaps in the blue colored steel fence. Three white piers rise vertically out of the river and a parking lot lines the river bank below. There's something missing and what's missing was one of Covington's other floating attractions: The Covington Landing.

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- Former entryways to The Covington Landing, a floating entertainment complex that is now gone.
The Covington Landing could be described as a floating mall of sorts, but was more like a mall food court. It hosted a variety of eateries throughout its existence from local favorites like Skyline Chili to chains like Pizza Hut and T.G.I. Fridays to upscale dining options. There were nightclubs, bars and shops among a long slew of revolving tenants throughout the years.

- Gary Wachs, left, and Ben Bernstein, right, at the opening of The Covington Landing in 1990. Cincinnati Magazine.

The Covington Landing was the brain child of Gary Wachs and Ben Bernstein. Wachs had been an employee of Cincinnati's Coney Island Amusement Park who became the first General Manager of Coney's replacement, Kings Island, when it opened in 1972. Bernstein was known for the aforementioned Mike Fink's restaurant and his BB Riverboats cruise lines. The venue was announced in 1989 and formally opened in 1990 after months of delays. Situated on two floating barges, the landing was billed as "the largest floating restaurant/entertainment attraction in America." Bernstein relocated his cruise lines to the complex, but the crown jewel was a massive steamboat dubbed the "Spirit of America."

- Mid 90's photo of "The Spirit of America" at The Covington Landing. Carol M. Highsmith, Library of Congress Archives.

In addition to the numerous attractions on the landing's two barges, the steamboat alone featured three restaurants and two bars. However, the steamboat wasn't long for Covington and while the landing would last a little while longer - it too would eventually disappear from the river landscape.

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- The Covington Landing as seen in 2013.

One year after the landing had opened, Bernstein and Wachs announced that the entertainment complex had made just over half of the projected $11 Million it was supposed to take in. They were considering selling the Spirit of America to help pay off loans. By the third year of operation, more bad news was coming out of the landing. Ben Bernstein passed away from cancer in 1992 and by July, the complex was in foreclosure before filing for bankruptcy in October. The city of Covington entered litigation regarding rent owed from the landing. The Spirit of America was sold and entered service with Argosy Casino (now Hollywood Casino) downriver in Lawrenceburg, Indiana. As legal squabbling continued, the landing remained open, even serving as a backdrop in a scene from the 1993 film, "Airborne."

- Scenes from 1993's Airborne filmed on The Covington Landing.

Among bankruptcy and Bernstein's passing, Wachs backed out as a general partner of the complex. New partners came and went along with several tenants. Despite the struggles, some businesses such as Howl at the Moon Salon, T.G.I. Fridays and the Yucatan Liquor Stand became mainstays on a section of the complex known as "The Wharf." Meanwhile, litigation continued in the courts. In a 1997 article chronicling the landing's history, those interviewed by Cincinnati Magazine argue that a lack of pedestrian access, financial problems, economic recession, negative restaurant reviews and poor planning were causing the complex's troubles. When Cincinnati Magazine wrote that article in the fall of 1997, the landing was in the process of being renovated and reformatted once again. The city of Covington emerged as the new owners and had the place 100 percent leased. It seemed things were finally on track for the seven year old facility.

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- The piers that once held the landing's barges and steam boat in place still remain in the river today.
In 1998, Covington was set to open its new convention center and hotels on the other side of the flood wall from the landing. They had hoped that the new businesses would help spur the floating attraction as the city searched for a permanent buyer. No one ever came though and the city kept things running as businesses at "The Wharf" would come and go on a regular basis.

By 2005, the city still hadn't found a buyer for the complex. After flood debris struck the barges and repairs were estimated $1.4 Million, the city closed it down. The buildings were razed and the barges sold as scrap metal. A floating entertainment complex that had been built for nearly $15 Million ended up becoming scrap metal valued at $48,500.

- The Covington Landing after closing in 2005. Photo courtesy of Mick Yates.

On Saturday April 29, 2006, the floating barges that had supported the struggling entertainment venue for sixteen years were floated downriver to Owensboro, KY where they arrived on Monday May 1 at a steel recycling facility. On Wednesday May 3, in what can perhaps be viewed as a fitting ending for an venture that was always struggling to stay above water in a figurative sense - sank to the bottom of the river where it remains today.

The landing lives on though through Ikea though, which sells a framed photograph of the 90's era Cincinnati skyline and the landing's former steamboat: The Spirit of America.
- The Spirit of America at The Covington Landing as seen in this mid 90's photograph of Cincinnati that can be purchased through Ikea. Photo courtesy of Kelly Mcbride.

Little of consequence remains of the landing. The city touted ideas for a floating boardwalk and marina that never materialized. Meanwhile, the landing's former docks serve as makeshift viewing areas.

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Down below the docks, the sun creeps in and casts a shadow like when Indiana Jones visits the "Well of Souls" in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

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Weeds have grown up and trash accumulates from the nearby parking lot.

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Down below, the concrete structure serves as refuge for the homeless.

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The Covington Landing area still offers one of the best views of the Cincinnati skyline:
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Back above, a mural on the flood wall depicts two men standing in front of a steamboat on the Covington riverfront - eerily similar to the earlier photograph of Wachs and Bernstein at the Covington Landing's opening.

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If you look to the west you see yet another closed floating venue...

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... Jeff Ruby's Waterfront.

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I remember getting off work and coming home to see local social media exploding with the news: Jeff Ruby's Waterfront restaurant had broken away from the shore and floated down river. My roommates and I grabbed a camera and headed over to Covington where a sea of onlookers and sensational local media were camped out at the scene.

- Ruby's Waterfront after flood waters had forced it to dislodge from the shore and float away in March, 2011.

I jokingly called it "The Night that Covington Stood Still!" The floating restaurant breaking away was big news. Thankfully, everyone was ok and the boat only drifted about 100 ft. down river before smacking into the nearby Clay Wade Bailey Bridge. Even though the river was at flood stage, the Waterfront had ramps that allowed access as the river rose. The ramps and the restaurant's continued operation had been cleared by the city of Covington and the Army Corps of Engineers. Nevertheless, local television news stations had a field day coming up with theories on what "could" have happened.

After the breakaway, the restaurant remained shuttered. A few days later, it was temporarily towed down to the spot that had once belonged to The Covington Landing. Ruby appeared before the media and stated he wasn't sure of how he would proceed with the floating restaurant's future.


“I don’t know if I want to stay in the floating restaurant business. I don't know if I want to sell it. I don't know if I want to relocate it." - Waterfront owner Jeff Ruby to The Cincinnati Enquirer March 13, 2011.
- Jeff Ruby's Waterfront, Spring 2011, temporarily moored at the former site of The Covington Landing.
The Waterfront had been a staple of the area's riverfront attractions much like how Jeff Ruby is a staple in Cincinnati dining and pop culture. Originally hailing from New Jersey, Ruby grew up working for his parents in restaurants. After college, he found himself in Cincinnati and was best known for creating the "Den of Little Foxes," the premiere club in Cincy's 1970's nightlife scene. In 1981 he opened The Precinct and his reputation as a restauranteur caught on. The Waterfront was his second venture, opening in 1986. In the late 80's, it was well known for being the hangout for numerous Bengals players when Boomer Esiason was guiding them to their 1989 Super Bowl berth.
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- The Waterfront restaurant as it appears today.

Even today, The Waterfront still reflects the era in which it was born. The pale pink motif and neon lights resemble Miami Vice episodes and Rick Astley music videos. Eventually the boat was towed from its temporary spot at The Covington Landing, back to its original location. It has remained closed for the past two years.

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- Photograph of the 1997 flood. The Waterfront can be seen at the bottom right, while the Covington Landing can be seen up river.

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Like The Mike Fink's downriver, there's hope this abandoned floating eatery could reopen again too. On April 18, 2013 Jeff Ruby and the city of Covington announced a deal to reopen the Waterfront. The agreement includes the signing of a ten year lease from Ruby who will pay $75,000 per year in rent in addition to a percentage of revenue. In return, Ruby received $1.5 Million from the city up front to help relocate and renovate the restaurant. The $1.5 Million must be paid back within the ten year lease. Ruby also announced that he'd be expanding by adding a second barge with room for a second restaurant - essentially creating a new floating entertainment venue in Covington. Sound a little bit like the old Covington Landing? What's even more ironic is that the Waterfront will be relocated up river to the former spot of the Covington Landing.

- Renderings of redesigned Waterfront.

That was then, the photos in this article are from now. No official opening date or timetable has been given to The Waterfront's relocation, renovation or reopening. A call to Ruby's media contact was returned with no new updates in regards to the project. The floating eatery is still sitting in its old location, its 80's motif emblazoned with razor wire to keep out any wannabe pirates. Like The Mike Fink, Ruby's Waterfront has had plans announced, but any action remains to be seen. Will Ruby's new Waterfront finally be the floating destination that works at the site of the Covington Landing? What about The Mike Fink next to it?

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In the meantime, Ben Bernstein's legacy lives on in his BB Riverboats cruises which relocated to nearby Newport after the landing's closure. While the two ships of Covington's fine dining fleet remain shuttered, the floating restaurants in Newport offer cold beer and a chance to sit on the water while drinking it.

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20 comments:

  1. The last time I was poking around the Waterfront, there was someone inside, working it appeared. But I didn't hold out much hope with the critter carcasses and the dirty, discarded underwear laying around.
    I think that part of the Covington problem is that these places aren't as simple to get to as Newport for the non-residents.
    I Love the Cov and would love to see these places come back and hopefully discourage some of the not-so-attractive things that have been going on.
    But with the city's political turmoil, embezzlements, etc... I doubt that any of this will take precedence for a while.

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    1. I agree. Covington isn't the easiest place to get to, especially with where the Waterfront is currently located. If they actually move it to where the Landing was, I think that would help.

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  2. I used to be a security officer at the Covington Landing; then years later, I was a security officer at the Marriott right behind it. I have a million crazy stories of things I encountered down there. I remember my first night working security on the barge. It was winter, and freezing cold. After all of the shops closed, I would have to go down below, into the actual barge, and check that the bilge pumps were running because it was constantly taking on water. There was always about 6-12 inches of water down there. I remember several nights later, going down to check the pumps...at some point during the day, they had quit working and when I opened the hatch to go below, it was about half filled. After making the needed calls to get the problem fixed, I spent the rest of my shift on the shore.

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    1. That's crazy. I'd love to hear more stories from the landing.

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  3. The old Barlycorn's was downriver in Dayton KY last time I looked. It had reopened as a music bar, though I forget the name....

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    1. I thought Barleycorn's was now Hooters/Beer Sellar?

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  4. I love your post on Mike Fink. When I was younger we used to spend every Christmas Eve there for dinner. The seafood WAS amazing! It's a shame they haven't found a way to reopen it.

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    1. Maybe one day they finally will. Kind of amazing with its location, view and reputation that it hasn't come back.

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  6. Posts like this are why I continue to return this blog. Nice job.

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  7. Thanks I enjoy your work!

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  8. I was just down on the river yesterday getting pictures of the skyline. i saw the state of Mike Fink and it was rather depressing I remember going there before the game with my parents all the time. I came and googled it it to see what the latest was and found your blog. Nice work very impressed!

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  9. Good article on the waterfront restaurants. The former Covington landing was fun. In the early 90's being young and single I have some
    found memories of that place. There was 1 large club type of place, but Howl at the Moon used to pack them in. I do think
    a new Waterfront Restaurant at the Landing will be successful. And I hope it happens as I have from the Burbs to Covington. Good stuff Ronny.

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