Cincinnatians might not see their home as a “Southern city,” but their neighbors across the river tend to think differently. The Southern identity is strong in Kentucky and Fort Mitchell’s Greyhound Tavern, owned by lifelong Kentuckians Butch and Mary Ann Wainscott, and is an icon of Northern Kentucky-style Southern hospitality.
Ice cream and sandwiches for a different world
The Greyhound Tavern opened, first, as the Dixie Tea Room in 1921. At that time, Fort Mitchell was the southern terminus of one of the streetcar rail lines that traveled to and from Cincinnati. A simple ice cream and sandwich shop, the Dixie Tea Room stood next door to the final rail loop and was appropriately nicknamed the “end of the line.”
The business lasted about a decade and then was rebranded as the Greyhound Grill by new owner, Al Frisch. Like it is today, it was a family business with Frisch’s sister and mother cooking in the kitchen. Even the name was a nod to his biggest investor — his brother — and his greyhound dog training business.
Over the next sixty years, first-ring suburbs like Fort Mitchell began to change. Populations and investment dispersed from urban centers, the region’s streetcar system was dismantled, and highway systems emerged with people hurrying past these charming commuter towns rather than stopping to visit.
In the 1980s, Butch Wainscott was years into a career selling equipment to vehicle manufacturers. He didn’t intend to get into the restaurant business.
But the automobile industry was changing now, too, and with the industry drying up, he lost his job. Wainscott took a different gig but considered a drastic pivot: Maybe he should buy a restaurant.
Butch and Mary Ann Wainscott
It seemed simple enough. He had never worked in a restaurant, but had spent a lot of time in restaurants entertaining his customers over dinner. His new job meant a lot of traveling and his wife — home raising their (then) six children — was eager to have him closer to home.
He and his friend Bill Remke (of the Remke Markets) decided to invest together in two local restaurants — the Greyhound Grill and a nearby Frisch’s restaurant. They each paid $22,500 up front. For Remke, it was a strategic way to help stabilize one of his grocery communities; for Wainscott, his livelihood was at stake.
“I bought it because I had to have a job,” he explains, as if it made all the sense in the world.
Renovating and rebuilding a community landmark
Operating a business in Fort Mitchell did make sense for the Wainscotts. Butch grew up in nearby Crescent Springs and Mary Ann grew up just off the main thoroughfare, Dixie Highway, in the same home where they have raised their own seven children. Fort Mitchell had always been home but, even so, Mary Ann knew the whole thing was a gamble.
“It was a big leap,” she says. “It was a major decision and took quite a while to get it going.”
It took three years, in fact, to get the Greyhound Tavern up and running. Because the restaurant was already operational, the Wainscotts assumed it would be a turn-key investment. Instead, it took more time and money than they could have imagined.
The entire place was gutted, the kitchen was expanded, and a large dining room was added in the rear.
By the time the Greyhound Tavern opened, it had been lovingly restored and renovated to feel like home.
The Greyhound Tavern is truly a Northern Kentucky cultural landmark and its décor speaks to that. It feels Southern and homey without feeling staged or outdated. The walls are decorated with hand-picked antiques, gifts from long-term customers, and Mary Ann Wainscott’s own impressive paintings. The original “Dixie Tea Room” sign hangs in the entrance and artifacts like historic wooden beams and streetcar tracks have been incorporated into the renovations throughout the years.
Both locals and visitors come for the fried chicken.
In the 30 years since its opening, the Greyhound Tavern has been true to its commitment to serving accessible Southern home cooking. The Wainscotts’ goal is to provide “a fine-dining experience without the sticker shock.” To that end, its menu is part traditional tavern food; part Southern favorites. Customers can order steak, seafood, and burgers like “The Biggie” (which is a leftover menu item from the Greyhound Grill days), or go with local items like the bean soup, a hot brown, or fried chicken.
As much a possible is sourced locally, like Glier’s goetta. Through the Ohio Valley Food Connection, they have access to local cheese and seasonal produce. When it’s available, the restaurant uses the Wainscotts’ own honey from their family farm at the historic Richard Parker House in Petersburg, KY, which was recently featured in an episode of Bizarre Foods on the Travel Channel and has a significant connection to the history of slavery and the Underground Railroad.
The Wainscotts have a strong local customer base as well. The Fort Mitchell community, they say, has been very good to them, and their reputation for award-winning food also brings in a lot of customers traveling through town. They often come based on a recommendation for Southern food, particularly the fried chicken.
The average day is filled with a variety of diners, including the brunch crowd on the weekend, business lunches, family dinners, special events, and friends meeting for cocktails in the Tavern Room after work.
Putting the future of the business in good hands
The Greyhound Tavern serves good food at fair prices in a restaurant that feels like an authentic slice of Southern American family life. And it’s the Wainscott family itself that makes it feel like home.
Sitting around a Greyhound Tavern table before business hours, the three Wainscott children at work that day speak easily about their experience of helping build the family business. All of the Wainscott children have worked in the Greyhound Tavern at one point in time, but these three have stepped up to manage the business as their parents hand off more and more of the daily operations. Danny Wainscott manages the kitchen; Meggie (Wainscott) Martin — the youngest of the family — handles sales and marketing; Gabe Wainscott is the general manager.
The Wainscotts says their children are a big reason the Greyhound continues to thrive, with some of their greatest changes and additions — like the newer outdoor patio seating — coming from one of their ideas.
“If there are any big decisions to make, we still go to them as a mentors,” Martin says.
The Wainscotts don’t only hire family members, of course. One of the cooks has been at the restaurant since its opening and worked for the Greyhound Grill before it. At least a dozen or more other employees live in the immediate neighborhood. And many a Fort Mitchell resident has held their first job at Greyhound Tavern, bussing tables after football practice or after homework is finished.
“You can see them walking down the sidewalk with their apron,” Mary Ann says.
Butch Wainscott says the Greyhound Tavern will be paid off in the Summer of 2019, which means it’s his chance to step back and take some time away from the restaurant while his kids take the reins.
He looks forward to more time spent at the family farm, where — in addition to producing honey — he, Mary Ann, and their kids have spent the past 20 years hunting, fishing, farming, and perfecting the Southern family meal.
While he awaits retirement, Wainscott is rightly confident that the business is strong and is in good hands.
A few years ago, the Wainscotts expanded their business into Burlington, KY, opening the Tousey House Tavern. Now daughter Meggie is overseeing their next expansion. Their new boutique event venue business, The Marian, has recently opened in the building next door to the Tousey House and offers “hand-crafted events” in the impressively restored historic home.
It’s an opportunity, she says, to offer a smaller, more intimate event space for their customers from the Greyhound Tavern and the Tousey House Tavern.
Another son, Brad Wainscott, is soon opening his own restaurant — Libby’s Southern Comfort in downtown Covington.
“It’s in the blood,” Butch Wainscott says, and his children seem to have a knack for the family business.
Plan your visit:
The Greyhound Tavern is open daily at 2500 Dixie Hwy. in Fort Mitchell, KY. View the website for daily hours and specials. Off-street parking is available or take TANK bus route 1 or 18x.