Westwood's emerging dining scene is built on the shoulders of neighborhood pioneers

Janice Howard and her husband, Bob, are pioneers of sorts in their neighborhood.

A little more than 15 years ago, Janice was working at Kroger’s corporate office; Bob was contemplating retiring from the Ford plant in Sharonville after 30-plus years and thinking about what to do next.

He earned a barber’s license and started looking for a place to set up shop as well as a place for his daughter, Latosha, who wanted to open a hair salon. They found an old aquarium supply store on Harrison Avenue in the heart of Westwood, which was actually three connected spaces. So Bob opened G’s Perfection Plus barber shop, and Latosha opened hers as well. That left a third space.

“Maybe I’ll open up a catering business,” Janice remembers thinking. “Everyone’s always enjoyed my cooking.”

She took some classes, got a business license, and opened up Emma’s Soul Food, naming it after her mother, and started serving meatloaf and chicken dinners, complete with sides of macaroni and cheese, fried okra, and baked beans, plus desserts of banana pudding and peach cobbler.

That was in 2004. Emma’s Soul Food is still going strong (as is Bob’s barber shop), and has just expanded its dine-in seating, moving into the old salon space.

“It’s getting better and better,” Janice says.

Joe Henke is another Westwood pioneer. He opened Henke Winery across the street nearly 20 years ago in a building that was once inhabited by the fabled Window Garden restaurant, which was a Westwood staple since the ’30s.

Henke makes wine in the cellar, sells it in the restaurant upstairs, and when the day is done, retreats to his home on the upper floor.

Nearly two decades later, Westwood’s dining scene is catching up to their pioneering.

Ivory House owner Frank Eversole and marketing and beverage director Linda PittA block up Harrison Avenue, Frank Eversole opened Ivory House in July. Ivory House is the type of restaurant that might have opened downtown, in Over-the-Rhine, or maybe in Hyde Park or out in one of the wealthier suburbs. But Eversole and his husband, Rick Pouliot, are Westwood residents and long-time investors in the neighborhood, having completed about 40 development projects there, mostly residential.

What Westwood needed, they agreed, was an upscale, fine dining destination. They bought an ’80s-era building that had once been a Huntington Bank branch and sought proposals from restaurant groups for a concept to fill the space. But nothing meshed with their ideas.

“Finally, I said to Rick, ‘We can do this.’ He said, Are you crazy?’”

Their combined restaurant experience? Zero.

But that’s what they did, first doing their homework on the potential market, where the customers may come from, and how much they may spend.

“There’s a lot of money here to be spent on entertainment and food,” Eversole says. “Those food dollars were leaving the market.”

They staffed up the kitchen with an executive chef, two sous chefs, and a kitchen manager, and outfitted the space with a white grand piano and other elegant appointments.

The Ivory House name is a nod to Westwood history and soap maker James Norris Gamble, descendant of one of the Procter & Gamble founders, who played a leading role in developing P&G’s signature Ivory soap. Gamble lived in the neighborhood and was actually mayor of Westwood before it was incorporated into Cincinnati in 1896.

The Ivory House menu includes small plates such as grilled peach and heirloom tomatoes, and mussels diablo, plus entrees like bouillabaisse and barbecued quail. On a recent Saturday night, the (available and distanced) seats were mostly full and a wedding party occupied a back room.

“Since we opened, we’ve seen a steady increase in sales week after week after week,” Eversole says.

Andrew Salzbrun expects that will also happen at Nation Kitchen and Bar when he opens that restaurant’s second location on Oct. 1. Nation first opened in Pendleton in 2015 with a menu of craft burgers, fries, and beer.

By 2018, Salzbrun and his team were looking to open a second location and had proposals from several neighborhoods.

“We had to set some rigid parameters on what an ideal site looks like to us,” he says.

They agreed on these “must haves” for the next place:

· Nation must be the first or second mover in an emerging neighborhood,

· It must be in a neighborhood that has at least $20 million worth of development under way or committed.

· It must be in a building with historical significance.

Salzbrun looked around Westwood and saw some promising developments: Muse Café, a coffee and wine bar had recently opened; West Side Brewing brought the brewpub experience to the neighborhood in 2017, and Madcap Productions had moved its theater and classroom space to a renovated, historic Cincinnati Bell building just down the street.

And the city of Cincinnati wanted to sell a decommissioned, historic firehouse across the way from the brewpub and the theater. In 2018, Nation’s parent company was granted the right to buy the firehouse at the corner of Epworth and Junietta and transform it into the next Nation Kitchen.

“We saw a huge opportunity for a neighborhood to grow,” Salzbrun says.

He wants Nation to be a place that helps define the neighborhood, something like Zips does for Mount Lookout. “We want to be a brand that goes into a neighborhood and is a cornerstone for the next 50 years,” he says.

Who knows what the next 50 years may bring, but the next five years will almost certainly bring more dining and entertainment spots in Westwood, following the leads of these pioneers.

The On The Ground: Westwood feature series is made possible with support from The Carol Ann and Ralph V. Haile, Jr. / U. S. Bank Foundation.

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