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14 Hours and a Bowl of Chili

By Peter Mandel
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, February 21, 1999; Page E01


In the 1930s and '40s when trains were king, bands used to make a lot of noise about heading from big city to small town (and vice versa) via the rails. You can't get from Union Station to Chattanooga anymore by train unless you ride in a freight car. So if you want to capture that comfortable sense of rattling through the night on your way to a town that feels something like home, there's only one song-worthy trip I know of: taking Amtrak's refurbished Cardinal, which leaves Washington on Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and lands you in interesting and friendly Cincinnati 14 hours later.

The idea of a lengthy trip on Amtrak puts most people's teeth on edge, and back in the early 1980s when I first rode this train it was a nightmare of broken seats that refused to recline and windows so badly scratched you could get only a faded, impressionistic view of the world outside. Some desperate passengers tried stretching out in the overhead luggage racks, and during the night you listened to snores and ominous shifting sounds filtering down from this makeshift bunkroom just under the ceiling.

But on two recent Cardinal journeys, I discovered that things have changed dramatically, even for the traveler with simple tastes (or a limited budget) who books a seat in coach class. Amtrak's sleeping compartments have always been cozy and shipshape (if a bit overpriced), but since 1996, when its double-decker Superliner cars first appeared on the route, there's been more peace and quiet for everyone and less incentive to shell out $100 or so extra for a sleeper, or about double that for a deluxe compartment with private shower and toilet.

Now standard on most Amtrak Western and Midwestern routes, Superliner equipment means fatter seats with enough leg room for an average-size man to stretch his legs out as far as they'll go and barely reach the metal footrest bolted to the seat in front of him. It means there are dining cars on each train that lack the crisp white tablecloths and napkins of European trains but that offer honest-to-goodness table service to help make microwaved platters of Amfood seem like dinner.

Maybe best of all are the new Superliner observation cars (called Sightseer Lounges), which, with their wall-to-wall wraparound windows, bars and angled seats, can make you feel like a minor character in "Strangers on a Train."

One of my gripes with train trips has been that you always seem to be down in a gully, riding knee-high through the crackerbox back alleys of town after cow town. The Cardinal's observation car unshackles you from this sense of slithering along, in part because it's up high on the train's second deck, and in part because, for nearly all of the Washington-to-Cincinnati segment of the route (the Cardinal continues on to Chicago), the scenery is wild and very beautiful.

Not long out of D.C., you're in Virginia horse country with stubbled fields blazing in the sun and the Blue Ridge Mountains peeking out behind hilltops and beyond clumps of trees. Reaching West Virginia before twilight, the Cardinal roars through the whitewater New River Gorge. And rather than seeing river, flume and rocks from a distance, you're right on top of them as the train snakes along the bank.

The Cardinal passes close by two famous resorts--the Homestead in Hot Springs, Va., and the Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., but those are for the people in sleeping cars to dream about as a half-moon begins to float up over the horizon. Alas, even for those tucked into private cabins, the train to Cincinnati is hardly a country club affair. At mealtime, my table was presented with a menu listing a grand total of three mouth-watering entrees: "The Cardinal Beef Selection" ($10), "Chicken, U.S. Senator Style" ($9) and "The Vegetarian" ($8). I opted for beef, and was handed two slabs of chewy meat and "cheesecake" for dessert--which my table mates, a middle-aged couple from Los Angeles, laughingly turned upside-down to show that it would stick in its plastic dish like Jell-O.

When, hours later, the conductor announced that Cincinnati was the next stop, I realized I was ready for it. You're in rural Kentucky, and then, over the Ohio River, there are the lights of a cluster of tall buildings and an elegant towered bridge that turns out to be architect John A. Roebling's prototype for his Brooklyn Bridge, completed 16 years later. When built in 1867, the Roebling Suspension Bridge was the world's longest span.

Completing your return to civilization is the experience of arriving and hauling your bags through Cincinnati's Union Terminal, which has to be America's most spectacular train station--plus the site of several museums. Shaped like a giant radio, the station is a restored Art Deco cathedral with a rotunda and brightly colored mosaic that depicts, from a WPA perspective, the history of the nation and of the Ohio Valley.

To hold on to this taste of early-1930s art and design, I suggest checking into the Omni Netherland Plaza downtown, a 29-story National Historic Landmark. Part Normandie or Queen Mary and part Rockefeller Center, the Netherland was said by Winston Churchill to be "unsurpassed," and besides, it's the only hotel I can think of that leaves you a little card on your pillow featuring the next day's weather forecast.

Locals who know its history still like to think of Cincinnati as the "Queen City of the West"--by the mid-1800s it was America's fastest growing urban center thanks to its strategic spot on the Ohio, where it could supply downstream settlers with goods from the Eastern Seaboard.

In fact, one of the fascinating things about Cincinnati is that, even more than archrival St. Louis, it seems like the exact spot where rock-ribbed East Coast tradition melts into Midwestern informality, and Southern hospitality gives way to Northern bustle. Clubby corporations like Procter & Gamble give the skyline a serious silhouette (during the 1980s business leaders tried, somewhat lamely, to dub Cincinnati "America's Blue Chip City"), but down at street level, office workers stroll lazily, gab with strangers and pile into Gold Star chili parlors for their odd, inexpensive lunch.

Cincinnati-style chili is that rarity of rarities, a true-to-life local staple that you can't find beyond the city limits. Ask for "Five-Way Chili" at any of several competing restaurant chains and you get the distinctive, thin, vaguely cinnamon-flavored meat sauce ladled over spaghetti and topped with beans, onions and cheese. Although the original recipes were concocted by Greek immigrants, a bowl of chili with all the trimmings is a lot lighter than, say, a plate of moussaka, and pleasantly soupy at the bottom. Oyster crackers are served on the side.

For me, just catching a whiff of it brings back memories of when I first visited while dating my wife-to-be (it's her home town) and fell for the mix of flavors in her mother's cooking. Kentucky is right across the river, and it tinges many things here, like my mother-in-law's slow-simmered green beans with little bits of ham, and even the way people say a lilting "Please?" when they haven't understood what you've said.

Before anything else, Cincinnati is--and has been--a river town, and that may be the reason it straddles so many regional cultures. Moored on the city side of the Ohio is the Majestic, launched in 1923 and now, though it doesn't leave its berth, America's last showboat. As in the days when these vessels steamed from town to town with a troupe of entertainers on board, the Majestic offers a season of plays and old-fashioned musicals.

On the Kentucky side is the riverboat Mike Fink, a stern-wheeler built to tow coal and oil barges on the Ohio and again, the last of its species. It's now a restaurant featuring tasty breaded and fried catfish, among other dishes, and a privileged view of the Cincinnati skyline. This fall, the city will be the host of "Tall Stacks," a grand regatta of riverboats from Louisville, St. Paul, New Orleans and other river cities. Tickets are required for riverboat tours and cruises--call 513-421-TALL for information. The event is set for Oct. 13-17.

Another big part of Cincinnati's mixed pedigree is its heritage as a German city. Beginning in the 1830s, German immigrants began settling here in large numbers, in part because the hills and river valley reminded them of the Rhineland. Not surprisingly, this led to a local love of beer, to stalwart regional brands like Hudepohl-Schoenling, and to outdoor beer gardens, where, though they are now few, you can have a mug sitting under an umbrella on a wooden deck with grapevines and other greenery for decoration.

Over-the-Rhine is a gentrifying neighborhood that was once a center of German life here and, many years later, one of the city's worst slums. Thanks to the country's largest collection of 19th-century Italianate buildings, Main Street is now fronted with cutting-edge galleries, antiques shops and brewpubs, including Main Street Brewery and BarrelHouse Brewing Co. Not far away is my favorite Cincinnati spot, Arnold's, which looks the part of the city's oldest saloon (1861) with wood-paneled booths, walls full of dusty memorabilia and jazz bands live nearly every night of the week.

In nearby Covington, Ky., you can promenade on cobblestone walkways in MainStrasse Village, another restored 19th-century German neighborhood. But of even more interest on this bank of the Ohio are the magnificent Greek Revival and Victorian brick town houses that are spread out along several blocks leading right up to the riverfront. The ornate iron fences and porch railings show you why New Orleans wanted to snatch this look for itself and had Covington-made ironwork shipped downriver in flatboats.

A visit to Cincinnati wouldn't be complete without at least a quick trip to its excellent and somewhat quirky zoo, which experts rank in the top four nationally because of its collection of rare and endangered animals. The first in the country to house white Bengal tigers (hence the Bengals football team) and onetime roost of the world's last passenger pigeon (her name was Martha), the zoo was, for many years, the summer home of the Cincinnati opera company, and where, when they felt like it, the animals would bellow along with whatever arias were being sung.

Why is it that odd historical facts like these keep cropping up? What, after all, do zoos have to do with singers of opera? Why should chili be spiked with cinnamon and allspice? And why, I've wondered, have Cincinnatians always stood so demurely at crosswalks--never venturing out until the light says it's okay, even when there isn't a car bearing down for blocks? I'm not sure I know the answer, but I know it's these small mysteries that help give the town its charm.

A case in point: Cincinnati's other beast worth noting, a statue of the mythic wolf that suckled Romulus and Remus, the legendary founders of ancient Rome. Take a look at it because of its setting--in Eden Park on Mount Adams, a charming San Francisco-like residential hill overlooking downtown--and because, strangely enough, it was sent here by Mussolini to honor the fact that the city bears a Roman name.

Some say Cincinnati, named after Cincinnatus, a Roman farmer and soldier who turned down the chance to rule, itself turned down the chance to be the nation's "Central City" and its gateway to the West. At some point during its glory days in Mark Twain's time, the scepter was passed to Chicago or St. Louis or Kansas City, and as those metropolises became smoke-choked and powerful, the Queen City remained a place of riverbanks and beautiful buildings, of neighborhoods with ethnic character, a slightly Southern idea of cuisine and many charming puzzlements that remain today.

For those who live here, and for those who visit--by train, airplane or any other way--it wasn't a sad fate. Not in this age of thriving but soulless New American Cities. Not at all.

Peter Mandel last wrote for Travel about Providence, R.I.

Details: Cincinnati

Getting There: Amtrak's Cardinal departs Washington on Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 11:30 a.m.; one-way fares start at $70. If 14 hours is too much sitting for you, Delta, Continental and US Airways are among the carriers offering service from Washington; all three are quoting a round-trip fare of about $286 from BWI, with restrictions.

Where to Stay: Spending even a single night at the Omni Netherland Plaza (35 W. Fifth St., 1-800-843-6664; rates $130 to $150 double) is like stepping into a Cole Porter song or shipping out on a classic ocean liner. And there's no sense of being in a "theme-park" hotel--just the old-fashioned real thing, complete with excellent service.

Just across the Ohio River, in the Covington historic district, is the 1854 Amos Shinkle Townhouse Bed and Breakfast (215 Garrard St., Covington, Ky., 1-800-972-7012; rates $79 to $140), a friendly and elegant alternative to a hotel stay. Historians believe the town house was a key station on the Underground Railroad for slaves escaping north.

An equally imposing if slightly less historic inn is the 1867 Prospect Hill Bed and Breakfast (408 Boal St., 513-421-4408; rates $99-$129) in the city's attractive Prospect Hill neighborhood. Spectacular hilltop view of downtown.

Where to Eat: A Mobil five-star restaurant for an unmatched 35 years, the Maisonette (114 E. Sixth St., 513-721-2260) is one of the nation's top special-occasion French restaurants. And here it is in Cincinnati. Dinner entrees start at $30. Lenhardt's (151 W. McMillan St., 513-281-3600) is probably the best place to taste-test German Cincinnati. Excellent sauerbraten, 11 different kinds of schnitzel and a beer garden in summer. Entrees start at $9.50.

Opened in 1861, Arnold's (210 E. Eighth St., 513-421-6234) is that one restaurant in a thousand that, instead of trying to impress you with fancy dishes or food-sculpture or oddly matched ingredients, cooks food simply and well. Entrees start at $6.25.

For a taste of the fast-food Cincinnatians swear by, try a bowl of "Five-Way Chili" from either the Skyline or Gold Star chains

What to See: To get a sense of Cincinnati as a river city, take a stroll along the central riverfront, which was turned into a series of parks, walkways and sculpture gardens in time for the city's bicentennial celebration in 1988. Highlights include the Showboat Majestic (513-241-6550) at the public landing at the foot of Broadway and the Flying Pigs Sculpture near the main entrance to the riverwalk, which, with its riverboat stacks topped with winged porkers, commemorates Cincinnati's days as "Porkopolis"--the world's leader in hog butchering.

While walking downtown, take a look at the new Aronoff Center for the Arts (650 Walnut St., 513-977-4165), an Art Deco revival masterpiece designed by Cesar Pelli that is home to an art museum, three theaters and the Cincinnati Ballet. Another fairly recent downtown initiative, this one from the early 1970s, is Cincinnati's network of above-ground enclosed skywalks connecting most of the major office buildings and containing a variety of mall-like stores and restaurants. When you need an afternoon break, drop in at Graeter's Confectionery (41 E. Fourth St., 513-381-0653), the flagship location of another top-notch local chain, this one specializing in homemade ice creams.

When touring the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, have a peek inside lovely Old St. Mary's Church (123 E. 13th St., 513-721-2988), which was built by and for German immigrants in the early 1800s and still has Masses in German (as well as Latin and English). And when you're in Covington, ground zero for historic town houses, walk over to the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption (1140 Madison Ave., Covington, Ky., 606-431-2060), which on the outside looks for all the world like a clean copy of Paris's Notre Dame and on the inside is modeled after Paris's Abbey Church of St. Denis.

Information: Cincinnati Convention and Visitors Bureau, 300 W. Sixth St., 513-621-5577, Amtrak, 1-800-872-7245,

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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