Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Top restaurants turning to Covington



By Patrick Crowley
The Cincinnati Enquirer

COVINGTON - The Maisonette isn't sure about moving to Covington, but its former chef is already here.

Cincinnati restaurant operator Jean-Robert de Cavel, former head chef at Cincinnati's Maisonette and the mastermind of two downtown restaurants, described his plans for the former Wildflour bakery and restaurant building that he recently bought in the Park Place restaurant district.

It will reopen, probably under the same Wildflour name, in late spring or early summer, de Cavel said Tuesday. He plans to serve breakfast, brunch and possibly lunch. He may operate a bakery.

"I want to reopen with a very similar feel to what it was before," said de Cavel, the owner of Jean-Robert at Pigall's on Fourth Street in Cincinnati and the new JeanRo Bistro on Vine Street.

"It's a very nice brownstone building, very unique," he said. "I want to use the garden in the back. We'll renovate some in the building, but it will be very much like it was."

Wildflour closed last fall. It is located just south of the Roebling Suspension Bridge in an area where a restaurant district meets an urban neighborhood.

"I very much like the neighborhood," de Cavel said. "It has a European feel. Everybody could feel comfortable there."

According to property records at the Kenton County Courthouse, de Cavel bought the building, at Third and Greenup streets, in January for $200,000.

Wildflour closed last year. Its chef, Justin Dean, is now working for de Cavel as a general manager at the Pigall's site.

The Maisonette, a five-star restaurant, has indicated it may leave downtown Cincinnati because of dwindling business.

It's owned by the Comisar family, which has talked with Covington and Kentucky officials about receiving financial incentives to move. They've scouted locations including a building at Pike Street and Madison Avenue and undisclosed sites in the MainStrasse Village entertainment district. But last week Kentucky Commerce Secretary Jim Host said he had not heard from the Comisars in more than two weeks and was doubtful a deal could be done.

Deputy Covington City Manager Andy Riffe, whose responsibilities include economic development, said it would be "fantastic" for the city and for the neighborhood if de Cavel reopened Wildflour.

"That would be another reason for people to come to what has really become a dining hub with some great restaurants," Riffe said.

Along with Wildflour, two other restaurants recently closed - Sonoma and Zinos.

But operators of Scalea's Ristorante and Italian Market, which is also in Park Place, plan to open a burger restaurant called Donna's by the end of Marchwhere Sonoma used to be.

"There is a niche for a neighborhood hamburger kind of place," Scalea's general manager Ben Castle said. "We see a huge upside for being here on Park Place. There are a lot of people moving into Roebling Row (apartments) and we see an opportunity to hit the younger crowd with a new place."

And Fort Mitchell lawyer Lanny Holbrook, owner of the building at Court Street and Park Place that housed Zinos, will reopen the business by the end of April.

Holbrook will bring back the Down Under bar and restaurant that operated in the basement location before Zinos.

"People like it, I love the location, so we're going to go back with Down Under," Holbrook said. "We bought new kitchen equipment, redid the floor and installed gaslights along the walls for atmosphere."

Castle said business at Scalea's is up from last year. "We're doing pretty well," he said.

But he and other business owners would like to see the Kenton County Jail, which is also on Park Place, complete a renovation that has created a neighborhood eyesore and eventually move to another location.

Because of the jail renovation, the prisoner intake has been moved to the first floor, which forced the erection of a barbed wire and chain link fence that has taken up part of Park Place.

"I'm staring at it right now and it's just ridiculous," Castle said. "We're trying to run fine dining restaurant and there are guys walking around outside in orange jump suits. That certainly doesn't help."

Riffe said the fence will be "coming down" within a few weeks.

Covington lawyer Rob Sanders, a Covington City Commission candidate, said the city and county need to work together to move the jail out of a prime business location.

"Covington cannot afford to sit back and wait for the county to act," he said. "As it stands, prisoners enjoy the skyline view that should be reserved for tax paying businesses or residents."

The city is trying to develop a park on the south end of Park Place on property that runs along Fourth Street, Riffe said.

Jack Quinn's Irish Ale House and Pub is directly across Court Street from the proposed park. General manager Chad King said the park would help business "by dressing up the neighborhood."

"I don't really think the jail is driving people away," King said. "There's really nothing wrong with the area now. But if the city moved forward with the park that would help everybody's business by making the entire area more attractive."

E-mail pcrowley@enquirer.com



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