Downtown Cincinnati restaurants struggle as regulars work and eat at home


“You came. You came. Finally, you came.

That is how sam streak, owner of the Raya Lebanese restaurant at West Eighth and Elm streets, greeted me when I walked into her nearly empty restaurant last week. At first, I foolishly thought she was talking about me specifically. That maybe my position as a food and food writer for The Enquirer was giving me some notoriety around town.

“Did someone tell you I was coming?” I asked.

“No,” she said. “It’s good to see customers today.”

Looking around the dining room, I noticed that only one other customer was finishing their lunch. But when I sat down at the counter, he settled in. “This was wonderful,” he said, as he put on his coat. “Thank you.”

Sam Raya, owner of Lebanese restaurant Raya, poses for a portrait, Friday, Dec. 4, 2020, at the restaurant in Cincinnati.

“Goodbye,” Raya said. “Please, please come back.”

Raya is among dozens of downtown Cincinnati restaurant owners who have seen their customer base disappear over the past 10 months as buildings that house the likes of Kroger, Procter & Gamble and Fifth Third stand virtually empty; your employees working and eating at home.

Places like Raya survived the lunch crowds; their owners often lock their doors before 7 pm, early enough to get home to watch the local news or put the kids to bed. Now all their owners can do is wait for federal help, a vaccine, or a miracle to save them as they patiently wait for the occasional customer to walk in or carry out.

Sibling duo Pete and Diane Georges pose behind the counter at Sophia's Deli & Restaurant in downtown Cincinnati on Monday, Dec. 7, 2020. Sophia's has been a downtown lunch staple for more than 26 years, but has suffered in 2020 as their regular lunch crowd has worked from home.

As I sat at the counter, Raya showed me the bills that were stacked next to her cash register. Water bills, utility bills, and a Duke Energy bill totaling nearly $1,000.

Although he received a $2,700 loan from the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program in the summer, that money is long gone, and the promise of a new round of federal funding remains uncertain. And while he used to make up to $1,000 a day, now he’s lucky to make $250, mostly from takeout.

When I asked her about the two employees who help her in the kitchen, she told me they weren’t employees at all. They were friends. She had to fire her employees. As we continued to chat, a man came in and asked if he could wash his windows again. “I can’t afford it,” Raya said. “Look at my dining room. There’s no one here.” She gave him a few dollars anyway.

I encountered a similar situation a few blocks away at bangkok expressthe small Thai restaurant on Court Street operated by Andy Ditthet and his wife, Patty, since 2009. Visiting his empty dining room last week for chicken pad thai, Ditthet lamented the fact that he used to have around 100 customers in his dining room every day of the week, now you’re lucky if you have two.

“People came from Kroger all the time. Now everyone is working from home,” she said.

The reason for the slowdown in mita’s, the Spanish and Latin American restaurant owned by José Salazar, is not the lack of people for lunch (Mita stopped serving lunch years ago), but the lack of people at happy hour, conventions, big shows at the Aronoff Center for the Arts and business travelers eating alone at the bar. “It’s very slow,” Salazar said. “I would say we are 30 percent from where we were last year.”

Pete Georges grills during a quiet morning at Sophia's Deli & Restaurant in downtown Cincinnati on Monday, December 7, 2020. Pete, along with his sister Diane, have operated Sophia's downtown for more than 26 years, but have suffered in 2020 as its the usual lunch crowd has worked from home.

The other restaurants in Salazar, goose and old man Y Salazarboth located in Over-the-Rhine are doing marginally better, which he attributes in part to the fact that, unlike downtown, OTR has more of a neighborhood feel with a more loyal customer base.

Meanwhile, at Sophia’s Deli & Restaurant on Main Street, I found owner Pete Georges standing behind the 26-year-old restaurant’s counter, grilling chicken for the Greek salad I ordered, one of the few tickets I would fill that day. while her sister, Diane, took care of the record.

When another customer came in to pick up an order, Pete looked at me and said, “This guy doesn’t even like the food here. He just likes us.

The food at Sophia’s (which, by the way, is excellent) has been attracting lunchtime customers for more than a quarter of a century. It’s the kind of place where you can read the walls to learn its history: a short review from an old alternative weekly that talks about the restaurant’s namesake (Pete and Diane’s mom, Sophia) and her “homemade” chicken and dumplings; the obituary of her father, Charles, taped to the counter.

When I tell him I’m going to include Sophia in a story I’m writing, Pete seems grateful but frustrated. “You guys always write about these new places, and then they’re gone in two years. Meanwhile, we have been here for 26 years and no one is paying attention.”

I think about that for a moment. I think of all the diners and luncheonettes who don’t get a lot of press; that we assume will always be there for that quick bite at lunch, or rare eggs and bacon before work. I decide it’s time to start driving the few miles downtown for lunch again. Which is the least I can do to help these people survive.

Pete Georges next to the grill during a quiet morning at Sophia's Deli & Restaurant in downtown Cincinnati on Monday, December 7, 2020. Pete, along with his sister Diane, have operated the Sophia center for more than 26 years, but have suffered in 2020 as their regular lunch crowd has worked from home.
Diane Georges prepares grab-and-go cutlery before lunchtime at Sophia's Deli & Restaurant in downtown Cincinnati on Monday, December 7, 2020. Sophia's experienced a dramatic drop in business in 2020 because its regular patrons have not been working in downtown offices.
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