By Cindy Schroeder
The Cincinnati Enquirer
CRESCENT SPRINGS - A restaurant boomlet has hit suburban Northern Kentucky.
While the sluggish economy has taken a bite out of restaurant profits nationally, business is booming along a half-mile stretch of Buttermilk Pike off Interstate 75.
Today, the Gatehouse Tavern, a 26-year Northern Kentucky dining tradition in the sprawling Drawbridge restaurant and hotel complex, reopens for dinner Wednesdays through Sundays after a 19-month shutdown. That's thanks in large part to public demand, operators say.
During its closure, the Fort Mitchell restaurant that resembles a medieval castle underwent a $120,000 renovation, hired a new chef, upgraded its steaks and added a piano bar.
Just across the interstate at the Buttermilk Shoppes complex, neighboring Crescent Springs recently snagged the Tristate's second Bonefish Grill restaurant. The Florida-based franchise specializing in fresh fish cooked over a wood-burning grill and served with signature sauces opened April 7 in the former CVS Pharmacy space. The menu also includes pasta and chicken dishes, beef and pork tenderloin and steaks.
"We've been open a week, and the reception has been phenomenal," said Mark Cooper, managing partner of Bonefish Grill in Crescent Springs. "I think Northern Kentucky's been starving for this type of restaurant - one featuring casual upscale seafood."
The Gatehouse Tavern and Bonefish Grill are two of seven dining establishments from the 30 along or near the Buttermilk Pike corridor to open or undergo major changes in the past year.
"The increase in Northern Kentucky's population lends itself to the development of more restaurants to service those communities,'' said John Gurren, president of the Northern Kentucky Restaurant Association. "Certainly, when you have a lot of hotels nearby, that's a factor. But it's mostly about rooftops and families."
Crescent Springs, the Kenton County city where Bonefish Grill recently opened, saw an 80 percent population jump the past decade. While Kenton County had a more modest 6.6 percent population increase in the 2000 Census, neighboring Boone County saw its population grow by 49 percent, making it the second-fastest growing county in Kentucky.
The recent economic downtown that led to many restaurant closures nationally also prompted the public to become choosier about which dining establishments it patronized, Gurren said.
"People are a little more particular about how they spend their money,'' Gurren said. "You have to offer something of true value, something uniquely different - different styles of food and different flavors. You also get repeat business with a good level of service."
Recent changes along and near the Buttermilk Pike dining corridor include the Crescent Springs' LaRosa's switch to a smoke-free establishment Tuesday, making it the 62nd Northern Kentucky restaurant to go smoke-free.
Still other changes are last year's addition of carryout lunches at the Montgomery Inn in the former Oldenberg Brewery building next to the Drawbridge Village Premier Hotel. Featuring barbecued pork loin back ribs, chicken, chops and some seafood, Northern Kentucky's first Montgomery Inn opened for dinner in March, 2001.
Just across the street from Montgomery Inn, The Oriental Wok, a 26-year Northern Kentucky restaurant, recently updated its menu and did extensive renovations.
Also new is China Dragon's 4-month-old lunch and dinner buffet-style restaurant at Buttermilk Crossing in Crescent Springs.
Earlier this year, 35-year restaurateur Tommy Behle sold his Covington Behle Street restaurant and became a hands on operator at his Tommy's To Go restaurant at Grandview Station in Fort Mitchell. Behle added new items to his family-oriented menu, applied for a liquor license and increased dine-in seating.
At the Drawbridge, Northern Kentucky's largest hotel, operators shut down the Gatehouse Tavern in September 2001 in response to slowing business after the April riots in Cincinnati, the Comair strike and an overall sluggish hotel business.
However, during the first quarter of this year, the Drawbridge's occupancy jumped 20 percent over the previous year's first quarter, said Arnie Creinin, vice president and managing director of the Drawbridge Villager Premier Hotel.
"Just before the holidays, we were getting as many as 40 calls a week from people who wanted to (dine at the Gatehouse Tavern) and were upset that we were closed,'' Creinin said.
Along with the prime rib it previously was known for, the newly opened Gatehouse Tavern features specialty steaks, fresh seafood, a more extensive salad bar, a "wine monk" and employees dressed in peasant garb. Options for around-the-clock dining in the Drawbridge complex include Josh's and the Chaucer's coffee shop.
And, at the end of the Buttermilk Pike stretch, the venerable Greyhound Tavern at 2500 Dixie Highway continues to be the local power lunch, especially on Fridays, when the fish sandwich attracts crowds for Lenten meals.
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