The Grille at Palm Court
Hilton Cincinnati Netherland Plaza
35 West 5th St.
Originally opened in 1931, the Hilton Cincinnati Netherland Plaza is a true French Art Deco masterpiece. According to Historic Hotels of America, “the hotel’s main lobby and mezzanine areas feature a half-acre of rare Brazilian rosewood, extensive use of German silver and a stylized Egyptian décor reinforced with delicate floral motifs. There are also exquisitely detailed frescoes, ceiling murals, and an original Rookwood fountain.”
Some of the more famous visitors to the hotel include Winston Churchill, Elvis Presley, Eleanor Roosevelt, Bing Crosby and John and Jackie Kennedy, according to the walking tour and pocket history guide available in the lobby. The guidebook doesn’t mention football players, but I remember spending a weekend there in (I think) 1985, when the Dallas Cowboys were in town. When we learned the team would be staying there, my family booked rooms in the hotel because my brother, a die-hard Cowboys fan, was determined to fill his autograph book with player signatures. Not only did he achieve his goal, he even managed to get the autograph of Coach Tom Landry when they rode an elevator together on the morning of the game. Despite the 50-24 loss to the Bengals, my brother’s feet didn’t touch ground for weeks afterward.
Dining at the hotel’s Palm Court restaurant usually elicits that sort of “floating on air” feeling too, especially if you visit during one of their famous brunches. The price may send you crashing back to earth, but it’s worth every penny. The Palm Court is divided into two sections: Orchids is the exuberantly art deco area of the restaurant, while The Grille is a bit more relaxed and casual.
If you don’t want to drop a lot of cash but would still like to revel in the opulence of this landmark hotel, stop by weekdays between 11:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. for the pasta bar & buffet. Vegetarians have a nice choice of made-to-order pasta dishes, which includes a selection of vegetables and three types of pasta and sauces. They always offer at least one vegetarian sauce - usually a tangy marinara, as well as a classic alfredo and a third sauce that changes daily. Tell the chef which ingredients you would like, and he prepares the dish while you watch. I’ve never been let down by my selections, but the chef is happy to let you taste-test the sauces if you are unsure.
Also included in the deal are a small salad and fruit bar, a buffet counter that more often than not includes two vegetarian side dishes – usually steamed vegetables and either a risotto or wild rice mix - and a dessert bar. At $14.50, it’s a little pricier than other downtown lunch establishments, but the food is better than average and the atmosphere is top-notch. We like to bring out of town guests here for the wow factor. It never disappoints.
I’ll admit that since my last visit the restaurant has restructured somewhat and the choice isn’t what it used to be. The fruit platter was much smaller and the salad bar option has been narrowed to two types of salad greens with only cucumber and cherry tomatoes for garnish. One the day we visited, the dessert bar had a choice of two types of cheesecake, and two varieties of brownies and cookies. Even though the dessert selection is half what it was in past visits, it was still ample.
The one area in which I think The Grille at Palm Court needs to improve on is their service. To give the benefit of a doubt, maybe we’ve been seated in poor visibility locations, but the service we’ve received on the past few visits wasn’t up to scratch. On our most recent visit, our waiter ignored us to the point that we had to go in search of someone to remove our used dishes and refill our drinks. Twice. On top of that, the rolls and butter didn’t make it to the table until we were nearly finished with our entrées. I dislike suggesting that we were snubbed because we were not wearing power suits, but the thought has crossed my mind.
I also consider it rude for waiters to ask if I would like change back when paying with cash; a good server will always bring back the change unless instructed otherwise. On this occasion, where our total was $31 and we paid with a Benjamin, the waiter REALLY should not have asked. Even if the service had been exemplary I don’t think it would warrant a 220% tip. And yes, he looked at the crisp bill before he asked.
Paying with cash also made us feel a little like we were in the middle of a “Life Takes Visa” commercial, as it took over ten minutes for the waiter to make change. I realize that most of the executives dining around us were on expense-account lunches paid for with a company credit card, so there probably wasn’t a huge amount of cash in the coffers, but it was still a bit of a shock that an establishment with such a storied pedigree could have that much difficulty scraping up the required sum.
Service issues notwithstanding, the restaurant is a wonderful place to dine – especially if you are an art history buff. This grand old dame is breathtaking.