Bob Wilhelmy writes the Dining Out column for The American Israelite.

The outdoor signage at Brown Dog Café

“Give me something amazing!” was the ask of McCoy’s co-owner some 20 years ago, when McCoy and a partner bought Brown Dog Café. You may recall that in those days, the restaurant was situated in the elevated shopping cluster on Pfeiffer Road near the ramps serving I-71 and was already a going concern when McCoy came upon the scene.

“Before we moved here (at Summit Park, going on eight years ago now), we were shooting for the stars,” said McCoy, speaking of the menu and the dishes he ran as specials back then. “When we got here, we were in the middle of a mud field, and people (Brown Dog patrons) were upset. Literally, they had to walk in the rain and the mud to get to us,” he said, adding that the pavilion where Brown Dog is located was something of an island surrounded by a soon-to-be park setting that was under development. Hence, the mud fields and the messy trek to Brown Dog’s door. 

The Brown Dog Café’s all-veggie pizza along with a margarita

“Plus, we didn’t fit in here at first, because this was a gourmet restaurant in a park,” he said. What happened was that moms with kids in tow would stop in as part of a park visit and find a menu and pricing that shocked and discouraged them. “So, we started to alter things to accommodate the different crowds we were getting here. We added a pizza kitchen. Everybody loves pizza. In fact, burgers and pizza, they are our most profitable items. If we have 200 people (in the restaurant), 90 will order a burger,” McCoy stated, adding that pizza on the patio is a favorite as well.

Those numbers may suggest the gourmet side of Brown Dog’s heritage has been lost. Not so, McCoy countered: “We still have three items on the menu that we had at the start twenty years ago, like the double duck entrée. We do a duck confit (pronounced Kon-FEE) along with a seared duck breast with Grand Marnier and marmalade glaze.

A big, juicy gourmet burger with French fries

The patio and pizza oven at Brown Dog Café

Confit is a centuries-old process with ancient antecedents that originated in France, perhaps Gascony, and was used to cure and preserve meats, including ducks and geese. The process involves salting the meat and slowly cooking it in its own fat. The cooked meat can be eaten at the end of the cooking process, or it can be preserved in a crock or pot, covered in its own fat, which congeals around the meat. In the case of duck confit, the meat is seasoned with garlic and herbs at the salting stage, adding flavor during the cooking process.

Meals such as the double duck entrée are high-effort dishes with pricy ingredients. That can be a problem in a dining-out environment where individuals and families are eating at home more and eating out less. McCoy related that business has slowed since the post-pandemic surge when diners-out had stockpiles of unspent cash and pent-up yearnings to get out and enjoy.

Now, with inflation eating into budgets and the seemingly nebulous nature of today’s economy, the dining public has cut back some. “You can see it—it’s summertime and nobody’s out,” McCoy said. Hyperbole, since we were at Brown Dog Café at 1:30 on a Thursday afternoon and the patio was nearly full of diners, with a few covers inside as well. But to his point, McCoy said his business is down about 20 percent from a year ago. His reaction to the fall-off? “We’ve just dropped all our prices. We adjusted dishes to the market by making everything more affordable, more approachable. We’re not doing a 12-ounce strip (steak), we’re doing a 7-ounce. Things like that.”

From my perspective, Brown Dog Café offers a menu and amenities that few Greater Cincinnati dining spots do. Genuine attributes are the outdoor pizza oven and the covered patio that can shield diners in summer months from the uncertainties of the weather.  The gourmet burgers are a huge draw, and a menu of gourmet and fine-dine dishes benefit those who want an exceptional meal.

As for Jewish diners-out wanting to eat kosher style, McCoy reiterated a statement he has shared with me many times. His kitchen will do everything it can to accommodate special dietary needs, including those who maintain a kosher approach to eating out. As always, it’s a good idea to ask the server about the preparation of anything on the menu, since preparations can change upon whim or necessity, and menu descriptions may lack enough detail to fully relate all ingredients used in a dish—butter in a sauce for meat entrée, for instance.

See you at Brown Dog Café!