There we were. Handsomely dressed. Two people heading downtown to dine at Salazar, in the heart of OTR, on a Saturday night, just after the long stretch of lockdown quarantine and what we seemingly (but not entirely) naively assumed to be the tail end of a week of civil unrest and protesting right in that very area.
These plans had been set the week before. It was the first opportunity for and with the blog since lockdown started, and I was genuinely excited to get back out there and show that the restaurants I know and love were open for business. I sincerely respect chefs – our local chefs in particular – for their talents, and I admire that so many of them open up small spaces that put people to work and allow patrons to come together for the good company, relaxing time, and ultimate great meal in the end. This embodies all of my favorite downtown dining establishments, and of course, Salazar is no exception. However now that I think about it, Salazar might very well be the exception.
Colombia-born, New York City raised, José Salazar landed in Cincinnati in 2008 when he took the executive chef position at The Palace in the Cincinnatian Hotel. There he started earning his reputation, as well as a rightfully respectable number of accolades. After years at the helm at The Palace, Salazar and his wife considered leaving the city in order to find the opportunity to open his own place. Yet while he was contemplating a personal reinvention, Cincinnati was beginning its personal renaissance.
In and within that, rather than taking his talents elsewhere, José and his family dug in and invested in our city. And he didn’t just invest with one restaurant then – he continued for years with others in other areas. He opened Salazar in OTR in 2013, Mita’s downtown in 2015, and Goose & Elder in the Findlay Market area in 2019. José made us fall in love with this city then and keeps us in love now.
So yes, when the bans were lifted, and the safety precautions were put in place, Salazar was ready to go and we were too. Reservations were set and plans were made. Dinner for two at 7pm on a Saturday night.
When we got there, we commented on how much we liked the designated street space designed for more outdoor dining. I ran into a former student and her family, a student that I knew well enough that she would babysit, all before letting them know my name for the reservation. We then walked in, had our temperatures checked, and were seated at one of the cozy tables in the back. We remarked how nice the space was. I took the server’s recommendation for a glass of white, one that I didn’t even recognize, know, or entirely understand, but it was so delicious that nearing the end of my first, I ordered another. We ordered three appetizers – the fried broccoli, shishito peppers, and little fried oyster sandwich – before taking our time to settle on entrees, which for me was the “Everything” crusted King Salmon, and Kenny, the chicken Milanese. We had conversations about some upcoming plans. It felt really nice and normal.
Yet unfortunately, and despite our best and most genuine intentions, the evening did not go off without a hitch. And this was because that evening, Mayor Cranley happened to be seated at the table next to us.
Not thirty minutes after Kenny and I were snacking on our appetizers and delighting in our conversation, Mayor Cranley was confronted by two protestors. They filmed as they asked him difficult questions and it was clear that they were intentionally ambushing him, that they were not going to leave, and all this occurred as more protestors started to pour in on and around the streets to call him out. It was evidently clear that this had nothing to do with those of us who were choosing to dine at Salazar itself, and everything to do with the fact the mayor was there that evening. But in that moment, I can honestly admit that we were all confronted with some rightfully hard truths and choices.
Now, the situation within the restaurant deescalated as quickly as it escalated, with the whole of Salazar’s staff handling it and themselves with the upmost poise and respect. The manager politely-yet-directly asked them to leave. José himself came out and spoke with the mayor, while simultaneously putting the rest of us at ease. And even though the two inside were ultimately escorted outside, the gathering crowd around the restaurant did continue to peacefully-yet-pressingly protest the mayor as we dined inside. And again, admittedly, I found myself in an uncomfortable and upsetting spot and reverted to my most natural instinct. I started to cry.
None of my tears were because I felt scared. Not a single one. My immediate tears were a result that I knew what was going on and I honestly felt bad sitting down to eat that night, knowing full well so much of the world was still rightfully upset. This was further complicated by the fact that even before George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, I had already begun personally creating social media space by not producing or consuming as much, mostly because I just needed a hiatus for self-preservation reasons; I was becoming too inundated by it all. Again – this was all before the world was reminded of our really devastatingly hate-fueled truths and flaws – but in the moments leading up to this dinner, I had been paralyzed by what I could have or should have been posting. Hence I know I cried in that moment because I felt like not only was Mayor Cranely being called out, but so was I.
Things ultimately calmed down and it was clear that we were wrapping up. Our server came over and apologized to me for being overwhelmed by everything that was happening. She admitted to me that she felt bad that she too got upset. Admitted to me that she was just trying to pay her rent. I shared that I was obviously upset and sad for her and everyone. I understood that much of the staff was there just trying to work. That José was trying to get his three businesses back up and running, which then allowed people to work and get back up and running. I understood that there was a former student, home early from her cancelled freshman year of college, getting dinner with her family. I also believe that the majority of the patrons there that night were just trying to be honest, and like me, support this business that we love. And yet, there were many people out on the street reminding us all that there are still bigger and greater things for us to be addressing and dealing with that evening. And I know that I definitely felt that. And so did José, as he closed his restaurant the following day so that his employees could peacefully participate in protesting.
In the end, the night was what it was. Despite us heading into the evening with the well-thought out intentions to support Salazar, it was also a night where we came face-to-face with uncomfortable and upsettingly hard truths about the reality of our city (and nation’s) situation. However, those truths were also met with the truths we knew were at work in-house at Salazar, that so many there were just trying to get themselves back to livable normal.
So, despite the confrontations that happen in and around Salazar that night, there was still evident good occurring as well. And then regardless of what I was there to do, I know watching the demonstrating unfold personally propelled me to continue to make sense, read, listen, talk, question, and discuss all that was being revealed, rectified, and fought for in that moment. Up until then, I was attempting to watch from the sidelines, but when it all happened right there on the sidewalk, I realized I couldn’t – and shouldn’t – continue to try and just sit by.
Thank you Salazar for having us out that night. I sincerely appreciate the generosity, hospitality, and sincerity given everything that transpired that evening. And I know we’ll all be better for and because of it.