The half fish log with homemade caraway cole slaw, homemade hot slaw, and house made tartar sauce at the Old Timber Inn.
My friend Matt asked me this week, as we were agreeing on a place to catch up, “How have you NOT had a fish log at the Old Timber Inn? You’re supposed to be the food guy! Do you know how much history that place has?!” I was food-history shamed!! I have had fish logs at other places in Cincinnati, like Lake Nina. And even though I had passed the Old Timber Inn hundreds of times on my way to Northside, I admitted I’d never stopped in for a log. You can’t miss the painted sign on the east facing side of the building.
The Old Timber Inn facing east on Spring Grove Avenue.
So we agreed to meet there for a Friday fish log, and step back in time when Spring Grove Avenue was a bustling thoroughfare. The gravel parking lot doesn’t exactly invite, nor does the Victorian era building look like its a restaurant, but the red flashing ‘OPEN’ sign does tell you it’s OK to walk in.
It’s more of a bar than a restaurant these days. Eighty five year old owner, Elmer Ferguson, was t-boned by a semi in his car several years ago and had to close the place for a while to recover. And, he says, the clientele he used to have from the industrial factories along Spring Grove Avenue have dried up with their reduction in employees over the years. At one time Elmer employed 14 people and had two dining rooms to handle all the customers.
But, Elmer will cook to order for anyone hungry who comes in. The place’s heyday speaks from an extensive menu, that in addition to fish logs, includes his personal recipe Cincinnati chili, double deckers, fried chicken, and even another specialty, fried pork chops. The regular customers are his other eighty year old buds who are in for a drink and some banter. The one sitting next to us at the bar was close to 90, sharp as a tack, and the has been the head volunteer / disciplinarian at the St. Francis Seraph Soup Kitchen in Over-the-Rhine. He gave us the scoop on Elmer’s menu, the house made tartar sauce, and some of the local lore.
A full fish log requires the appetite of a lumberjack, at about a foot long, so we ordered the half log. When asked where he gets his fish, Elmer jokes, that it’s fresh from the Mill Creek, which is just behind the restaurant. He also makes his own cole slaw, which has a good zing and a great caraway seed flavor. Elmer fine-shreds his own cabbage for made-to-order Cincinnati hot slaw, which is the best I’ve ever had. His tartar sauce is also house made, thick, and I think better than Frisch’s.
Elmer’s menu has a tongue-in-cheek history of the fish log:
“The earliest settlers of the New World would often hear stories from the indigenous peoples making references to strange creatures inhabiting the wilderness. One such account depicted a creature that resembled a large fish-like creature with an extended thorax with a body covered with a type of ‘bark’ where one would typically find scales. The native tribes referred to this animal as ‘yoopapwa’ or ‘fishlog.’
In 1813 a group of lumberjacks working in a remote region of northern Saskatchewan, an area known for its many lakes and abundance of wildlife, made an astonishing find. Who could have guessed that these men would be the first to record the bizarre discovery that would stand Darwinian Evolution on its ear. The fishlog of legend was not mere folklore! This was the first reliably documented evidence of genetic hybridization between species so diverse.
Today, of course, domestic fishlog farming has become a lucrative industry. Restaurants such as Old Timber Inn of Cincinnati have helped to bring the fishlog to the general attention of the public.”
Old Timber Inn’s ‘historical photo’ of a Saskatchewan fishlog.
The place is clean, and the great thing is that once Elmer has made your order, he’ll sit in his chair behind the bar, give you a history lesson, and make you roar with his dirty jokes.
There’s a huge framed old photo of the inside of the bar in 1872, with what Elmer says is Jesse James and his gang, all holding dark beers and smiling for the camera. They were probably drinking Bruckmann’s beer, which was brewed just a little ways down Spring Grove Avenue near what was then the Canal. Elmer goes on to say that Cincinnati had the first train robbery in 1865, which happened when a never caught gang derailed and robbed a passenger train on the way to St. Louis, between the stations of Gravel Pit and North Bend, Ohio, about 18 miles west of Cincinnati. And the James gang was known to have gone through the area.
An 1872 photo of the inside of the Old Timber Inn, with what is supposedly the Jesse James gang enjoying beers. Note the ‘peekies’ to the right of the gang – these were coin operated short movies of vaudeville girls in skimpy outfits that the customer peeked into.
At one time a traction car also went past the Old Timber Inn. In the early 1910s five female victims’ bodies were dropped on or near that traction car. The never caught criminal became known as the Cumminsville Ripper, and many stories linked him to Jack the Ripper in London, England, as either a copycat, or Jack himself.
The traction car, turn of the century, with the Old Timber Inn behind.
I highly recommend a trip to the Old Timber Inn for a fishlog and a great history lesson from Elmer.