Eating Your Way Through Ohio On The Campaign Trail

Jan 13, 2018

Last week, Tales from the Trail introduced you to some famous eateries that have become must-stops for candidates running for office in Ohio – from candidates for county offices to the presidency. There are so many such places in Ohio, dishing out chili, piergoies, ice cream, hot dogs and hamburgers that we felt a "part two" was needed. And, in fact, there are so many, that Tales From the Trail may revisit the subject in the future. Here are some more dining spots that make up the political map of Ohio:

Price Hill Chili, Cincinnati

Anybody who knows anything about Cincinnati politics knows that the Capitol of Cincinnati's West Side Nation, and its favorite lunch spot, is this constantly crowded, always boisterous restaurant on Glenway Avenue.

It is, in many ways, the beating heart of West Side politics.

Because it sits in an area surrounded by West Price Hill and Covedale, one of the last bastions of Republicanism in the overwhelmingly Democratic city of Cincinnati, it attracts mostly Republican politicians, eager not so much to eat, but to go from booth to booth and glad hand with the paying customers, who never seem to tire of talking politics.

In fact, for any political reporter worth his or her salt in Cincinnati, Price Hill Chili is the go-to place if you are looking for the opinions of conservative, Republican "regular folks."   

U.S. Rep. Steve Chabot has practically made a second home of Price Hill Chili ever since the 1970s, when he was running – unsuccessfully at first – for Cincinnati City Council.

Chabot qualifies as a regular in the restaurant founded in 1962 by the Beltsos family.

I remember spending most of an afternoon there in 2008, if I remember correctly, when Fox News erected a TV set in the Golden Fleece Lounge – the bar in the back of the restaurant – and anchor Bret Baier hosted a parade of state and local politicians on and off the air. I participated myself, on a panel of journalists and politicos.

John Kasich was introduced to Price Hill Chili in his first run for governor in 2010; the ebullient Kasich seemed to love every minute of the attention he got from the owners and the patrons. He came back a few more times.

One thing you don't often see at Price Hill Chili is a politician eating. Usually, they are too busy schmoozing voters to stop for a three-way or a double-decker sandwich.

An exception to the rule was Mike Pence, now the vice president of the United States. In August 2016, he was a candidate for vice president and he stopped in to greet voters and stayed for lunch.

There are photos of him digging into a three-way; and he seemed to enjoy the staple food of Cincinnati.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has been to Price Hill Chili, as has Vice President Dick Cheney, who spent about 50 minutes talking issues with a group of patrons in the Golden Fleece.

He left without eating, but the owners gave him a bag of three-ways to go, which he hauled on to the campaign bus.

Cheney later sent the Beltsos family a letter saying how much he and his wife Lynne enjoyed the food.

If you are a Republican running for office – local, state or national – and you come to Cincinnati, you skip Price Hill Chili at your own peril.

Those people in the booths are waiting for you.

Young's Jersey Dairy, Yellow Springs

There really aren't many more fun places in Ohio to have some ice cream and a good meal than the Greene County farm that has been in the hands of the Young family since 1869, although Young's has only been in the ice cream and entertainment business for the past 60 years.

Families from all over western and southern Ohio flock to this spot on Springfield-Xenia Road, just north of Yellow Springs.

There's plenty to do at Young's. Kids can pet the cows and feed the goats (the world's friendliest goats; and the fattest – they love being fed). The ice cream parlor serves up some of the best you will ever have and there is a nice restaurant called The Golden Jersey Inn, where you can have a sit-down meal in a down-home setting.

There's even a 18-hole miniature golf course. It's called Putters and Udders.

Near the miniature golf course, there is a picnic grove. And there are batting cages, a kids' area where they can ride little toy tractors, and, in season, a corn maze and pumpkin-picking patch.

A family can easily spend a full day of fun at Young's.

It's a place that has had more than its share of politicians blowing through to take advantage of the big crowd and the great visuals. They feed the goats; they sample an ice cream cone; and, sometimes, they make speeches.

Right before the 2012 presidential election, Paul Ryan, then the Republican vice presidential candidate and now speaker of the House, stopped at Young's for a rally before moving on to a GOP "Victory Event" at East Clinton High School.

It was a bitterly cold day, but WYSO, the public radio station in Yellow Springs, reported that the campaign estimated about 2,000 turned out for a speech touting Mitt Romney for president and bashing the Obama administration.

Just down the road, in Yellow Springs, the former Democratic governor of Ohio, Ted Strickland, was giving a pep talk to a crowd of Obama supporters before they went to campaign door-to-door in Greene County.

Four years earlier, Sen. John McCain, who was the GOP nominee for president stopped by Young's with former U.S. Sen. Mike DeWine, who was between jobs. DeWine lives nearby in Cedarville; and his large family of children and grandchildren are frequent visitors to Young's Jersey Dairy.

The late George Voinovich, both as governor and senator, used to sample the ice cream at Young's from time to time.

As long as Dan Young, who describes himself as the "chief ice cream dipper and CEO," is still scooping out ice cream, the politicians will keep coming.

Tony Packo's, Toledo

This may be the most famous hot dog joint in America.

It is certainly one of the best.

And it is certainly the only one in Ohio that has become a must-stop for candidates of both parties, from the local candidates to those running for the White House.

You've probably heard of Tony Packo's if you were a fan of the TV series M*A*S*H.

One of the actors on the show, Jamie Farr was a native of Toledo; and a big fan of the restaurant's Hungarian hot dogs smothered in chili sauce. He played a homesick character named Corporal Klinger, who was also from Toledo, and made frequent references on the show to Tony Packo's, longing to be gone from the Korean War and back home in his favorite restaurant.

Now, here's the odd part:

When celebrities of any kind – politicians, actors, musicians or whatever – they are asked to autograph a hot dog bun. Tony Packo's has at least 6,000 of them and many are hanging on the walls.

It's a tradition that started in 1972 when actor Burt Reynolds stopped in. He didn't have a piece of paper to autograph, so he autographed a bun.

Many of them are encased in plastic and hang in frames on the walls of Tony Packo's.

Now, wait a minute, you may ask. Bread gets moldy. How do they keep them?

Well, actually, most of them are not really buns. They look like buns, but they are fakes made from polystyrene foam and airbrushed to look like hot dog buns.

You can't have incredible numbers of moldy hot dog buns hanging on your walls. Might be a health problem.

There are many very famous politicians who have scrawled their names on the Tony Packo's buns.

Donald Trump did, before he became president. So did Jimmy Carter, when he was running in 1976. Both Bill and Hillary Clinton have their signed buns. So, too, does their daughter Chelsea. Barack Obama is another presidential signee.

Even former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher signed a bun years ago.

The fact is, if you pretend to be anybody in American politics, you haven't really made it until you have signed a Tony Packo's bun.

The Fireside Restaurant, Georgetown

This small roadside restaurant in Brown County's county seat is not ordinarily a candidate magnet.

But The Fireside Restaurant had its 15 minutes of fame on Thursday, Oct. 9, 2008.

That's the day that then-presidential candidate Barack Obama made a surprise visit.

A surprise not only to customers who were having their dinners at the Fireside, but a surprise to a mob of national and local media types who were along for the ride – a two-day swing through southern Ohio.

Obama's day had started with a rally in a jam-packed Fifth Third Field in Dayton, the home of the Dayton Dragons, a Cincinnati Reds farm club.

That's where I joined the entourage, along with photographer Michael E. Keating. We were covering the entire tour for the Enquirer.

Then a motorcade of three buses, several SUVs, and cops on motorcycles from various jurisdictions headed down Interstate 75 to Cincinnati and wound its way to Ault Park in Hyde Park, where a massive, enthusiastic crowd of supporters had waited hours for the candidate to arrive.

They greeted the candidate with his signature campaign slogan – Fired up! Ready to go!

Obama gave a rip-roaring speech and, when it was over, we all loaded up on to the buses for the next stop.

We were told that stop would be Portsmouth for an evening rally at Shawnee State University; and the motorcade started barreling down State Route 32 (The James A. Rhodes Appalachian Highway).

Reporters, including myself, had their laptops out and were banging away, writing stories about the day so far.

Everything seemed normal until we got to Mount Orab and the motorcade took a hard right turn on U.S. Route 68. This was a sign that something was up. This not the natural way to go to Portsmouth. I had assumed we would go all the way to U.S. Route 23 and take it south into Portsmouth.

An Obama press aide on the bus announced that there was an "unscheduled stop." Most reporters dread hearing that, because it wreaks havoc on deadlines; and is usually nothing more than a photo op.

When we got to Georgetown, we took a right turn off U.S. 68 and the motorcade headed into town, pulling into the parking lot of restaurant and overflowing on to the street.

As it turns out, there had been a rumor going around town saying that Obama might stop in Georgetown, but the people thought he was going to the Brown County Democratic Party headquarters. Quite a crowd had gathered there.

But Obama was not far away, bounding off the lead campaign bus with then-Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, a phalanx of Secret Service agents and staff people. Then came the media mob, with the video cameras, the boom microphones, the lights.

Suddenly, this quiet little restaurant was packed with people. It was very loud and very chaotic.

He was in some pretty heavily Republican territory, but Obama seemed to charm every person he met, going from booth to booth to shake hands and pose for photos.

Obama strode up to the counter to place a carry-out order for the campaign bus. Clearly, he had worked up an appetite.

He ordered a Big O'Burger (a double-decker cheeseburger), french fries, waffle fries and no less than three pies (a specialty at the Fireside in those days) – lemon, chocolate cream and coconut cream. He proclaimed that he planned on eating the coconut cream pie himself.

Before he left, Obama spotted a little boy – maybe 9 or 10 years old – gazing up at him. The boy had big ears that stuck out from his head – almost identical to Obama's own ears, which are a rather prominent feature of his head.

The boy's mother asked the candidate if he would pose for a photo with her son. 

Absolutely, Obama said. He leaned down and put his arm around the boy's shoulder. Their gigantic ears were perfectly matched up. The boy had a huge smile on his face.

Ear power! That's what we've got here! Ear power!

The boy was grinning from big ear to big ear.

His mother was ecstatic.

And, as Obama waved goodbye to everyone and led the mob out of the restaurant and back to the motorcade, I had but one thought:

Well, he's locked down that woman's vote!