Y’all means all: A queer travel guide to Northern Kentucky

When I was invited to visit Kentucky early last year, I was encouraged by the Y’all Means All campaign facilitated by MeetNKY, the tourism board promoting the region — and it certainly felt welcoming and friendly to both myself and my wife during our visit. We joyfully strolled down the streets of Covington, recently recommended as a great place for LGBT people to retire by Marketwatch, and felt completely at ease holding hands and giggling like the star-crossed lovers we are. 

Were we a little worried about visiting the area as a visibly queer, interracial couple? Yes, to a degree. We’d been to Kentucky before, specifically Louisville, and absolutely loved it! Smaller towns are definitely a different ballpark — but we decided to go anyway.

However, since then, Kentucky overrode a veto to pass SB 150 which, as the BBC reported in 2023, is legislation that some Democrats have dubbed  “most extreme anti-LGBTQ bill in America.”  It bars transgender students under the age of 18 from accessing gender-affirming healthcare, while also banning them from freely using bathrooms, locker rooms or shower rooms that match their gender identity. In addition to restricting discussions about sexual orientation and gender in schools, the bill means that teachers may refuse to use young people’s correct pronouns that align with their gender identity (and that’s just the two-sentence version of the horror this bill unleashes in Kentucky). 

When I asked about the very real safety concerns of queer people considering a visit to Northern Kentucky, Julie Kirkpatrick, the president and CEO of meetNKY, responded with the following: “All travelers are welcome in Kentucky, the literal start of Southern Hospitality, from the edge of the South along the Ohio River to the great outdoor spaces in Eastern Kentucky, our thousands of miles of shoreline and in every Bourbon Distillery throughout the Commonwealth.”

When pressed further, the organization’s public relations representative said that Kirkpatrick was uncomfortable “drilling down to address just one segment of our visitors,” and that all she would say was that “Northern Kentucky is a very welcoming community, and we take all of our visitors’ safety very seriously. We are committed to treating all of our guests equally to ensure they always feel welcome and safe to enjoy our beautiful area of the country.”

“Southern hospitality” is frequently deployed to gloss over the very real harm actively perpetuated by straight white people (and sometimes white queer people, too!) in the South to people who aren’t like them, including Black folks, Jews, and of course, queer people. I certainly found it ironic that MeetNKY had no problem marketing a campaign celebrating the area as a place where “Y’all Means All” but couldn’t address very real safety concerns because they didn’t want to drill down on “just one segment of our visitors.”

All of that said, the state government and tourism board don’t represent the opinions or disposition of wonderful, kind, and generous people who opened their businesses to my wife and I with open arms. Like the rest of the country, “The South” might be home to some racist and homophobic pockets of the country, but it’s also home to millions of queer, Black, trans, and Jewish people who go about their daily lives while trying to dodge the horror all around them.

So, with all that for context, here are some fabulous things my wife and I did, ate, and enjoyed. If you end up in the area, you can rest assured that at least at the time we visited, these businesses showed not one ounce of hate — quite the opposite, in fact.

Where to Stay

Hotel Covington: Hotel Covington is located right in the heart of Covington, allowing you to walk out and explore the area. The hotel used to be an old Chopin department store, which was converted into a 114-room hotel that still holds some of the vintage remnants of the old building. You’ll walk into a spacious lobby with high ceilings, chandeliers and a restaurant, where they serve breakfast, lunch and dinner. We were greeted with a kind word and a cheerful “hello!” every time we walked in — just one example of the stellar customer service you’ll experience at Hotel Covington. The beds were pretty comfortable, too!

And when you’re out exploring, stop by Grainwell, a small woodworking home decor boutique owned by two sisters, and Handzy, a small shop with quirky, colorful accessories, decor and lovely unique greeting cards. You’ll also find Kentucky Botanical Co. CBD Store nearby, with a variety of CBD, Delta 8 and 9 products, and Hierophany & Hedge, a magical store that sells a wide variety of candles, incense, crystals, talismans, wands and a lot more. These shops are locally-owned and within walking distance of the hotel.

Where to Eat

Unatasa: Alejandra Flores would host coffee origin trips to her home country, Honduras, for members of the Northern Kentucky community. The popular trips led to the founding of Unatasa, which serves Honduran food and coffee, which Flores sources herself from farmers in Honduras. I am unabashedly picky when it comes to coffee. I’m not a daily coffee drinker, so when I do indulge, I want it to be good — really good. 

Unatasa exceeds every expectation with high-quality coffee carefully prepared to squeeze every bit of deliciousness into your cup. And there are loads of coffee options to suit any taste, including a golden latte with turmeric syrup. (I even came back a second time because the only good cup of coffee I enjoyed in the area was there!)

Bouquet: “Unpolished fine dining” is what Bouquet is known for; chef and restaurant owner Stephen Williams uses local, fresh ingredients to inspire the ever-changing menu. Williams, and his wife and co-owner Jessica, fell in love while visiting local farms and choosing produce before marrying in Bouquet’s private dining room. We enjoyed a beautiful citrus and greens salad and a comforting bowl of risotto topped with mushrooms, perfect for the freezing-cold January night. Like many great restaurants, Bouquet offers a tasting menu, but unlike other restaurants, it’s not small-format, and you get to choose your own dishes. At only $60 for four courses, it’s a great value for some truly inspired food. 

Rich’s Proper: For super fresh oysters and complex cocktails and mocktails, you’ll have to stop at Rich’s Proper. The restaurant carries the name of the former occupant of the location, Historic Rich’s Gruen Watches. The husband and wife team has a long history in the restaurant industry and a personal connection to oysters, which now feature prominently on their menu, served in four different iterations. For raw oyster lovers, you have them traditionally on the half shell with horseradish and oyster shooters served with jalapeno-infused vodka and bloody mary mix. Additionally, Rich’s offers broiled oysters with or without Spanish chorizo. Stop in for dinner, or make it a late-night pitstop, since they’re open until 11 pm on the weekends.

Mama’s on Main: Mama’s on Main is a beautiful, dimly lit restaurant with huge windows, painted murals, and big, beautiful light fixtures. The large stained glass window was salvaged from a local church that was destroyed in a fire in 1980. The restaurant serves classic American Italian food, and they do it very well, better than most. You won’t go wrong with anything, but the decadent, pillowy soft ricotta gnocchi with herb pesto and crispy prosciutto is truly spectacular. If you like the classics, try the perfectly crispy eggplant parmesan topped with gooey melted mozzarella on a bed of saucy spaghetti. 

Baker’s Table: Baker’s Table is all about sustainable cooking, using every single part of the animal in their dishes, baking their own bread, and changing the menu weekly to utilize local, fresh ingredients. The restaurant is completely plastic-free, from the kitchen to the bar to takeout containers, taking their sustainable mission to the next level. Don’t think for a second that this makes the restaurant boring or the food uninspired. Quite the opposite. The vibe is immaculate, with live Jazz music on some nights and a soft chatter and laughter fills the dimly lit restaurant. The sourdough bread was incredible. Baked across the street at their other venue, the Baker’s Table Bakery & Pizzeria, definitely don’t skip it. We enjoyed a wonderful winter citrus salad. If you love classic comfort food, the elevated mac and cheese is the grown-up version of a childhood favorite and every bit as nostalgic. And make sure you get dessert. The ricotta donuts were spectacular! Super fluffy and light, and the perfect way to end a memorable meal.

Bourbon

I’m told that when you visit Kentucky, you must drink lots of bourbon and check out all the distilleries. Not a big drinker myself, I pushed back, but at the end of the day, I actually enjoyed most of the bourbon experiences in Northern Kentucky. 

New Riff: Just across the river from Cincinnati is New Riff, a family-owned distillery that intends to be a “new riff on an old tradition.” While established, generations-old distilleries tend to gloss over (more like entirely avoid) their racist history, New Riff has been around for just ten years and is doing business differently. 

I’m not really a fan of bourbon, but there was something special about touring the facility. Every person at New Riff was a fountain of knowledge and obviously passionate about their craft. New Riff’s director of operations, Hannah Lowen, is a queer woman who got her start in politics. While that might not seem like a big deal, it’s a big deal in bourbon — a man’s game.

Take their tour and learn how bourbon is made and what makes New Riff different. Before you go, be sure to buy their barbecue spice rub and bourbon barrel-aged maple syrup, which will please even the most bourbon-averse person. 

Revival Vintage Bottle Shop: Step back in history and stop by Revival, a woman and queer-owned vintage spirits shop. The small shop is filled to the brim with vintage spirits ranging from 100-year-old bourbon to tequila and everything in between. And you don’t have to buy a bottle to enjoy a visit here. Revival sells vintage bourbons, scotch, gin, tequila, rye, and so much more by the shot, so anyone can try a little bit of the history of alcoholic beverages and learn about their history. 

Second Sight Spirits: This distillery has the most interesting story. The owners began their journey in Los Vegas, building sets for shows. But I won’t give away the whole story, because taking a tour at Second Sight Spirits is a really unique experience, and you want to hear their history directly from the owner, who has a brilliant way of telling their story. And by the way, bourbon isn’t the only thing you’ll find at Second Sight Spirits. We bought a truly magnificent apple pie moonshine and a few other bottles that we’re enjoying slowly to this day. If you only visit one distillery in Northern Kentucky, it should be this one.

What to Do

501 Salon & Spa: Have you ever had a facial massage? 501 Salon & Spa offers everything from massages to haircuts and facials, all in a charming and cozy setting. My wife got a massage, and I got a facial. I was a little nervous because every time I get a facial, it’s kinda painful because of my skin and the extractions that are typically done. When I informed the esthetician that I really just wanted to relax, she offered a facial massage, which certainly sounded a little odd, but was truly a magical experience. I wholeheartedly recommend it!

Newport Aquarium: I’ve been to a dozen aquariums in the US, Canada, Europe and Bermuda, and this is my favorite one. It’s huge! In addition to the normal things you’d find in an aquarium, they offer face painting and caricatures, as well as other fun activities to enjoy. I certainly took advantage of the face painting and wouldn’t have it any other way. Definitely worth a visit, but might be worth heading there on a weekday, as it’s pretty busy on the weekend. 

Purrfect Day Cat Cafe: If you like cats, you will love the Purrfect Day Cat Cafe. I fell in love with a tiny little cat named Hank, and almost took him home with me! You can adopt a cat and take them home with you that very day if you, too, fall in love. Be sure to book a time slot ahead of time because the cafe fills up quickly. It’s worth noting that this is an actual cafe too, where you can buy treats, coffee and other drinks. Best of all, this is just a few blocks away from Hotel Covington, so you can walk!

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