Themed restaurant events in town have diners lining up to join in

Specialty tastings and food events in town continue to add magic to the dining scene.

A little over a week ago the Miami Valley Restaurant Association held its third annual Battle of the Bartenders and for the third year running I was lucky enough to be asked to judge.

Like so many special restaurant events I have had the pleasure of attending, it was an evening where chefs and bartenders in town came ready to impress.

Nik Hunt of Coco’s Bistro took home first prize from the judges for his creation the Ruby Slipper made with vodka, ruby red grapefruit shrub (made with champagne vinegar, ruby red grapefruit juice, fruit, and Demerara sugar), vanilla rosemary simple syrup and fresh lemon juice.

Bill Castro of El Meson went home with second place for the aptly named Spicy Cockatoo made with vodka, passion fruit juice and Siracha and Eric Walusis of Nibbles in Miamisburg took home third with an intense cocktail called Corpse Reviver made with vodka, Curaçao, fresh lemon juice, sweet dessert wine and Sambuca.

Best pairing went to El Meson for the hot and sweet Spicy Cockatoo and their tangy, flavorful perfect Chilean Beef Empanadas. These are both being served on the current menu and are worth seeking out and ordering together thanks to their very complimentary flavors.

Josh Dotson and Travis Day of Carvers Steak House won People’s Choice for their New Old Fashioned made with boubon infused vodka, Luxardo cherries, oranges, black cherry juice, simple syrup and orange bitters.

This crew of local talent join the ranks of first place winner Dustin Wade of Meadowlark and People’s Choice former winners Dotson and Day of Carver’s in 2014 and first place winner Amber Brady of Lily’s Bistro, People’s Choice winner Scott Lamley of El Meson and best pairing winner Dale Wack of The Dock in 2015.

“I am very proud of this event. We are so fortunate to have Miami Valley’s finest restaurants and bartenders and our very own locally owned Buckeye Vodka be a part of this event. I am amazed on how much it’s grown. The bartenders take this event very serious with the cocktails they create. And it totally shows in the finished product. I always say we are so blessed with the all the amazing chefs we have, but we are also very blessed with all the fantastic creative bartenders. It’s so much fun to see how excited people are about trying the drinks and food,” said Amy Zahora, executive director of the MVRA who has been with the organization since 2004.

The numbers have shown these kinds of events have continued to garner interest and traction with diners.

When the event launched in 2014 close to 200 were in attendance and the numbers have grown by approximately 100 per year with nearly 400 in attendance last week, according to Zahora.

It mirrors the interest I’ve noticed of late for other specialty dining events taking place around town.

A Tuesday night ’90s hip-hop theme dinner I attended at Lily’s Bistro in the Oregon District had to add a 5 p.m. seating after the interest was so high from customers, and a recent Bourbon pairing at El Meson had more than 100 in attendance and sold out weeks before the event took place.

Both were fantastic and some of the most magical nights dining that I’ve had in recent memory at both places.

El Meson’s tasting featured five individual courses paired with five blind bourbon pairings — shrimp with chorizo grits, crispy duck tacos, pizza on Indian naan, blackened salmon pasta and “Matador” french fries. And for $44.94 a person it was a delicious and a terrific value. I was impressed with the quality and quantity of all the dishes — especially the shrimp and grits and duck tacos. The folks I was seated with, most of who I did not know, all seemed to be in agreement that we would return for another we enjoyed it so much.

The Lily’s Bistro event I attended earlier last week on Tuesday packed the restaurant on a night of the week that is typically slow.

After the 7 p.m. seating sold out quickly a 5 p.m. seating was added, which also sold well. The four-course dinner featuring creative names, menu preparation and theme was something that the restaurant staff and its diners clearly had a lot of fun with.

The cost was $52 for four courses, a cocktail, tax and tip and was another example of a food event offering a different entertaining experience and great value.

The smoked salmon with roasted beets, microgreens and a chili-honey dressing was phenomenal as was a pan-served trout with shaved Brussels sprouts, mashed potatoes in a creole mustard cream sauce. A fig starter with goat cheese, balsamic honey sauce and pine nuts made for a perfect starter, but could have just as easily doubled as savory dessert.

I can only hope more creative, interactive events like this continue going forward. It makes going out for dinner a whole lot more fun and allows diners to try different dishes with preparations and ingredients that they might not otherwise have the opportunity to try.

“It’s something different and trendy. We have a very creative group of restaurants and their bartenders who participate,” said Zahora of her Battle of the Bartenders event. “People enjoy sampling the different concoctions the bartenders create and sampling the food. It’s a really fun event that people enjoy. I say this a lot, but we are so blessed to have so many wonderful locally owned restaurants and their bartenders are just as creative.”

Dayton Eats looks at the regional food stories and restaurant news that make mouths water. Share your menu updates, special dinners and events, new chef news, interesting new dishes and culinary adventures. Do you know of new exciting format changes, specials, happy hours, restaurant updates or any other tasty news you think is worth a closer look at? E-mail Alexis Larsen at with the information and we will work to include it in future coverage.