Diners and staff found themselves floating downstream during the dinner rush when a restaurant broke from its moorings.
All 83 people had to be rescued one by one with a makeshift gangplank of ladders and ropes after the boat came to rest against a bridge about 100 feet downriver.
"We were joking about the river," customer Kathy Kinane said. "Well, the joke's on us now."
Officials in Covington, Kentucky said the hours-long rescue was orderly and calm. Women were rescued first, then the men. One patron would climb down the gangplank wearing a life jacket, which would then be sent back up for the next person.
Mrs Kinane said she had to take off her heels to make her way down. Among those rescued was former Cincinnati Bengals star Cris Collinsworth, Covington fire Captain Chris Kiely said.
Collinsworth, a pro football commentator for NBC, has long been associated with Waterfront owner and restaurateur Jeff Ruby.
On the Waterfront's menu for 40 US dollars is the Steak Collinsworth, along with other steaks and high-end entrees including lobster, sea bass and tuna.
The restaurant is one of several on the river in Covington, just across from Cincinnati.