…as I did for several months, you’re going to want to know where to eat. For much of the end of 2013 into the first half of 2014, I essentially relocated to Columbus due to an on-going/never-ending work project. You know you’ve departed your dear Chicago for a long while when Foursquare (now Swarm) welcomes you home when you check in at Port Columbus Airport (and generates a report of the places you visited during your “trip” to Chicago).
Adjusting to Columbus had its ups and downs. One thing is for sure, the people who live here are very sure that Columbus is the best place to live, work, eat and drink. (They’re also quick to tell you how “clean” it is. It’s true; Columbus is very clean.) I can’t be so enthusiastic — in order to find a restaurant in Columbus that I’d gladly go back to, I had to make my way through many mediocre, overrated local favorites: Barcelona Tapas, Mitchell’s Steakhouse, De Novo, Elevator Brewery, etc. When I travel for business, I’m a firm believer that there must be diamonds in the rough–even in the greater downtown areas–that are perhaps not perfect, but perfectly good.
Two initial notes: One, stay at the Hilton. Two, many Columbus restaurants appear to be clones from other cities. The Pearl Restaurant, Tavern and Oyster Bar riffs on NYC’s The Dutch, and Marcella’s seems like a near-duplicate of Chicago’s Quartino down to the font on the menu. The infamous NoMAD chicken made an appearance on my room service menu at the Hilton. There’s even a taco joint called “Bakersfield” that seems to directly conjure up Big Star (minus the humongous patio and scene).
Another somewhat-interesting factoid is that Columbus is an incubator of sorts for chain lunch concepts. Based on what I’ve seen, I’d expect a lot of Chipotle clones coming soon to you — concepts where you choose your appropriately-ethnicized version of chicken and its scarfing-vehicle (tortilla, lavash, etc.), then you run down the line stuffing it with an abundance of culturally out-of-context and culinarily-discordant toppings.
I thanked the Gods every day for the downtown location of Café Brioso, which roasts its beans on site, pours over, and has richest latte I’ve ever had due to, I think, their sourcing of what they proclaim to be the “best milk in Ohio.”
One strong positive about eating lunch downtown in Columbus is that small-city economics preserves some truly great places that would have been snuffed out in larger cities by high rents or the slim profit margins that result from serving a lunch-only crowd. One such place is El Arepazo, a Venezuelan/pan-Latin eat-in/take-out restaurant that churns out delicious, carefully-prepared dishes to hundreds of office workers daily. It’s hard to beat paying $7 for an excellent arepa with assertively-seasoned braised pork or $10 for carne asada with excellent-quality, again, well-seasoned skirt steak. The real star at El Arepazo, though, is their house-made “cilantro” sauce, a bit of a misnomer, because it is a spicy blend of many ingredients beyond cilantro that I’d drink by the glass if offered. I miss this place every day now that I’m back in Chicago.
Sí Señor, another pan-Latin place but with a Peruvian focus, offers large, baked empanadas with the traditional filling of ground beef, eggs, and raisins, and South American-inspired sandwiches — the best in my opinion is the “Jumping Beef”, which is like a Peruvian version of Chicago’s Italian Beef. Consider the genuinely homemade desserts like a rich, Peruvian-style lime pie, a daringly tall trés leches cake, and a deeply-caramelized flan that is offered by the slice. Sí Señor successfully hits many high notes of the iconic Route 66 diner (meat, sandwiches, desserts) but with a distinct Latin focus.
Dinner presents more of a challenge. Every menu reserves real estate for a boring filet-and-mashed potatoes plate among other snoozer dishes that offer little in the way of conception, finesse or seasoning. Short North, the major restaurant area in Columbus, turns into a veritable club scene on the weekend. Walking up High Street, it’s hard not to feel like you’re on a smaller, less developed version of the Vegas Strip, between the gaggles of scantily-clad clubgoers and roving packs of bros. It’s hard to get much worse than the Arena District and the block-long Venetian-esque arcade that houses the Hyde Park Steakhouse, Bar 23 and Eleven. There’s even a Ted’s Montana Grill in the area. If you have to be in Short North on the weekend, get in a cab and eat at the comparatively mature, low-key German Village neighborhood a few short miles away.
There, you should eat at Harvest, an artisanal pizza place located adjacent to Curio, a craft cocktail bar. The cocktails skew a tad too sweet, but you won’t regret spending a little time in the vintage, low-slung brick house that has as much precious charm as, say, a curio cabinet. The pizza part of the business spills out onto a tranquil patio where the brick-oven pies may be a tad too creatively-topped, but the carefully-prepared crust make up for any shortcomings that offering a Hawaiian pizza may imply (by the way, it’s seemingly ubiquitous in Ohio).
Another worthy patio in German Village is Lindey’s, which has an enclosed garden with a back bar under the trees and among the fountains. Lindey’s food is executed as well as you’d expect an above-average hotel to make food, meaning that they can properly cook and plate a protein, pair it with an appropriate sauce and garnish, and select a filling starch. Lindey’s isn’t worth going to unless you sit outside — that is, if you don’t want to be reminded of 1980s banquet halls, as the tired inside decor suggests.
When the weekdays roll around again and it’s safe to go back to Short North, Rigsby’s Kitchen and The Pearl are favorites, although I feel like they both execute just short of the mark. Rigsby’s gets points for quality meat sourcing (such as beef from Pat La Frieda and some local whole hog butchering). It also has some well-executed, creative starters, and a good wine list. The bar area is a great place to have a solo weekday dinner. The Pearl gets credit for just attempting to be something more conceptual than most Columbus restaurants.
The place that most impressed me is somewhere in between Short North and downtown in a desolate stretch of road: Wolf’s Ridge Brewery. They’ve yet to distribute, so this is the only place in the world to try their impressive, house-brewed beer. The food is executed with polish and finesse, and hopefully, is a harbinger of a new style of modern American restaurants in Columbus. Patronize this diamond-in-the-rough before you succumb to another mediocre meal in Columbus.*
*Yes, I know about Jeni’s. Very good ice cream. Also: ubiquitous.