The Random Restaurant Tour — XLV

Toraya Moroccan Cuisine, located at 72 East Lynn Street less than a block from the Ohio Statehouse, is a new establishment that holds itself out as the first authentic Moroccan restaurant, serving halal food, in downtown Columbus. Dr. Science and I are always on the lookout for new ethnic food options, so yesterday we rambled over on a cool fall day to give Toraya a try for lunch.

In addition to the Moroccan cuisine, a few things about Toraya are very distinctive. First, it’s a white tablecloth set-up, which you don’t see that often in a lunch spot. Second, rather than a menu, you get handed a business card with a QR code so you can call up the menu on your cellphone, so don’t forget to bring yours. And third, the menu, which you can see here, offers food at a wide spectrum of price points–ranging from tagine dishes for less than $10, to sandwiches for under $15, to tagine dishes between $20 and $25. Dr. Science and I, appetites stimulated by the fine fall weather and a spirited discussion of just how cool NASA’s DART mission was, decided to go for something on the high end of the price scale.

I opted for the meatballs tagine–because who wouldn’t want meatballs for lunch?–and Dr. Science chose the chicken tagine. A tagine is a pyramid-like clay pot with a vent on top, as shown above, that is used in cooking the dish. Our meal started with a piping hot pot of honey-sweetened tea, which you pour into small glasses, Moroccan-style. And when our orders came, we learned that Toraya doesn’t scrimp on the food. I got a hefty portion of meatballs, very attractively presented in a colorful tagine, a bowl of saffron rice, and a basket of pita bread, as well as a piece of candy. Dr. Science’s portion was equally large. We agreed that you could easily share these dishes, or take some home to reheat for dinner, but since we were both famished we laid into our food with gusto and finished it all, except for the mound of pita bread.

My meatballs were great, and not overcooked as is often the case with meatballs. They came in a red sauce that had a very good flavor that paired well with the saffron rice. I first ate them by forking a meatball, some sauce, and some rice onto one of the quarters of pita bread to create a de facto sandwich, which was a tasty, messy, and fun way to eat the food. Dr. Science sampled some of the meatballs, and I tried a wedge of his chicken tagine dish, which was tender and mildly seasoned and also tasted good on the pita. After a while, I decided to ditch the pita so as not to fill myself up and just went straight for the meatball and rice combo, and that was a satisfying culinary experience, too.

When we finished, Dr. Science and I agreed that we would definitely come back to Toraya. We hope we’ll have the chance to do so, because the 72 East Lynn location is a bit of a revolving door for restaurants; we’d tried the predecessor in that spot, called Aroma, only a year ago, and now it is gone and Toraya has taken its place. We’re hoping that Toraya succeeds where others have failed, because it’s nice to have a little Moroccan flavor in downtown Columbus.

Downtowns, Up And Down

COVID still lingers–it seems like everyone has a friend or family members who has gotten it recently, or been exposed–and it’s looking like we’re just going to have to learn to live with it, long term. In the meantime, people are still trying to assess the impact of the shutdowns in various areas. One point of focus is looking at how cities–and specifically, their downtown areas–are doing in their efforts to bounce back from the prolonged 2020-2021 COVID shutdown periods.

A team of researchers at the University of California, Berkeley tried to answer that question by using a new form of measurement of activity. Rather than looking at an old-school measurement like office occupancy rates, however, they decided to look at cell phone user location data to see how many people have been going to the downtown areas in 62 American cities, and compare the data from pre-pandemic 2019 to the data for 2022.

The research team then used the data to calculate a “recovery quotient” for each of the 62 cities. The news isn’t good for many American cities, leading the research team to provocatively title their policy brief “The Death of Downtown?” Some cities, like San Francisco, have RQs that indicate that current downtown activity is only a small fraction of pre-pandemic levels. Happily, downtown Columbus is an outlier, with an RQ of 112, meaning that downtown activity in 2022 is above 2019 levels. That results puts downtown Columbus at the top of the list of large cities and third overall, behind only the downtown areas of Salt Lake City and Bakersfield.

The paper identifies various correlated explanatory variables for the different RQ scores, including the nature and mix of downtown jobs and the prevalence of remote work, commuting and public transportation issues, and the availability of downtown living space. The paper also notes the possibility of rethinking downtown areas and creating event spaces and destination areas to spur activity. Columbus has done a good job addressing these areas–particularly adding to the residential stock in the downtown area and placing sports venues, like Huntington Park shown in the photo above, in the city core–so I’m not surprised it scored well.

Policymakers have been predicting the death of downtown areas for decades but they are still here; I therefore wouldn’t be too quick to shovel dirt on downtowns. But the Berkeley analysis indicates that the COVID shutdown periods hit downtown areas hard. City leaders will need to focus on how to increase activity in their city cores as we move into the phase of learning to live with COVID.

When Scooters Really Suck

If you want to understand why urban dwellers like me really don’t like scooters, here’s a good example. This scene greeted me this morning as I walked to work. A gaggle of scooters was left willy-nilly in an already narrow part of the sidewalk, leaving the luckless pedestrian to navigate through the openings and at the same time accommodate people approaching from the opposite direction. And incidentally, by the time this afternoon rolled around, some of the scooters had been knocked over, making the sidewalks even more blocked. Would it have really been so hard for the scooter users to simply park their discarded vehicles a few feet away in Pearl Alley, where there was plenty of room?

What is it with scooter users? Are they so focused on their own, intrinsic, scooter-riding coolness that they just don’t feel bound by the same rules of polite conduct that apply to the rest of us?

How Green Was My Garden?

In 2007, Gay Street in downtown Columbus was changed from a one-way to a two-way street. As part of the project, about $1 million was spent on environmental improvements, including landscaped median strips that were added at points along the street, as well as “rain gardens.” The rain gardens were designated areas surrounded by cement berms that were supposed to look like an actual garden, with flowers and other plantings. They were intended to serve an important purpose: to absorb and filter storm water runoff from the surrounding area before it found its way back to local rivers.

The switch to a two-way street has worked well for Gay Street. The “rain gardens,” on the other hand, were kept up for a time and were a nice addition to the street; they also were featured in The Rain Gardener newsletter and won awards for the consultants who developed the project. But at some point along the way, whoever was responsible for taking care of the rain gardens stopped doing so. The photo above shows one of the rain gardens as it looked yesterday when I walked by on my way to the library. It’s an unsightly, muddy area, but more importantly it probably doesn’t do much to serve its stated purpose of absorbing and filtering storm water runoff–at least, no more than would be accomplished by untended open ground.

Only the sign below remains to remind passersby of what this area was supposed to be. Interestingly, Columbus’ submission to The Rain Gardener newsletter, linked above, stated that one of the goals of the rain garden project was to educate downtown workers, residents, and others “about the issues that storm water runoff creates.” Now the rain gardens serve a different educational purpose: they show what happens after the awards and the fanfare, when a well-intended “green” project is ignored and you wonder why the money to create it was spent in the first place.

Green Spaces (VI)

When the Scioto Mile project was first announced years ago, there was a lot of skepticism about whether focusing on Columbus’ sluggish river area could ever produce benefits. I was admittedly one of the skeptics. Now that the project has been completed and had a few years to develop, I’ve become a believer. I think the Scioto Mile has become a really great addition to the roster of Columbus green spaces.

The Scioto Mile is physically different from the traditional downtown Columbus green spaces, like the Statehouse grounds and Goodale Park, because it is a long, sprawling stretch of green that runs along the river rather than being a defined rectangle, which is the configuration of most traditional parks. The length of the park, which runs for more than a mile, gives it a decidedly different vibe than other parks. The uninterrupted walkways that duck under the bridges spanning the river make it a favorite for cyclists, joggers, and walkers, for example. And the extended nature of the park means there is plenty of room for interesting and distinctive spaces. One of my favorites is an area directly behind the federal courthouse that is filled with statues of whimsical creatures positioned along a rolling lawn. Who wouldn’t want to sit down next to a griffin or a unicorn and watch the river roll by?

I’ve got to give credit to the city planners who came up with the Scioto Mile project and then executed on it: it’s definitely had a positive impact on the downtown area and the workers and residents who frequent it.

Green Spaces (V)

Columbus is blessed with two excellent urban parks that bracket the core downtown area. The one to the north is Goodale Park, named for Dr. Lincoln Goodale, who is represented in the statuary bust shown above. Dr. Goodale was a physician, businessman, and civic-minded person who donated the park property to the city of Columbus in 1851 on the condition that it be “forever kept and preserved as a public park.” Fortunately, the city accepted and has kept its word.

Goodale Park is a good example of how a park can become deeply integrated into the surrounding community. It’s the long-time site of Comfest, a convenient watching spot for the Doodah Parade, and an essential feature of the nearby Short North area. It’s also huge, sprawling, and provides plenty of that treasured green space where a person can wander or simply sink down upon the wide green lawns. And it has the best fountain of any Columbus urban park, with its tower of twin elephants spouting water from their trunks into a lake filled with fish and turtles. How can you top that?

Dr. Goodale was a far-sighted person, and generations of Columbus residents owe him a debt of gratitude for giving us a great urban park.

Green Spaces (IV)

I like the tucked away, somewhat hidden green spaces that you find in downtown Columbus and other urban settings. They show that someone went to the effort and expense of creating a pretty area when they could have simply eschewed grass and trees and turned the area into a soulless, uninviting, and low-maintenance concrete patio instead.

One of these little gems is found just off High Street, on the block north of Nationwide Boulevard. As you head north on the west side of High Street and approach the bridge over some railroad tracks, a sidewalk suddenly appears to the left. If you follow it, the winding path allows you to cut over to Front Street, but also takes you past this sliver of green with grass, trees, and landscaping and a cool view of the Hyatt Regency hotel building. Whoever designed the area did a commendable job, because the row of trees between the area and High Street act as an effective screen against traffic noise, creating a quiet, calm oasis in the middle of a busy city.

This attractive green spot is right next to an office building. I’m sure there are workers who enjoy looking at the windows at it, and also appreciate it as a lunch spot where they can sit under the trees and enjoy some carry-out from the nearby North Market on a sunny day. Whoever created this little area has enriched their work days.

The Kayak Tell

In poker, a “tell” occurs when players exhibit some visible sign that betrays their view of their position. They might touch an ear, or blink, or shift their position in response to a very good hand, or a very bad predicament. The experienced poker player watches for such tells, and profits from them.

“Tells” extend beyond the poker table. Rivers have tells, too. And when I took my walk along the Scioto River today, I saw one of them. In two different places along the river, in the heart of downtown and near the Audubon Park dam, I saw groups of kayaks on the water, as well as a pop-up kayak company along the riverbank near the Main Street bridge.

Kayaks are a significant “tell” for the Scioto River, because they indicate that what the Scioto River project hoped to achieve is, in fact, moving closer to reality. When the project began years ago, the designers hoped that by narrowing the river and removing some of the dams, the river might be transformed from a shallow, muddy, debris-choked mess into a real river, with an actual, discernible current. Kayaks are a pretty good tell that the goal is being achieved, because they move with the current. Even more important, no one would have wanted to be at seated kayak distance from the sluggish, smelly Scioto of days gone by.

The Scioto has a long way to go before it could be viewed as a natural river, but every journey begins with a single step. Kayaks on the water are a good sign.

The New Restaurant On The Block

It’s always exciting when a new restaurant opens in downtown Columbus. It’s especially exciting when the new restaurant is in your neighborhood, only a few steps away from your door. That’s why I’ve been keenly interested in following the progress as Speck Italian Eatery builds out its space and gets ready to open its doors. Recently, the name went up over the front door, as shown in the photo above, which it usually a good sign that the grand opening is not far away.

Speck was a beloved Delaware, Ohio landmark that decided to relocate to downtown Columbus. It offers what it calls “innovative modern Italian recipes” that drew raves from the customers who frequented its Delaware location. And, after our recent visit to Italy and Sicily, I’ve got a decided taste for more Italian cooking–so having a place nearby that offers that fare will be much appreciated.

It’s not clear exactly when Speck will open, but the scuttlebutt in the Gay Street District is that the restaurant is aiming for mid-July. Welcome to the neighborhood, Speck!

Green Spaces (III)

One of the nicer, and smaller, parks in the downtown Columbus area is located right next to the Grange Insurance headquarters on South High Street. There doesn’t seem to be a sign naming the park, and Google Maps identifies it, simply, as “Grange Insurance South Green.”

That’s actually a pretty apt name for this lush, verdant, quiet, and well-landscaped spot just a few blocks south of the I-70/I-71 highway snarl, where the Grange buildings loom in the background. Most people aren’t aware of it, which is just fine with the locals who like to sit in the shade on one of the benches or take their dogs there for some happy outdoor playtime. In fact, it’s such a popular spot for our canine friends that some German Village residents refer to it as the “Grange Dog Park.”

That’s not quite fair, because the park isn’t only for our pooch pals to enjoy; it’s also a nice stopping point for anyone who is walking down High Street along the border of German Village. It’s not unusual to see visitors to Columbus taking a breather there on one of the benches, looking at a map and deciding where they are going to go next in the German Village/Brewery District area. That’s exactly why parks can play such a notable role in our communities: they send a message about valuing nature and outdoor spaces that resonates with both residents and tourists. I’m pretty sure that any visitor who enjoyed the “Grange Insurance South Green” came away with a more positive view of Columbus than they would have had otherwise.

Doorless

The other day the Long-Haired Red Sox Fan asked if I’d like to drive with him to lunch. I agreed, not knowing that I would be experiencing doorless downtown driving as a result.

The LHRSF has a new Ford Bronco that he is quite proud of, and his Ford Bronco, like all of the new Broncos, allows the owner to fully remove the doors–and roof. The Bronco is designed to be an off-road vehicle, and apparently driving around in the Great Outdoors with the doors off is what you are supposed to do to increase the off-roading fun factor. (Perhaps they should call it the “Great Nodoors” in recognition of that.) Of course, we weren’t going to be driving around the rugged landscape in, say, New Mexico, but instead venturing a mile or so through downtown Columbus. Nevertheless, the LHRSF thinks driving around with no doors enhances the fun factor wherever you are. He had removed the doors (he reports that it’s a cinch) and left them in his garage, although he had thoughtfully kept the roof attached.

It’s weird driving around in a vehicle with no doors. You’re totally exposed to the outside, and secured to your ride only by a seat belt. Being exposed might add to the fun when you’re off-roading through the elements, but in the city it basically means anyone can look in and get a full body view of everyone in the car. Until you drive around in a doorless Bronco, you don’t fully appreciate how much privacy is provided by car doors–and just how welcome that privacy is. And, with the asphalt perfectly visible and whizzing by only a few inches from your feet, you’ll never care more about the strength and quality of your seat belt.

We drove about a mile or so, from downtown to the Brewery District, without incident, and when we parked and went to our restaurant, no passerby used the open Bronco as a trash receptacle. Fortunately, we didn’t experience any unexpected cloudbursts. And the doorless ride back was uneventful, too.

I don’t think I would ever buy a vehicle that had a doorless option. I’m just too conventional, and I would always be tortured by thoughts of drivers and passengers being jettisoned from the vehicle and rolling along the roadway. But life is all about trying new things, and now–thanks to the LHRSF–I can say that I’ve driven in a doorless car. Another item on the bucket list has officially been checked.

Arty Party

Our firm had a party tonight at the Columbus Museum of Art. It’s a great venue for a party. We started outside in the garden, where we got to enjoy vistas like that shown in the photo above, then we moved inside for food, drinks and karaoke. Who would have thought that our law firm had so many singers? After midnight the staff had to kick us out.

Downtown Columbus has a lot of good party spots. The Art Museum is one of them.

Green Spaces

When you live in a downtown space, you inevitably see a lot of steel and concrete. Green spaces are therefore a welcome sight, just to inject a little color variety into the urban landscape. But green spaces also are essential if you hope to encourage people to live downtown, which is an obvious goal of Columbus city planners.

People need green spaces to romp around with their dogs, as a woman in the far distance was doing when I took the picture above, to sit on the grass on a warm, sunny day, eat a carryout or food truck lunch, and just stop for a minute and take in their surroundings. Green spaces can go a long way toward improving the urban dweller’s mood. And, if planning is done well, green spaces also can serve as performance venues, gathering spots, and impressive photo backdrops.

This summer I’m going to be checking out some of the parks and green spaces in the downtown Columbus area. A good starting point is the Columbus Commons, shown above, just south of the Statehouse in the center of downtown. When the Columbus City Center mall failed years ago, city planners could have developed the space into another downtown building. Fortunately, they had the foresight to turn the sprawling property into a park that is bordered by residential and commercial buildings. The wide, deep, and very lush green lawns are beautiful from spring to fall, and they serve as a performance venue for Picnic with the Pops and other concerts, the site for open “workout Wednesday” yoga and exercise groups, and a food truck destination.

Plus–and this is an important point–the vista of the green lawns against the backdrop of the surrounding buildings just looks cool. Columbus Commons is a green space done well.

Unmetered

Earlier this spring, the blue sign shown above started appearing on parking meters in downtown Columbus. The sign notified parkers and passersby that Columbus was going to a meter-free parking world. Yesterday morning, as I walked to work down Gay Street, city workers were removing the coin-accepting tops of the parking meters from their metal stands and hurling them into the back of a pickup truck, where they landed with a clang. One of the employees at our firm noted that a parker had just put money into one of the meters before it was taken and unceremoniously tossed into the truck.

By the end of the day, a new parking kiosk and a new sign, shown below, had appeared in front of our firm. All of the parking meters were gone–with only their sad, lonely metal stumps remaining to remind us, probably forever, of where the meters once were.

Why is Columbus ditching the meters? The city’s Director of the Department of Public Service says it is part of an effort “to enhance the customer experience for on-street parking by adding greater convenience with better technology tools.” She adds: “A modernized system supports equitable access and turnover as our city—and curb lane demand—keep growing.” (I’m guessing that “curb lane demand” refers to desire for parking spaces.)

The city says that the new system will be simpler for parkers, who can identify their mobile pay zone using street signs where they parked, walk to the nearest kiosk, enter their license plate number and pay using a card or coins. I’m not sure why the city contends that this new approach is simpler than just dropping a few coins into a slot. And the new system will require people to remember their license plate number, which will predictably cause a number of people to double back to confirm their number, but there’s no fighting progress.

The article linked above quotes the city’s Assistant Director for Parking Services as saying: “For the City of Columbus, streamlining parking payment will require less maintenance, greater efficiency, and enable quick and accurate license plate recognition (LRP) enforcement to encourage access and turnover.” In short, it will be easier to ticket people who overstay their designated parking space period. If you’re parking in downtown Columbus, keep that in mind. And watch out for those sad metal stumps.

The Random Restaurant Tour — XLIV

When it comes to burgers, size really does matter. Dainty patties and delicate presentation aren’t really what the burger aficionado is looking for. No, the true burger fan wants a burger that is a colossal handful, groaning with high quality beef and melted cheese, so huge you struggle to finish it all even as you are relishing every last morsel.

On this crucial burger threshold, Alley Burger–the new restaurant at the corner of Lynn and Pearl Alleys in downtown Columbus, just around the corner from the venerable Ringside–passes with flying colors. When the B.A. Jersey Girl, the Church Singer, and I darted into Alley Burger on a cold and rainy day last week, we found a place that definitely doesn’t scrimp on the burgers. In fact, all of our sandwiches were so large that they were held together by huge and very sharp steak knives that looked like they belonged in a Rambo movie. The presence of these mercenary-style knives on our plates definitely encouraged civility in our lunchtime conversation, and should cause any visitor to Alley Burger to choose their lunch companions with care and avoid heated political discussions during their meals.

I ordered a double cheeseburger that was so highly stacked that, after one bite, I realized it could not be eaten by hand without risking massive suit and shirt staining, so the steak knife came in handy as I chopped the double up for a more genteel approach to consumption. The burger, made with Alley Burger’s own sauce, was excellent, and I finished it all The meal also came with free tortilla chips, with another fine sauce made in house, and a reasonable order of french fries. I stuck with water, which is my lunchtime drink of choice, but Alley Burger also offers a variety of slushies, and the proprietors are looking to secure their liquor license, too.

The Alley Burger location has been a kind of revolving door for restaurants during the time I’ve worked in downtown Columbus, and that rear wall that is now painted with the Alley Burger name has sported the names of many other restaurants gone by. I’m hoping that, unlike its many predecessors, Alley Burger sticks around for a while.