The Random Restaurant Tour (XVIII)

I’m a firm believer in the importance of getting out of the office, taking a break from the workday grind, and having lunch with friends, family members, and colleagues.  However, there are days when the press of work is just too much.  You realize you’ve got to work through lunch, and that means you’ve got to eat lunch at your desk.

When that happens, as it did yesterday, I’m extremely grateful for Cafe Phenix.

The Phenix is one of our Gay Street neighbors, located right across the street from the firm.  You can dine in at their pleasant shop or the sidewalk eating area just outside, or take out, ordering from a full menu of sandwiches, quiches, soups, and pastries, with a full array of teas, milkshakes, smoothies, and other beverage items.  The proprietor and his staff are friendly folks who are likely to engage you in a pleasant bit of conversation while your food is being prepared, and the menu changes daily, with specials shown on a sign outside and soup offerings written on a chalkboard behind the counter.

When I’ve visited the Phenix to get carryout for a desktop working lunch, I inevitably get the soup.  I’ve had the croque monsieur sandwich, which was very good indeed, but the proprietor’s true medium for culinary artistry is bisques, chowders, gumbos, and other forms of hot, steaming, spoon-friendly nourishment.  In my opinion he is one of the very best soup makers in town.  In fact, his sausage and seafood gumbo and seafood bisque are the stuff of Gay Street legend.

Yesterday, I got a carry-out bowl of the white chicken chili, a creamy concoction stuffed with chunks of chicken, onions, potato, and great northern beans.  The Phenix threw in some moist, ridiculously buttery corn bread that I crumbled into the soup, licking my fingers all the while.  I enjoyed every bite of the result, and for only $3.99, a bowl of soup from the Cafe Phenix is awfully easy on your wallet, too.

The Phenix almost makes you look forward to a lunch at your desk.

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The Random Restaurant Tour (XVI)

Sometimes, the story of a restaurant isn’t about the good food you’ve enjoyed — it’s about how you never got to sample the fare because the place went toes up before you ever got a chance to visit.

The restaurant business is a notoriously difficult one, particularly for stand-alone start-ups. Statistics show that more than half of newly established restaurants will be out of business within three years.  The most common reasons for failure, according to the experts, are lack of sufficient cash flow and capitalization, a concept that doesn’t work, a bad location, and poor quality food.

In our little section of downtown Columbus, we’ve seen several restaurants close their doors recently.  Stack’d is one that I never got a chance to try.  Located at the corner of Third Street and Lynn Alley about a block from our firm, Stack’d billed itself as “The Flavor Architects” and offered a diverse menu of sandwiches, salads, pizzas, chips, and smoothies.  It was open for a few months, then posted a sign saying that management had gone south for the winter, then a sign that the restaurant could be rented for training, and finally the “for sale” sign that is there now.  Why did Stack’d fail?  Who knows?  The only word-of-mouth I heard about Stack’d when it was open, from one person, was that the food was good but the ordering process was complicated and patrons had a lot of decisions to make.

The story was different for another restaurant that closed recently.  The Carvery, located directly across Gay Street from the firm, offered sandwiches and soups that were very good.  It seemed to do a thriving business and was always bustling when I was there.  But then it apparently experienced some kind of significant plumbing problem, posted a sign that it was temporarily closed — and never reopened.

We’ve heard that another restaurant will be opening at The Carvery’s former location, and I’d expect some other food-loving entrepreneur will eventually take a stab at opening up where Stack’d used to operate.  I wish them good luck, and hope they stay open long enough for me to visit.

 

Whirlybirds Accompaniment

I went to work this morning, and as I was working I kept hearing this great jazz music coming up from the street below during today’s Sunlight Market on Gay Street.  I couldn’t tell whether I was hearing a recording or a live band — but the music was terrific.  It was old-school jazz that had a kind of New Orleans feel to it.  It reminded me of Tuba Skinny, one of my favorite Big Easy jazz bands.

whirlybirds-facebook-picWhen I left the office and walked out onto Gay Street, I saw that the music was coming a live band.  They finished a number and took a break, and I walked up to throw a few dollars into their open guitar case and thank them for adding a little musical accompaniment to my Sunday work session.  They were a Columbus-based band called the Whirlybirds, and they were great.  You can check out their Facebook page here and hear one of their numbers here.

I’m going to keep an eye out for a chance to hear more from the Whirlybirds.

Our Own Urban (Fast) Food Desert

Yesterday we were having lunch at Pat & Gracie’s, a good spot just a few blocks east of the firm on Gay Street, talking about places to eat downtown, when we realized with a start that there are no longer any of the traditional fast food restaurants in the core downtown Columbus area.

fast-food-signsOnce, this was not the case.  There are was Arby’s just a block or so away, a White Castle, a Skyline Chili, and three Wendy’s.  Now, they’re all gone.  Unless I’m forgetting one, the only traditional fast food place even remotely in the downtown footprint is a McDonald’s located at the corner of Grant & Main, just south of Grant Hospital and the Main branch of the library, on the far fringes of the core downtown area.  The closest we’ve got to traditional fast food are a few Subway shops, including one that is across the street from the firm.  If you really want traditional fast food options in Columbus, Ohio, you need to head away from downtown and head to the ‘burbs and the highways.

Why have the fast food outlets moved out of the central downtown area?  The Red Sox Fan hypothesizes that, in the modern world, fast food restaurants have to have drive-thru service to be economically feasible, and the buildings and spaces in downtown Columbus just aren’t suited for that kind of design.  There’s no doubt, too, that rents in downtown Columbus are rising — that’s purportedly the reason for the lamentable closure of the Skyline Chili once located close to Broad and High, which did a bustling lunch trade — and high rents and fast food really don’t mix.  And it could be, too, that the downtown restaurant clientele, consisting of thousands of office workers like us and people staying at the downtown hotels, just don’t want to get typical fast food for their sit-down lunch and have found really terrific alternatives to traditional fast food throughout the downtown area.  Even if I need to eat at my desk to meet a deadline, there are lots of non-fast food options nearby where I can get something tasty and interesting on a carry-out basis.

It might be a chicken and egg scenario — which came first, the departure of the fast food outlets or the opening of lots of good, unique downtown eateries like those found on Gay Street? — but these days downtown Columbus, Ohio could be called an urban fast food desert.  I kind of like it that way.

The Random Restaurant Tour (VIII)

Gay Street is home to more restaurants per square foot than any other street in downtown Columbus.  Yesterday JV, the Unkempt Guy, the Bus-Riding Conservative and I paid a visit to the newest member of the Gay Street Foodiehood, an Irish/American joint called Pub Mahone that opened only a few months ago. It wasn’t a hard choice on a day where rain was in the offing, because Pub Mahone is only a few steps down the street from our office and we were feeling in a neighborly spirit, besides.

Why do you go to an Irish pub?  (Well, to have an adult beverage or two, of course, but I wasn’t thinking about that because we were there for lunch.)  In part, it’s the atmosphere.  You’re looking for a place that is warm and snug, with dark wood walls, wooden tables, a wooden bar, and as many other wood elements you can reasonably cram into a restaurant space.  Pub Mahone delivers on the ambiance front.  It’s got wood everywhere you look, with the customary pictures and other Irish features, including a mock-up of what appears to be a thatched roof house.  It looks like it would be a great place to gather after work with friends.

The food is pretty good, too.  I went for the American side of the menu and had a double Sibin burger with fries; the rest of the lunch group decided to go Irish.  The UG and the BRC had the Boxty Mahone, which our fun and feisty waitress aptly described as a “big pile of food” with cabbage and corned beef on potato cakes, drizzled with Mahone sauce. I noticed that neither the UG or the BRC left anything on their plates.  JV went for the Reuben Mahone, which was enormous and also featured some very tasty-looking corned beef.  In fact, the corned beef looked so good it made me briefly second-guess my burger choice, but after a few bites of the double Sibin I realized I also had made a wise decision.

With Pub Mahone, we’re really starting to cover the food option bases on Gay Street.  What’s next?  The lunch crew is ready for just about anything.

Officially A “District”

I was walking through the Columbus airport on may way back from Denver last night when I passed a painted wall map depicting some of the different cool spots in Columbus.  There was the Short North, of course, and the Arena District, and the Brewery District, and the University District, and the Discovery District, and the Gay Street District.

Wait a second — the Gay Street District?

Well, if a painted wall on the airport says it, it must be so.  Good old Gay Street is now officially a “district,” right up there with the other established hot spots in Cbus.  If you’re a “district,” you know you’ve arrived.

Gay Street deserves to be a “district,” too.  It’s easily the coolest street in the core area of downtown Columbus, and it’s getting cooler by the minute.  With the recent addition of the Buckeye Bourbon House, the opening this week of Tiger + Lily, an Asian fusion restaurant, and the forthcoming opening of an Irish pub just across the alley, Gay Street offers a wide range of food and liquor options — and there is even more coming, with the Veritas Tavern set to open next year in the Citizens Building at the corner of Gay and High Street.  The street is bustling from noon onward, and it really shines during the spring and summer months, when the outdoor dining venues like Plantain Cafe, the Tip Top, and Due Amici all seem to be filled to overflowing when the workday ends and the fun begins.

For those of us who worked on Gay Street in the early ’90s, when the area was a kind of ghost town after 5 p.m., the transformation to the Gay Street of the modern day has been both exciting and amazing.  And I like to think that our firm, Vorys, Sater, Seymour and Pease LLP — which has remained in its offices on Gay Street through thick and thin — helped to make that transformation happen with its large array of hungry and thirsty lawyers, paralegals, and staff helping to fill up the coffee houses, restaurants and taverns that now call Gay Street home.

“The Gay Street District.”  Yep, I like the sound of that.