The Random Restaurant Tour — XXXVII

Yesterday the Soprano Litigator and I went across the street to Due Amici for lunch.  Due is one of the cornerstone restaurants in the food corridor that makes Gay Street the coolest street in downtown Columbus.  It’s a more high-end lunch spot than some of its Gay Street brethren and, come cocktail hour and dinner time, is a place to see and be seen.

I normally don’t have pizza for lunch, but yesterday pizza sounded like just what the doctor ordered.  I opted for the sausage and onion pizza, whereas the Soprano Litigator went with the veal meatball and pasta — which also looked very tasty, indeed.  When my pizza came, it was great, with a flavorful sauce, big chunks of sausage that had a snap when you bit into them, and a golden brown, crunchy crust.  I attacked it with gusto (and with knife and fork, incidentally, so as to avoid unsightly spotting on my suit, white shirt, and tie).

But here’s the thing:  the pizza is just too big for lunch.  Even for someone who is hungry, as I was, a pie with eight pieces is a lot.  Long after the SL had finished her meal I was still carving away at the remaining pieces until my plate was empty.  I suppose I could have asked for a to-go box, but I don’t like lugging them around.  In my view, when you order lunch you should receive a meal that is reasonably consumable by one reasonably hungry person over the noon hour.  In short, careful portion control is key.  Due’s pizza stretches the outer boundaries and is geared more to someone with the appetite of a truck driver rather than one of a nearby office worker.  Perhaps the name Due Amici — “two friends” in Italian — means the portions are intended to be shared.

Due isn’t alone in this.  How often have you gone to a restaurant and received a plate that is groaning with two much food — typically, an oversized mound of french fries to accompany an already sizable cheeseburger?  Even those of us who proudly boast of being charter members of the Clean Plate Club can’t possibly down so much food.  We leave some on the plate and then feel guilty about it, knowing the food will be wasted.  It’s an area where I think the great restaurants in Columbus could become even better.

Evening Entrepreneurs

If you’re worried about whether there is any entrepreneurial spirit left in America, relax!  Last night we paid a visit to the Moonlight Market on Gay Street in downtown Columbus, and we can faithfully report that the entrepreneurial spirit in Cbus is alive and most definitely kicking.

The Moonlight Market is held once a month on the two blocks of Gay Street between High Street and Fourth.  Vendors set up tents on each side of the street — including on the sidewalk directly in front of the firm — and sell all manner of products, from artwork to baked goods and other foods to used books to plants to clothing to massages.  Unlike some street markets, all of the participants in the Moonlight Market seem to be individuals who are pursuing their passions through their small businesses and trying to make a few bucks in the process.  Without exception, the vendors are friendly, outgoing, and excited about what they are selling, and their enthusiasm is infectious.  You can’t help but pull for these people, and also support them with your wallets.  We bought some colorful artwork and some tasty baked goods from some very appreciative sellers.

Capitalism has its good points and its bad points, and some of the good points were on display last night on Gay Street.  Dozens of people were out in their tents on a very warm Saturday evening hoping to sell their handmade or hand-raised goods — even crocheted scarves and clothing that wasn’t exactly suited to the weather.  They all have stories to tell, like the young woman nicknamed Suga Pie who has a talent for cupcakes and has been working on selling them for eight years.  She’s recently created her own website and is working on her brand.  Her pineapple upside-down cupcakes are delicious, by the way.

Go get ’em, Suga Pie, and the rest of the Moonlight Market crew!  You are what makes our economy tick.  And if you want to see a little small business entrepreneurialism in the flesh, you can catch the next Moonlight Market on August 10.

Hand-Rolled

I like to support locally owned and established businesses whenever possible.  I also like to savor a good cigar now and then.  So when I was walking down Gay Street toward High Street the other night and passed the Don Rey Cigar Shop at 11 East Gay, I had to turn in and check it out.

As its name suggests, Don Rey offers premium cigars and tobacco products.  It is a relatively recent addition to the Coolest Street in Downtown Columbus, and I’d not visited before.  The shop has a nice, open space with a seating area and an extensive selection of cigars lining the walls.  I met the proprietor, a very friendly and extremely enthusiastic cigar aficionado who made some knowledgeable suggestions for me.  He also disclosed that he hand rolls his own cigars, from a blend of Puerto Rican and Dominican tobacco, right there in the shop and gave me one for free — which seemed pretty darned generous.

I’ve never smoked a cigar that was hand-rolled by a person I’ve actually met before, so I was intrigued to give the cigar a try.  I enjoyed it last night with a glass of wine, and it was excellent.  In fact, I’d say it is one of the best cigars I’ve ever puffed.

If you’re on the Coolest Street in Downtown Columbus and feel like enjoying a cigar, stop by Don Rey and try one of the hand-rolled offerings.  You won’t be disappointed.

 

Changing One Corner

When I first started working at the law firm, more than 30 years ago, the lot at the western corner of Gay and High Streets in downtown Columbus was occupied by some kind of five and dime store.  It may have been a Woolworth’s, it may have been a Kresge’s, but there was a building and business there where I bought some small item, once.

I only went there once, because very soon after I made my purchase the building was torn down and the lot was paved over for parking.  It was one of the last gasps of the Columbus urban craze for demolishing old buildings that left the core area of downtown a veritable wasteland of ugly surface parking lots.  The preponderance of parking lots gave the center of downtown a kind of sad, scarred feel that made you wonder whether the area would ever be revived.

But slowly, over the past decade, many the surface lots are being replaced with buildings.  Some of the buildings are pure residential developments, many are mixed-use concepts with retail on the ground floor, office space above, and residential at the top, and a few purely commercial buildings have been constructed, too.  And some of the commercial buildings with parking lots have been converted into something that is much more interesting — like the former tire and lube business a few blocks from the firm that was turned into a cool bar, with its former parking lots becoming fenced-in outdoor seating areas complete with fire pits and games and food truck space.

And now the big, long-empty lot at the corner of Gay and High has finally joined this welcome trend.  Work has been ongoing for a while now, and as the picture with this post indicates, it’s getting close to being done.  It’s a huge project that is one of those mixed-use developments, and the buildings look pretty cool — and are much preferable to the grim asphalt expanse that we’d been looking at for years.  We’re now wondering what business might move into the ground floor options, and are hoping they will add to the buzz on Gay Street — for some years now the coolest street in downtown Columbus largely because the original buildings on the block between High Street and Third Street somehow survived the wrecking ball.

After more than three decades, our little part of the world is being reconfigured.  Scratch another surface parking lot and substitute something more attractive and vibrant and hopefully a harbinger of more to come.  Our downtown is on the move, one parking lot at a time, and we couldn’t be happier about it.

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.

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.

Hollywood On Gay

Gay Street is abuzz!  Trucks have rolled in, the street is crawling with production assistants, and the crucial porta potties have been delivered.  The word is that they will be filming scenes from a Bruce Willis movie here, and that maybe The Die Hard Star himself might show up.

Say, do you suppose they might need an extra to portray an old guy who walks to work every day?

Columbus Under Construction

Walking around downtown this week, I was glad to see another site where guys in hard hats were hard at work.  This one was at Gay and High, where construction workers are ripping up a dismal surface parking lot and getting ready to begin building another multi-story, mixed use, retail/office/residential building.

IMG_2434The Gay Street site joins a slew of other downtown Columbus building sites, which can be found on lots next to the police headquarters, at the Convention Center, and across from the Columbus Commons on High Street, and ongoing rehab work on the long-empty buildings on the other side of the intersection of  Gay and High.  All told, the Capital Crossroads Special Improvement District, which covers the downtown area, estimates that about $500 million of construction work is underway and another $1.2 billion is in the pipeline.

This is good news for a lot of reasons.  Downtown Columbus is in the process of reinventing itself, transitioning from a purely commercial zone of buildings and parking lots where there was no activity whatsoever after 7 p.m. to an area where people live and work and certain neighborhoods, like Gay Street, are developing their own distinctive, 24-hour-a-day vibe.  The Capital Crossroad District estimates that the number of people who live downtown has doubled since 2004 and now stands at about 8,000.  That’s not a huge number, but the trend lines are obvious and the change in atmosphere in the downtown area is obvious, too.  It’s gone from a silent, empty place in the non-business hours to a place where people walk their dogs, jog, and have a hearty brunch on Sunday morning.

The construction boom is good for downtown and for construction workers, of course, but it’s also good for the entire central Ohio area.  I’d like to see the outward suburban creep end, and the focus instead be on growth at the core.  Let’s reuse, recycle, and reorient the existing streets, bridges, and infrastructure, replace the sad surface parking lots in the downtown area with residential buildings, entice more people to live downtown — and in the process avoid grading and paving over any more of that pretty Ohio farmland.

The Coolest Street In Downtown CBus

I’ve mentioned before that Gay Street, where I’ve worked for 30 years, is the coolest street in downtown Columbus.  I’m happy to say that this Columbus Underground article agrees with me, and provides some useful information about the additional development efforts that are underway, and being planned, for our little part of the downtown area.

IMG_2356Why has Gay Street become a destination street, and home to hotels, restaurants, bars, coffee shops, and interesting retail ventures?  I think there are a lot of reasons, but two in particular stand out.

First, Gay Street managed to avoid the urban renewal meat axe that turned a lot of downtown Columbus into a kind of surface parking lot desert.  Our block of Gay Street, between High and Third, is filled with three-, four-, and five-story buildings, most of which were built in the early 1900s.  The buildings are small enough that they could be bought and rehabbed, one by one, by individuals or small firms — and that is exactly what has happened.  In short, Gay Street is an example of what small-bore capitalism can accomplish.  And the different looks and styles of the buildings also give the street a lot of charm and make eating at a sidewalk table at Due Amici or the Tip Top a fun experience.

Second, it helps when a street has a kind of reliable anchor tenant whose employees will help to fill the restaurants and coffee bars and make them successful.  The Vorys firm has been that anchor tenant.  We stuck with Gay Street in the late ’80s and early ’90s, when the street hit a low point and there wasn’t much going on, and now our lawyers are regular patrons of Cafe Brioso or the Plantain Cafe — to say nothing of the guys who are known, by name and standard order, at the Subway across the street.  When you’ve got a business with hundreds of employees looking every day for a lunch spot, or a place to have a beer after work, it helps to make the capitalist engine hum.

There are other contributors, of course.  As the CU article notes, changing Gay Street from a one-way to a two-way street definitely helped to give the street a more relaxed feel, and the City of Columbus has allowed the restaurants to set up sidewalk eating areas that not only increase the numbers of tables they can serve but also add a bustling, cosmopolitan element.  And some big developers have helped, too, by filling the blocks to the east with condominiums that have brought more permanent residents to the Gay Street mix.

It’s been great to see the change on Gay Street over the past 30 years, and to watch the developments occurring to the east and now to the west of our block.  With the long-vacant Madison’s building now being redeveloped, and the surface lot at Gay and High about to be filled in with a mixed-use building, there will be more changes to come.  I can’t wait to see where Gay Street is heading.

The Parklet On Our Block

IMG_1105At the west end of our block of Gay Street, next to the intersection with High Street, a kind of wooden module sits on the street adjacent to Cafe Brioso.  It’s pill shaped, and with its unfinished wood it looks like something you might find on a Fourth of July parade float or as the project of a high school wood shop class.  The outward-facing side of the object has a pink-paint-and-green-shrub “PARKT” sign — with the pink letters spelling “art” — and some plants along a ledge at the top.

It’s called a “parklet.”  The sign on the object explains that parklets are intended to “creatively and temporarily transform parking spaces into open public spaces,” where people can sit, relax, rest, and watch the street life go by — and sure enough, the parklet on our block features benches and stools.  The sign adds that parklets are “a new dynamic that will generate more interesting and engaging public spaces for Columbus, Ohio.”  The sign identifies corporate and community sponsors that presumably underwrote the cost of building and moving the parklet and occupying a parking space.

“Parklets” are an interesting idea that, if the results of my Google search are to be believed, started in San Francisco, where they are part of a “pavement to parks” initiative, and have been adopted by some other cities, including Columbus.  The parklet on our block looks as if it has been designed to be picked up, put on a flatbed truck, and moved to a new location where more public seating space is desired.

I’m all for increasing public seating space in our downtown, but I’d like to see Columbus take the next step and acquire some of the surface parking lots that are found downtown and turn them into pocket parks.  A parklet is a nice idea, but an actual park with green trees, shaded walkways and seating, and perhaps a fountain would be even better.

We’ve got some downtown green space — like the Statehouse lawn, Columbus Commons, the Scioto Mile, and the Topiary Gardens — but the section of downtown north of Broad Street is pretty much parkless.  (I don’t count Sensenbrenner Park, which is mostly concrete.)  With more people moving downtown to live, they will be looking for places to jog, work on their yoga poses, or just sit and read a book as the breeze ruffles through the trees above.  Even a small chunk of new green space, like the Ohio Police and Fire Memorial Park at the corner of Third and Town, would be welcome.

IMG_1103