A Cowtown No Longer

Columbus has been getting some very good press these days.  The latest is an article in National Geographic entitled “Why All the Cool Kids Love Columbus, Ohio.”  And that article even gives a shout-out to Gay Street, where I’ve worked for more than 30 years.

The National Geographic article points out what others have noted:  Columbus is a young city with an interesting mix of people from lots of different places, the arts scene is vibrant, it has some great neighborhoods, it’s open to new business ideas . . . and it has good craft beers.  You’ll also hear people talk about how downtown Columbus is starting to take off, and how the Columbus restaurant scene is improving — all of which is true.

sept_kahiki-life-sml-300dpiThe kudos that are coming Columbus’ way are a far cry from the 1970s, when Columbus was called a “cowtown” . . . and the name seemed apt.  In those days, it was hard to find any ethnic food in Columbus — except for the ersatz Polynesian cuisine, often served with a Flaming Volcano drink, at the fabled Kahiki — and the city was really a pretty boring place.  Back then, the Short North was almost a skid row neighborhood, German Village was dodgy at best, and people sipped fire-brewed Stroh’s beer rather than those tasty craft options.  When Kish and I graduated from Ohio State at the end of the ’70s, we decided to shake off the dust of Columbus and hit the road, and we really weren’t thinking about coming back.

A few years later we changed our minds, and come back we did.  And since our return in the mid-80s we’ve seen a tremendous change in CBus in many ways.  Some of it is due to solid governmental administration, some of it is due to enlightened leading citizens, but a lot of it is due to the fact that Columbus is home to lots of friendly, interesting people who aren’t afraid to do some different things and take some risks now and then.

For those of us who knew Columbus during the “cowtown” days, the transformation of our city has been a pretty amazing thing.  I’m glad to see Columbus is getting some buzz.

The Chintz Room

Some Columbus restaurants from days gone by have achieved legendary status. The Kahiki, with its dry ice drinks and over-the-top Polynesian decor. The Jai Lai, with its big photo of Woody Hayes and its “In all the world there’s only one” slogan.

The Chintz Room, located high in the Lazarus department store downtown, is one of the legends. Countless central Ohio kids of the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s got dressed up and trooped into the Chintz Room with their grandmothers for a lunch break during a downtown shopping trip. There they self-consciously ate chicken salad in the company of prim, hat-wearing ladies, ever-mindful of the need to keep their elbows off the table.


Now the Chintz Room is back. It’s still in the old Lazarus building, but now it’s moved to the ground floor with a street level entrance. It’s decorated with mannequins, ladies’ hats, photos, and other memorabilia that recall its glory days at the center of the Columbus department store shopping world. And it still serves chicken salad, apparently made from the original recipe.

I don’t like chicken salad, so it’s fortunate for me that the Chintz Room serves other, more modern options. On my trip there yesterday with the Damages Dude — who did go for the chicken salad — I got the Tuscan pizza. It was excellent, with a crunchy crust, figs, prosciutto, three cheeses, and extra virgin olive oil, and large enough to satisfy a lunch-time appetite without being overwhelming. At $11.50, it’s price tag wouldn’t cause your grandma’s hat to go spinning off her head, either.

I’m glad the Chintz Room, with its echoes of Columbus’ past, is back and available for the downtown lunch rotation.


Checking Out The Grass Skirt

It was beautiful in Columbus today — bright and sunny, with temperatures that touched the 80s.  It was so nice that the Bus-Riding Conservative and I decided to venture out for lunch and check out some of the more recent editions to the downtown food scene.

-2We strolled a few blocks east on Gay Street, turned north on Grant, and ended up at the Grass Skirt Tiki Room next to the Hills Market.  I’d heard some good things about the proprietor, who runs the Surly Girl Saloon in the Short North, and also heard that the Grass Skirt features some of the fabulous, kitschy Polynesian bric-a-brac previously found at the fabled Kahiki Restaurant, which was a Columbus landmark.  The part about the Kahiki decor was true — at least, I’m assuming they got the big wooden masks and outsized spoon and fork from there — but the Grass Skirt offers some great food, too.

The BRC and I sat outside in a pleasant eating area right next to the Hills outdoor dining plaza and enjoyed the sun’s rays while wolfing down our chow.  I got the spicy peanut pasta with grilled chicken and it was marvelous — vividly flavored and just hot enough to induce a light sheen of sweat on the forehead.  The BRC raved about his dish, which featured grilled Spam.  The menu had lots of other enticing options from sandwiches to noodle fare to rice bowls.  We quickly vowed to return for more.

The Grass Skirt is a welcome addition to the downtown dine-around and fills one of the ethnic food slots — Polynesian, Pan-Asian, and of course Spam-oriented — that has been unfilled until now.  The next time we might just get a beer or a Navy Grog, because no Tiki Room is complete without a full array of debilitating rum-based drinks.

Thanks to the BRC for taking the picture and joining me today!

The Clarmont Closes

The Clarmont, one of Columbus’ landmark restaurants, unexpectedly closed its doors today.  The announcement ended 65 years of serving food and drink to hungry and thirsty central Ohio patrons.  No reason was given for the decision.

The Clarmont was one of the anchors on High Street in German Village.  From its dated, Jetsons-like sign, to its highball drinks and traditional steak and seafood menu items, the Clarmont screamed “old school.”  That was one of the charms of the place, and made the Clarmont a restaurant landmark.  It was a place to have a drink after work or, for some people, to have a “power breakfast.”  I recall going there for lunch a few times, but I haven’t been there in years.  Perhaps the clientele that appreciates old school restaurants has just dwindled to the point where the restaurant was no longer profitable.

The closing of the Clarmont is a reminder that many of Columbus’ former landmark restaurants aren’t around anymore.  The kitschy Kahiki is gone.  The Jai Lai (“In all the world there’s only one”) is long gone.  Jack Bowman’s Suburban Steakhouse is gone.  The Top is still here, and the Florentine, and perhaps one or two others — but there really aren’t many of the landmarks left.