The Only Guy In The Restaurant

When you’re on the road a lot, you get used to skipped meals and eating at usual times. Today my travel to Boston meant that I didn’t eat anything until dinner time. By the time it got close to 6 p.m. I was famished, headed to a restaurant down the street from my hotel with book in hand, and once again found myself once again . . . . the only guy in the restaurant.

This happens from time to time. Still, it’s a little weird being the only guy in the restaurant. When you’re seated, they tend to put you in the rear, back in the shadows. Nobody wants to put a single, potentially creepy old loner reading a book up front, because it doesn’t send a fun-filled message designed to entice people passing by to stop in, unless the restaurant is eager to attract potential serial killers. A table of four or six laughing twenty-somethings will always get put in the front window; the bookish old nerd gets shunted to the back, where he hopefully won’t be seen by anyone until he finishes his food and slinks out of there.

This isn’t actually a bad thing, if you’re truly interested in reading your book. It’s quiet in the rear, and you aren’t disturbed by the hormonal antics or vapid conversation of young professionals out after work. You read your book, eat your food, and move on. And you try not to notice when the maitre d breathes a sigh of relief to see you head out the front door.

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The Random Restaurant Tour (XI)

In Columbus, at least, Greek restauranteurs must be an emotional bunch who wear the core elements of their personalities on their shirt sleeves. In the footprint of our fair city, we’ve got dining establishments identified with a Mad Greek, a Crazy Greek, a Simple Greek, and even a Yappy Greek.

Yesterday, though, we were in a good mood at lunchtime, so we ventured to The Happy Greek. It’s a Short North staple that’s been there for decades — which makes it all the more bizarre that I’ve never been inside its doors. But there’s a first time for everything.

The Happy Greek has all the trappings that you’ve come to expect in a Greek restaurant, including wall paintings of happy dancing Greeks and a bar fashioned to look like the Acropolis. (Surprisingly, the proprietor wasn’t outfitted like Socrates.) And, of course, a menu that features lots of salads and other traditional Greek fare.

My theory on a new restaurant is that you first try one of the basics from their menu, and if that is good you then branch out to other options on subsequent visits. Since I don’t eat salad, Greek or otherwise, I went for the lamb pita sandwich with onions, tzatziki sauce, and fries. The sandwich was big, with lots of succulent lamb and fresh pita bread, enjoyably messy to eat with your hands, and very tasty. The fries were a little on the salty side for my taste, but the seasoning did go well when I started to use the fries to mop up stray pools of the tzatziki sauce, which was so good I could have imbibed it by the tumbler. I’ll definitely come back.

And I should add that the people inside were very friendly, too. With a name like The Happy Greek, they’re pretty much required to be, I guess.

The Keep

23_the_keep_restaurant_bar_columbus__hotel_le_veque-1500x1001Last night Kish and I and Mr. and Mrs. JV had dinner at The Keep, one of Columbus’ newest restaurant options.  It’s located on the mezzanine level of the Hotel LeVeque, smack dab in the middle of downtown Columbus.

Given the name, I thought The Keep might have a medieval castle theme, with a wait staff carrying crossbows or broadswords.  There was no jousting or armor plating visible during our visit, however.  We first had a drink — well, actually two, since none of us were going to be driving home — at The Keep’s bar, which was packed with people and hosting at least two separate holiday parties.  We knew we were in a cutting-edge spot when we learned that the people next to us were both out-of-towners who had arranged their first meeting via Tinder.  The bar offers lots of different cocktail, wine, and beer options, as well as a limited bar food menu.  We skipped the food, since we were going to be eating at the restaurant next door, and enjoyed our drinks and the lively, bustling urban vibe of the place.

The restaurant is a few steps away from the bar.  It is modeled as a modern French brasserie, and — to this uneducated wine fancier, at least — it has a very solid selection of French wines, as well as domestic labels.  Given the brasserie setting, I felt compelled to start my meal with the French onion soup, which was good and served piping hot, without the overload of bread and cheese that you frequently get with that order.  You could actually eat the soup without having to use your spoon to saw through an inch-thick layer of bread and cheese and having the soup splash out of the bowl as a result.   My entree was the Guajillo pork cheeks, served with black-eyed peas, collard greens, and corn nuts.  It was very tasty, too.  As JV observed, the portions are kept to moderate size, so you can be a member of the Clean Plate Club without having to waddle out of the joint, groaning with a mixture of satiation and discomfort.  The reasonable portion size also left room for Kish and me to split a really good dessert consisting of a kind of miniature spicy Bundt cake with ice cream.

The ambiance of The Keep restaurant is appealing and has definite brasserie elements, with a central dining counter area and tables and booths spread around.  One other thing:  as we looked around, we realized that we were by far the oldest folks in the room.  That was true in the bar area, too.  How often are fun-loving 60-year-olds the senior citizens in a downtown restaurant?  Maybe the younger crowd is attracted by the brasserie setting, or the central downtown location, or the prices, which I thought were very reasonable.  In any event, it was nice to know that we oldsters had stumbled upon a hip place where the cool kiddie set hangs out.  We’d go back, if they let us in.

Neighborhood Wish List

The spot in the middle of German Village where the original Max and Erma’s once operated for four decades has been vacant for a few months now, without any apparent signs of activity. Recently, though, stickers that look like those irritating “My name is” name tags that always fall off your suit coat appeared on the front windows. Yesterday Kish and I took a closer look, and the stickers represent some people’s wishes for what business should now occupy the property. I’m not sure whether the stickers were filled out by neighbors, former employees, Trader Joe’s shareholders, or somebody else who likes comics. Seriously . . . a comic book shop?

I’d like to see a restaurant in the spot. Something ethnic, perhaps. Maybe a good Szechuan spot?

The Random Restaurant Tour (IX)

Yesterday Kish and I met for lunch. We try to get together for lunch about once a week, where we can eat in peace and talk without an aging dog hoarsely barking at us to give her people food. We try to pick a spot somewhere between home and the office, and we’re always game for something new.

Yesterday we checked out the Blind Lady Tavern on Mound Street. It was a bitterly cold day, with a sharp wind that chilled to the bone. It felt good to finally reach the Blind Lady, which has a warm, welcoming ambiance complete with a cool pressed tin ceiling and a single room shared by the bar and lots of wooden tables.

After my walk through the arctic wind tunnel, I decided to warm up with the fried chicken sandwich and chips. The sandwich was excellent, with fried chicken that was crunchy but moist, with a nice sauce and tasty coating that wasn’t overly breaded. I also want to commend the chips, which looked to be homemade and were crisp and blessedly not over-salted. I left nothing behind. And because I knew I would be venturing back out into the brutal chill, I decided to end the meal with a cup of very good coffee that was served piping hot in a huge cup that was just begging for a shot of cream. All in all, it was a completely satisfying meal. Kish got the blackened fish sandwich with an enormous pile of greens and also said her food was very good.

According to our pleasant waitress, the Blind Lady — the name of which refers to the blindfolded depiction of Justice, in deference to the nearby Franklin County courthouses — has been around for two years, in a building that has housed the Jury Room lounge and other courthouse-related spots. We can attest that it is now a first-rate place to have a beagle-free lunch.

The Random Restaurant Tour (V)

I’m not sure exactly why, but the Arena District has never been a regular stop on the workday lunch caravan.  We’ll walk past the Arena District to the North Market, or head east to the Flatiron, but we never seem to stop in that little cluster of buildings adjacent to Nationwide Arena, even though we know there are food places back there.

Last week the Jersey Girl and I decided to cross into No Man’s Land.  Our destination was the Three-Legged Mare, an Irish pub.  It’s been there eight years, located just a few steps away from the Arena, but neither of us had been there – which is kind of embarrassing when you think about it.

I don’t think it will be another eight years until we go back again.  The TLM has all of the classic Irish pub woodwork, wall inscriptions, and other trappings — including a sign, below, that made me laugh as we walked out — so it’s a visually interesting setting that has both indoor and outside seating.

We ate at a high top in the bar area and got good service from the bartender.  He recommended the corned beef sandwich, shown above, so I owe him a debt of gratitude.  It was excellent, with a mound of lean, succulent, juicy corned beef served on a pretzel roll, with just the right amount of fries.  The Jersey Girl raved about the beer cheese soup and couldn’t finish her Irish Burger, so she boxed up half of it.  The bartender highly recommended that we try some of their traditional pub fare next time, so I guess we’ll just have to go back for the bangers and mash.  

Now that we’ve decided to break the barrier and dine in the Arena District, we can do just about anything.

The Random Restaurant Tour (IV)

Last week the Jersey Girl and I continued the random restaurant tour by leaving the friendly confines of downtown Columbus and heading north to the Italian Village area.  Our destination was a converted brick barn called Cosecha Cocina.

Italian Village is one of the areas of Columbus where the redevelopment wave is rolling along at tsunami-level strength.  Every time I visit, there is a cool new restaurant, brew pub, or breakfast joint in the neighborhood.  That’s because you can find two key components of redevelopment there:  inexpensive buildings that can be refurbished into cool spaces for your use, and a population of people in the immediate vicinity ready to frequent your establishment.  In the case of Italian Village, businesses can draw upon both the downtown crowd, who need only drive, walk or bike a few blocks up Third, and the flood of people moving into new condos and apartment buildings in Italian Village.

Cosecha Cocina is a happy addition to the Italian Village ‘hood.  It definitely satisfies the cool building requirement, with its cavernous internal space and outdoor eating area, and its menu of traditional and modern Mexican fare will keep that flood of people coming back.  During our visit the Jersey Girl and I split some brussels sprouts — served piping hot with melted cheese — and I tried the pork meatball torta with esquites, a traditional Mexican street corn dish, on the side.

The fact that brussels sprouts and meatballs are on the menu at all tells you that Cosecha Cocina isn’t your Daddy’s kind of tacos and enchiladas Mexican restaurant.  Another clue is the quality and delicate flavoring of the food itself.  The pork meatball torta, which features chipotle tomato sauce, cilantro, black beans, avocado, and cheese and is served on airy, crunchy bread, was succulent and a reminder that Mexican food doesn’t have to be overpowering on the spice scale.  The brussels sprouts were terrific, and the esquites corn salad was a perfect, light accompaniment to the meal.  The Jersey Girl, who tried the chicken tinga tacos, raved about her food, too.

The zone of lunch places for the lucky workers in downtown Columbus continues to expand, limited only by their willingness to get out and try someplace new.  With options like Cosecha Cocina only a bridge and a few blocks away, the incentive to experiment with a new lunch spot keeps growing.