The Random Restaurant Tour (XXV)

At any given moment, there’s always a hot restaurant in town.  It’s the place that has gotten some favorable press, that has a certain distinctive buzz about it, that everyone is itching to try.  In Columbus, the restaurants don’t come any hotter than Service Bar, which has been getting great press — including a recent rave from no less than the New York Times.  Last week, Kish and I decided to check it out.

Service Bar is part of Middle West Spirits, located just off Fifth Avenue in the zone between the northern part of the Short North and the southern edge of the Ohio State campus area. It’s in a bright, fresh space, with room for a row of tables, a long common table, a private dining room, and a bar.  The wait staff is terrific — friendly, professional, and knowledgeable.  A fine wait staff is a pretty strong sign of fine dining to come.

When we were deciding on an appetizer, we looked down at the row of tables where we were sitting and every one — without exception — had ordered the “cheesy poofs.”  These are a mound of colossal pork rinds served with pimento cheese spread that you slather on.  Our waiter said they seem to be a favorite for patrons, so we gave them a try.  They were greasy and cheesy and good, but the order was just too much food for the two of us, and we wanted to save room for our entrees.

We both ordered the Mongolian glazed short rib for our entree, and here the meal really hit its stride.  The short rib was meaty and luscious, topped with an interesting assortment of mini cucumber slices and other items, and surrounded by dollops of a delectable sauce.  The challenge was to carefully assemble each forkful to feature meat, the different flavors and textures of the toppings, and a healthy dousing of the sauce, and when you successfully met the challenge the taste combination was incredible.  But to take the whole dish a step further, the meat was accompanied by three “bao knots” — moist, doughy, chewy morsels of bready delight that were a perfect complement to the meat.  I think I could probably eat a thousand bao knots and never think of the words “low carb” again.

After a main course like that, we had to get dessert, and went for the carrot cake with our after-dinner cup of decaf.  The cake was light and delectable, served with a schmeer of meringue, some crunchy items, and a delicately flavored ice cream.  It ended the meal with a bang, and was the kind of dessert where you find yourself surreptitiously scraping the plate multiple times just to get a final taste before you reluctantly allow your server to take it away.

Service Bar lived up to the hype, and then some.

Mead, Indeed

Last night Kish and I were out on the town with the Bahamians, and we decided to hit the Brothers Drake — our first meadery.  It’s on East Fifth Avenue, across from The Table and in the rapidly developing area between the ashore North and south campus.  Last night, even with a $10 cover charge, the Brothers Drake was jammed with people eager to quaff a wide range of meads and hear a good band play some live music.

We all got our inaugural cups of mead and took a few cautious sips.  I’d heard that you have to watch the sweetness scale if you’re going to drink mead — it is made with fermented honey, after all — so I’d ordered a spiced mead that that was supposed to be on the lower end of the sweetness spectrum.  Even so, it was too sweet for our tastes — kind of like drinking a dessert wine.  I think I could develop a taste for mead, though, with a bit more experience and guidance on the different varieties.  I’m glad I gave it a shot.

Checking Out Our “Walk Score”

Recently I became aware of a website called walkscore.com that gives neighborhoods in Columbus, and elsewhere, a “walk score,” a “transit score,” and a “bike score.”  The website appears to be used by people who are considering making a move to a new apartment and are interested in finding out how their potential new neighborhood rates in those three categories.  You can check out your neighborhood’s scores here.

gv-sidewalkGerman Village gets an 87 (out of 100) walk score, a 60 transit score, and a 65 bike score.  Those ratings make German Village the second most walkable neighborhood in Columbus, close behind the Short North.  The 87 walk score means that most errands can be accomplished on foot and GV is only a few points short of a “walker’s paradise.”

Speaking as a confirmed walker, it’s hard for me to imagine that you could find a more walkable neighborhood than German Village.  I not only walk to the office every work day, but I also walk to the grocery store (as I did this morning), walk to the wine shop, coffee shop, barber shop, and deli, and walk to a bunch of nearby restaurants, bars, and coffee shops.  I’m not sure what kind of errand could not be achieved on foot from a German Village location — and I also think GV is more convenient to the core downtown area than the Short North is.  The quaint brick roadways, sidewalks, and houses in German Village make hoofing it around our neighborhood a visual treat, too.

The point of this post is not to quibble about German Village’s scores, but rather to note that it’s gratifying to see that people are rating neighborhoods by their “walkability.”  We’d all be better off, from a health, fitness, environmental, infrastructure, and financial standpoint, if more people started to focus on walking when deciding where to live.

Pedal Power

Last night we joined some friends on one of those pedal carts you see rolling up and down High Street in the Short North area.    We labored mightily to move the cart a few blocks, waved at passersby, slowed traffic, listened to music provided by three very nice young women dressed in Beyoncé outifits, and visited two bars as well.  It was a fun time, and you feel like you’re getting some exercise in the process, too.

Part of the fun was provided by our hostess and driver, who apparently suffered a catastrophic beer can-related forehead injury shortly before our arrival and obligingly posed for the photo above.

Arch City Tavern

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Richard, Russell, and Julianne were all in town yesterday, and we decided to celebrate the happy homecoming by heading down to the Short North and having lunch in the first interesting place we found.  We ended up in the Arch City Tavern — so named because Columbus used to be called the arch city because it featured lots of arched lights over its main streets — and that was a happy occasion, too.

It was about noon, so there were two crucial lunch decisions to be made.  First, heavy or light?  It was a hot day out, so I went for a choice on the lighter side, with an arugula, fig, prosciutto, and goat cheese pizza.  It was excellent, and had a particularly delectable and crunchy crust — which any pizza aficionado knows is a crucial element of the entire pizza experience.  So far, I was one for one.

Second, beer or no beer.  It was a holiday, sure, but noon is pretty early for me.  I took a chance and ordered a Monk’s Cafe Flemish Sour Ale.  It was so good I promptly had another.  It had an excellent tart taste that went well with the hot weather, and it really held its own against the goat cheese.  So, I was two for two — or perhaps three for three, since I had two of the beers.

I’m going to be on the lookout for places that sell the Monk’s Cafe by the six pack.

In The Holiday Spirit

IMG_7629America is the land of inclusiveness, and December is when people of many faiths and beliefs celebrate important holidays.  So when Kish and I walking down in the Short North today, it was nice to see that a shopkeeper remembered to recognize one holiday in particular.

That’s right:  Festivus . . . for the rest of us.

And to properly recognize Festivus, here’s a snippet from the Seinfeld script The Strike, when the Costanza household’s odd holiday traditions were first described:

FRANK: Welcome, new comers. The tradition of Festivus begins with the airing of grievances. I got a lot of problems with you people! And now you’re gonna hear

about it! You, Kruger. My son tells me your company stinks!

GEORGE: Oh, God.

FRANK: (To George) Quiet, you’ll get yours in a minute. Kruger, you couldn’t smooth a silk sheet if you had a hot date with a babe.. I lost my train of thought.

(Frank sits down, Jerry gives a face that says “That’s a shame”. Gwen walks in)

GWEN: Jerry!

JERRY: Gwen! How’d you know I was here?

GWEN: Kramer told me.

KRAMER: Another Festivus miracle!

And now, time for the feats of strength.

Rigsby’s Closes Its Doors

It’s always tough when a beloved restaurant closes its doors, so I’m feeling sad tonight.  Rigsby’s, an eatery that has been a favorite of ours since we moved back to Columbus 29 years ago, has announced that it has ended operations and served its last meals last night.

This really sucks!  I liked Rigsby’s for a lot of reasons.  The food was fun, flavorful, and of consistently good quality.  The menu stayed fresh and interesting, and prices were reasonable.  The wine list was strong, and the restaurant was one of the places that showed that Columbus has long since moved past its “Cowtown” rep.  For many years, Rigsby’s was the beating heart of the Short North district that has become one of the centers of the Columbus social scene, too.

I’m thinking tonight of the many meals we’ve had at Rigsby’s — probably more than a hundred in all.  We went there with family and friends and clients and business colleagues we wanted to impress.  We had some great laughs, ate some great meals, and enjoyed some great wines.  It was a fabulous place to spend an evening, and we’ll miss it.  I only regret that we didn’t get a chance to have one more meal there.

Thanks to Kent Rigsby, the proprietor, for almost three decades of fine dining and fun.  We’ll look forward with great anticipation to his next venture.

A Walk Down High Street

Last night after the Ohio State game ended I walked from Ohio Stadium across campus, and then down High Street to the Short North.  It was an eye-opener.

A bit of historical context:  when I went to OSU in the late ’70s, the stretch of High Street between campus and downtown was a grim wasteland.  The sleaziness started in the South Campus area — where bars like Papa Joe’s and the Travel Agency were generally viewed as more drunken, debauched, decrepit, and derelict than their North Campus counterparts — and then went steadily downhill as you moved away from campus and toward downtown.  Most of the buildings along that sorry stretch of High Street were either X-rated “burlesque” theaters, or XXX peep show emporiums, or boarded up and abandoned, and if you tried to walk the area you definitely felt a strong sense of physical insecurity among the hard-faced people who were present.

It was an area you would visit if you wanted to get a picture of people who were down on their luck for your Photojournalism class.  There was no Short North then, and the Skid Row, porn-invested grittiness extended for block after block until you reached the area of the Nationwide building and the northern edge of downtown.  I’m sure the urban planners of the late ’70s wondered how far the area would decline, and what to do about it.

But, how things have changed!  Now the crummy South Campus bars are long gone, replaced by the bright and shining Gateway project, with its bookstores and restaurants and apartments, and the Short North has been reborn into a residential/dining/arts/hipster enclave that has been steadily inching its way north along the High Street corridor.

I thought that there would still have to be a buffer area of the old sleaziness that I would have to cross before I hit the Short North and its curved over-the-street lighting — but I was wrong.  Now the High Street walker moves past the Gateway area, heading south, and encounters . . . more pubs and apartments.  In fact, I had no idea there were so many different brew pubs in Columbus.  Sure, there are some street people present, and sure, the area doesn’t have the high-end feel that you get in the Short North, but on my walk there was never any hint of safety concerns or encounters with angry, apparently deranged people — both of which were staples of the late ’70s era.

To be sure, it was a football Saturday night, so there were more people on the streets than you would get on a normal weeknight, but the fact that people were walking from the campus area to the Short North in the first place tells you something about how the area has changed.  When I finally reached the Short North and caught the CBus to complete the rest of my journey back to German Village, I couldn’t help but be impressed at how things have changed for the better.

Aboard The CBUS

Yesterday was one of those hot, muggy days that seem to immediately drain you of energy and leave you coated in sweat at the same time.  We were interested in heading down to the Short North, but walking there would have caused us to melt into the sidewalk.  And driving to the Short North on a Gallery Hop day is a colossal pain.  So, what to do?

Enter the CBUS.

IMG_6855The CBUS is a “circulator” that runs on a continuous loop on High Street and Front Street between German Village and the Brewery District, on one end, and Victorian Village and Italian Village on the other.  Along the way, it has stops at Columbus Commons, the Ohio Statehouse, the Arena District, and the Short North.  And there are no worries about reading a confusing bus schedule, or getting on the number 4 bus when you should be getting on the number 23 bus — the CBUS has different, readily identifiable markings, the CBUS stops are marked with a special circular sign, and the CBUS just goes on the same route all day long.

The CBUS was the perfect option for us — but the only real issue was whether we could overcome our anti-bus mindset.  This sounds like a minor thing, but it really isn’t.  If your vision of a bus is a dirty, beat-up contraption filled with smelly, misbehaving passengers, it’s not going to be your first transportation choice.  But we decided to give the CBUS a chance — and it turned out that our preconceptions about bus travel were all wrong.  (I recognize that the Bus-Riding Conservative will be insufferable after that admission.)

The CBUS is clean, bright, and blissfully air-conditioned.  The upcoming stops were announced verbally and shown on an electronic crawl screen at the front of the bus, so you always knew which stop was upcoming.  Our fellow passengers included couples, families with small kids, and Columbus visitors heading to an event at the Convention Center, which also is along the route.  There are multiple stops along the way, and you can signal the driver when you want to stop by pulling a little cord that runs behind every seat.  And the CBUS is free.  Free!  What could be better than that?

One other thing about the CBUS that the BRC has emphasized:  it runs almost exactly the route that some people have proposed as the route of a street car/light rail system, and it does so at a tiny fraction of the cost — and without ripping up the streets and installing rail lines and paying for the construction and the train cars.

We liked the CBUS so much that, on our ride back home, we talked about how we can use it even more.  I’m guessing that most users of the CBUS have that same reaction.  It  promotes the interaction and flow between core downtown neighborhoods, and it also makes non-bus-riders like us a bit more amenable to potentially using the Central Ohio Transit Authority options to meet our other transportation needs.  That’s the whole idea, I think.  I’m not sure how long the CBUS will be free, but I hope it continues — it’s a great idea and way to introduce the non-BRCs of the world like us to the possibilities and advantages of mass transit.

Milk Glass On The Cheap

IMG_5637Today Kish and I walked to the Short North.  It’s a hike from German Village, but it was a beautiful day — not too warm, with a pleasant breeze that made for an invigorating walk.

Our destination was Grandview Mercantile, a kind of high-end consignment store that specializes in vintage items, different kinds of artwork, kitschy furnishings, and assorted bric-a-brac.  There’s always something interesting to see there, and many of the items have tags that tie a declining price to their length of time on the shelves.  That makes shopping there even more tantalizing:  if you see something you like, do you buy it now, or wait, hoping that the price will decline and it won’t be pounced on by somebody else before you can snatch up a bargain?

Today we were browsing, but ran across these two milk glass items that had reached the end of the line on price and duration.  Kish loves milk glass and I like it too, and we couldn’t pass these up because the bottom line price for both of them was only $12.50 — just a fraction of their original tab.  They look pretty good on our dining room table, too.

Connecting City And Campus

The Ohio State University has long been a huge part of what life in Columbus is all about. Residents of our fair city know that the college is a key driver of its economy and social and cultural activities.  Now the University wants prospective and current students to understand that Columbus can and should be a big part of their college experience, too.

This wasn’t always the case.  When I was at OSU in the ’70s, campus was the exclusive focal point of student life.  Living “off-campus” simply meant one of the at-that-time run-down areas right next to campus.  I covered the Statehouse for the Lantern so I drove downtown regularly, but that was just because it was part of my beat.  The city really didn’t seem to offer much of interest to my campus-oriented world — but many of us ended up staying in Columbus after graduation, anyway, because there were jobs here.

Columbus has gotten a lot more interesting since those days.  Back then, the Short North was a scary place of vacant storefronts and XXX theaters; now it is a thriving, uber-cool neighborhood of shops, restaurants, and art galleries.  The Arena District, another focal point of the Columbus social/cultural scene, didn’t exist.  Downtown was a sea of surface parking lots that closed down about 6 p.m.  And German Village — where the initial wave of rehabbing was still underway — seemed incredibly far away.  Now all of those areas not only are much more interesting, they also are easy (and cheap) to reach via COTA’s free CBUS circulator, which runs on a continuous loop from Victorian Village right next to campus down High Street to German Village and back again.

Colleges are competing fiercely for students, to the point of building lavish dorms and state-of-the-art workout facilities and other amenities.  If the school happens to be located in a city that features lots of great social and cultural activities and economic opportunities, why not feature that in its marketing effort as a point of distinction with schools located in small-town America?  Ohio State’s decision to tout Columbus to its current and future students is not only good for the city, it’s probably good for the University, too.

Brunch At Melt

IMG_4518Today Kish and I decided to check out Grandview Mercantile in the Short North and have some brunch beforehand.  We parked near the store and decided to stroll down High Street until we saw a restaurant that piqued our interest.  When we passed by Melt, we had to stop to check it out.

Kish loves grilled cheese sandwiches, and that — along with beer — is basically what Melt has to offer.  But saying they serve grilled cheese sandwiches is like saying Jack Nicholson is a decent actor.  It doesn’t really capture the entirety of the body of work, or the creativity and talent behind the performances.  Melt offers every imaginable form and combination of grilled cheese that a rational person could imagine — and a few others, besides.

So, I was intrigued to see what Melt’s brunch would be like.  I ordered the green eggs and ham offering from the brunch menu, which included ham, cheese, an egg over easy, and Green Goddess dressing, all served in the form of a grilled cheese sandwich.  It was tasty, and also titanic — so frigging huge that I could only eat half of it, and I was pretty hungry.  When our friendly waitress came by to ask if we wanted dessert, we laughed out loud at the ludicrousness of that notion.  She smiled and admitted that she typically sells only about one dessert a month because the entrees are so massive.  They have good coffee, too, by the way.

Melt is a pretty good option for brunch, but for God’s sake be sure to bring your appetite.

Breakfast At The Philco

IMG_2116Today we decided to head down to the Short North for lunch before Richard started on his way back to Pittsburgh.  We parked and walked down High Street, looking for a restaurant option that struck our fancy.  We ended up at the Philco Bar + Diner.

The first thing you notice about the Philco is its size.  It’s intimate and snug, with a bar/counter, three booths, and a few high-top tables.  It’s decorated in classic diner lines — booths and stools and stationary seats at the counter — but with more muted colors.  We strolled in a few minutes after noon and lucked out, getting a table in the back that had just been vacated by another party.

The second thing you notice about the Philco is the menu.  It’s like a diner menu, but with a twist.  Nutella grilled cheese?  Sweet chili meatloaf?  Johnnycake sliders?  Hmmm.  And, like any good diner should, it serves breakfast all day.

So, even though it was technically lunch time, I had to try one of the breakfast options.  I decided on the baked grits with two eggs over easy, and the three of us shared an order of maple ricotta cornbread.  The grits were hot and creamy and tasted great with a little egg yolk mixed in.  The cornbread was also very good, with the maple adding sweetness but not overpowering.  The service by the counterman was excellent, too.

The world needs more diners.  The Philco is doing its duty at filling that crying need.

Letting Columbus Food Trucks Roam

Earlier this week Columbus City Council passed legislation that, for the first time, will allow food truck owners to sell their wares from parking spots on city streets. Previously, food trucks were restricted to selling only on private property.

IMG_3701Columbus politics are known for moderation and consensus, and the food truck legislation was no different. The vote on the law was unanimous, after City Council worked with food truck owners interested in greater access and restauranteurs concerned about safety issues raised by patrons congregating in the areas between food trucks and brick and mortar dining establishments.

Under the new legislation, food trucks will be able to park in the first or last parking spots on blocks in most commercial areas. In high-traffic areas, like the Short North, the food trucks will need to reserve one of 20 designated spots. Food trucks also will be subject to health and fire inspections and must buy a license and pay for an annual street parking permit. The legislation also established an advisory board that will periodically review the food truck rules and consider whether they need to be revised.

This is a great development for those of us who are food truck fans and love the passion, diversity, and entrepreneurial spirit — not to mention the tasty and interesting grub — that food trucks bring to Columbus. I’m hopeful that those of us who work on Gay Street, which as the coolest street in downtown Columbus is home to a number of restaurants already, will be happily surprised to see a food truck or two parked on our block as temperatures warm and we move into the food truck season.