October 2009 Issue
Capital City Chow Down
Hot dogs with a side of ’80s rock, Thai chili ice cream and three courses of flawless French food for the price of two tickets to the zoo — read on for the inside line on dining out in Columbus.
Once upon a time, epicures looking for a decent meal might have bypassed Columbus. Dubbed a kingdom of chain restaurants and fast-food corporate headquarters, the capital city had its share of burger joints and buffets, but not much in the way of culinary adventure.
Since then, the city has declared its independents —independently owned restaurants, that is. Now you’ll find passionate local chefs and restaurateurs creating big-city dining experiences.
So where, then, can you get the best grub in the capital city? For that, we asked the locals. We teamed up with Experience Columbus, the region’s convention and visitors bureau, to ask residents to blog and tweet about where they head when hunger strikes. Here’s what they had to say. Diners & Dives
Build a good diner, and they will come. Take, for example, the Starliner Diner
in Hilliard (starlinerdiner.com
). Opened in 1994, this vibrantly colored joint made a name for itself with its huevos rancheros, and has been the spot for Cuban fusion (and Cajun, and a little bit of everything else) at a bargain price ever since. Respondent Vicky Branson speaks for the masses when she says she loves it for dinner or weekend brunches.
Another favorite breakfast and brunch spot since the mid-1990s, Jack and Benny’s
), is just north of Ohio State’s campus on High Street. Blogger Carey explains “[It’s] a little hole-in-the-wall place that’s been there for years. Not terribly expensive either. There is usually a wait on the weekends, but [it’s] worth it.” Jack and Benny’s menu doesn’t accommodate the low-fat set, but if that doesn’t bother you, go all out with the Gut Buster — hash browns, a potato pancake, bacon, ham, eggs, sausage and cheese topped with country gravy — or one of the more than 20 types of three-egg omelets.
It’s tough for a local burger to develop a statewide following, but once the legendarily huge Thurman burger (which includes ham, mozzarella, American cheese and more) at The Thurman Cafe
) in German Village crosses your path, you’ll never forget it. Blogger Jason says, “For the best burgers in town, there’s no match.” Opened in 1942, we suspect this bar and eatery hasn’t changed much in 67 years, and for that, the fans are thankful.Casual Corners
For a casual night out, there’s no question that Columbus diners are heading to restaurateur Liz Lessner’s tetralogy of super cool eateries — Betty’s Fine Food & Spirits
the Surly Girl Saloon
), Tip Top Kitchen
) and Dirty Frank’s Hot Dog Palace
). Blogger Kelan Craig, who confesses he eats at one every other week, gives the venues bonus points for staying open until 2 a.m. “I would try ‘Betty’s Best Salad,’ Tip Top’s pot roast sandwich on pretzel bread, Surly Girl’s Hell Salad and Dirty Frank’s ‘Whoa Nellie’ dog,” he says. Right now Lessner has the magic touch — Dirty Frank’s, her latest venture, draws crowds for its fun selection of well-dressed dogs — everything from classics like Chicago-style and chili dogs to the Ohioana, topped with a spicy corn relish — plus vegetarian dogs and a good craft beer selection. On weekend nights, there’s likely going to be a line, but it goes fast, and gives you more time to check out the drawings of Metallica, Hall and Oates, Dio, Michael Jackson and other art created by Lessner’s brother, Tim.
If Lessner’s places are like the Ramones of the restaurant scene, another top pick, Northstar Cafe
), makes us think it’s the U2. Here, they’re so committed to fresh, local and sustainable that even the waitstaff’s T-shirts are organic cotton. Jen calls it her “favorite place to take my visiting friends” thanks to fantastic, unique food, such as pan-seared organic tofu and a selection of sandwiches and salads with ingredients that make you feel healthier just by reading them on the menu. Dishes can be prepared meat- and dairy-free. Sophisticated Spots
In this category, there was not a clear winner, but instead a group of standouts that were mentioned time and again. Susan M. says she always takes visitors to Alana’s Food + Wine
) on High Street just north of campus. “It feels casual, but the food knocks your socks off. It’s what Columbus fine dining should be.” Other nods were given to The Top Steak House
) as the best deal in town for a melt-in-your-mouth steak and Barcelona in German Village
) for its dependably good Spanish-influenced food and atmosphere and longtime distinction for one of the city’s best patios. Bloggers who remember the darker days of dining in Columbus offered enthusiastic praise for the Short North’s Rigby’s Kitchen
) and owner Kent Rigsby’s pioneering efforts to upgrade the local dining scene.
For international fare, there were two clear favorites: The Refectory’s
) three-course bistro menu for $23.95 (normally available Monday through Thursday, but occasionally extended into Friday and Saturday) and other meticulously prepared French dishes from genius chef, Richard Blondin, which Brian G. says “would be worth traveling from France for”; and Basi Italia (basi-italia.com
), where newcomer Rebecca Tien’s meal inspired her to write, “If this is representative of Columbus restaurants, I think I’m going to like it here!” Icing on the Cake
Monica calls Jeni’s
the “best ice cream ever” and she’s not alone.Although we got quite a few plugs for other places, the loyalty stayed with Columbus original and ice cream entrepreneur Jeni Britton (jenisicecreams.com
). Britton is so loved for her purity of process and unconventional flavors that we’re convinced if she left, most of the town would follow. The appeal of her signature flavors — salty caramel’s perfect balance, and Thai chili’s complex combination of hot, salty, savory and sweet — draw year-round crowds, as do her seasonal selections. Jeni’s has five locations around town, so it’s easy to find her — just look for the line.
For more information about Columbus restaurants, visit experiencecolumbus.com