I’ve mentioned this before but I could live in Columbus. Columbus, Ohio.
Because one of the most important lifestyle choices I make is a city’s food scene. Columbus’ Food Scene is alive.
But let’s take a step back and deal with some of the preconceptions you might have about the CBus food scene. If you know anything about Columbus you probably know that there was/is a large German immigrant population. One of the most beautiful sections of town is known as German Village, where the cobblestone streets and historic brick homes charmingly reflect Columbus’ German heritage. Cumulatively speaking, Germans have made up the largest group of immigrants to the United States, especially in the Midwest. We even have the Germans to thank for the frankfurter. Maybe you expect frankfurters to be a large part of the Columbus food scene?
I’m not here to diss Germany’s meat-and-potatoes ethic. It has brought us hearty classics like hamburgers, potato salad, and bratwurst, too. They’ve all become solid American favorites. I’m sure you can find terrific examples of these staples in Columbus to this day. But Columbus is much more than a nineteenth century time capsule of German-American bricks, brats and beer. Columbus is vibrant and modern and completely delicious. In fact, I’ve seen its dining scene called “the best kept secret in the Midwest” more than a few times.
Having recently come back from my second visit to Columbus, Ohio I think I’m ready to try and encapsulate a lot of what I learned and what I ate. Its new culinary traditions are nothing short of vibrant. Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams are indeed splendid, but there are plenty of other places and businesses around town deserving of some of that national attention as well.
The vibrancy I mentioned seems to come from a real sense of creativity. But how did all that creativity come so far (let’s face it) inland from the areas more typically aligned with cutting edge culinary business?
This might surprise you, but Columbus is headquarters for five of the biggest retail brands including: Victoria’s Secret, Abercrombie & Fitch and Bath & Body Works. Brands this big and this smart can afford to bring in big talent and take advantage of homegrown talent. Making Columbus a draw for all sorts of creative people. Brady Konya co-founder of Middle West Spirits summed it up nicely for me when he explained his own story of moving to Columbus. His partner had been offered a can’t-pass-up position at Abercrombie & Fitch. Meaning Konya would have to leave his creative position at a major marketing firm and move half a continent inland. He soon found other creative folks who made the same transition for similar reasons. Well, creative folk are ingenious, and they can spot each other a mile away. Konya started Middle West Spirits with Ryan Lang, whose family had a tradition of distilling quality handmade spirits. The two met, became friends and set out to produce locally sourced wheat-based spirits of the highest artisan caliber.
Which leads me to another surprising (to me) revelation about the Columbus creative scene and how it impacts the food scene. They take the concept of local sourcing seriously. More seriously than any one culinary community I’ve ever come across. With venues like The North Market providing Columbus access to independent small purveyors of quality food products. The market’s mission is also celebrated in the farm to plate movement that has deep roots right in the soil surrounding Columbus. In fact, the fourth annual Field to Table event is being held this month at the Franklin Park Conservatory, a beautiful botanical garden and the perfect background for an al fresco dining experience featuring local foods prepared by local chefs in partnership with local farmers.
The way Columbus keeps it local is a good model for small urban cores of cities everywhere. The Short North is a historic section just a short hop north of downtown. It’s become home to a lot of great shopping and diverse nightlife options. It’s peppered with local art galleries, retail space, bars and restaurants, but none of these establishments are outside chains. The local business vibe has proven to be a winning draw. Bringing in locals and tourists for a taste of the “real” Columbus.
I stopped into the very local Brothers Drake Meadery for some sips of pure, organic and freshly crafted meads. Mead is a “honey wine” that can run from quite sweet to off-dry. When the brothers Drake say “local” they are not just spouting culinary buzz words. The concept of local is taken seriously here. Not only is the honey used in these tipples produced by hardworking Ohio honeybees, but the product itself is only sold locally– and always will be. Which is pretty serious business. I wonder if such a business would even be possible in Los Angeles where I live?
Which makes me think that Columbus’ size is also a factor in its culinary success. Big enough and cosmopolitan enough to have a sophisticated demographic of food lovers, but small enough so that creative businesses with locally targeted buisiness models can thrive in ways that might not be possible in Los Angeles or New York. Columbus is also centrally located. Making it an ideal weekend getaway for all of Ohio.
These ingredients have set Columbus on a path towards culinary excellence that most cities would envy. But there has to be more to it than that. So I plan to break my experience down into a few posts over the next week or so. Please come back as I take you through a delicious tour of Columbus.
Highlights will feature a guide to bar hopping that includes three craft cocktail recipes from Travis Owens and his bar Curio @ Harvest Pizzeria. They’ll change the way you think about ‘grabbing a drink with friends’. For the eaters out there I’ll also have a couple of great recipes from a few of my favorite Columbus, Ohio restaurants and I’ll take you on a Columbus Alt Eats Tour that had me busting at the seams. So get on the bus. The Columbus Food Scene is in high gear. GREG
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