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The very last York Steak House is on Broad St. and it’s perfectly nostalgic

J.R. McMillan

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Columbus is famous for a lot of culinary firsts, but rarely one of the last.

York Steak House was once the prototype for red meat with a regal motif. While the rest of the restaurant industry was trying to sell commodity steak cafeteria-style with strained western metaphors, York was quietly building a kingdom of castle-inspired eateries.

Founded in Columbus and topping out at 200 locations nationwide, when the mall craze collapsed and tastes changed, York’s fortunes fell. But the very last one has survived and thrived for more than half a century on West Broad Street by remaining largely unchanged thanks to the steady, perhaps stubborn, strategy still championed by owner Jay Bettin, who turned an abandoned outpost of a dying empire into a nostalgic dining destination.

Photos: Brian Kaiser

“What made them really successful in the 70s and ‘80s was that they were in shopping malls. Folks used to go out on Friday night, do some shopping, see a movie, and eat at York,” recalled Bettin. “We were one of only ten locations that was freestanding, so when malls started to suffer, it didn’t hit us the same way. But you could still see it coming.”

Much like the latest season of Stranger Things, there was always something dark and sinister beneath the slick façade of the shopping mall. When Northland, Eastland, and Westland opened in the ‘60s, they soon sucked shoppers away from local businesses. Then when City Center opened downtown just as the mall phenomenon was fading, there was a retail reckoning for the once bustling suburban satellites.

“We were originally part of a buyout. A guy was buying 25 York locations and planned to turn them into Bonanza franchises. I was general manager here and asked him if he would sell me just this one and he could keep the rest,” Bettin explained. “But then Ponderosa bought Bonanza and his deal fell through. Suddenly, mine was the only one left.”

Jay Bettin isn’t trying to give Jeff Ruby a run for his money, even with an enviable head start. Nor is he chasing the latest trends. You won’t find free wifi or a convoluted allergen-friendly menu. There isn’t a rack of fixed-gear bicycles or hipsters taking pictures of their food as it grows cold, either. Point of fact, the last time I was there for lunch, I was the only one among more than 40 patrons shamefully pecking on a smartphone.

“Even though we were a chain, we always ran it like a local business. We know our regulars by name, and they often know each other,” Bettin noted. “We went back to what made York great in the beginning — quality food and quick service in a clean restaurant. We kept it simple.”

Simple is a deceptive understatement. Bettin reconsidered every item on the menu and element of the experience, from ingredients to presentation. The location was among the first Yorks to add a salad bar, to fend off competitors who had already done the same. And by salad, he means “salad,” not some bloated buffet with heat lamps and entrees that have been out there for hours.

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“We don’t claim to have the biggest salad bar in Columbus, but I guarantee everything on it is cut fresh here and isn’t pre-chopped and poured out of a bag,” he revealed. ”Most family-priced steakhouses were focusing more on the buffet than their dinner. It’s hard to do both well.”

York Steak House started as a family restaurant that became a family business. Bettin credits his wife with subtle updates to the interior that still preserve the original aesthetic. Their three kids grew up in the restaurant, and all worked there. Their daughter still puts in a few hours a week despite a career elsewhere. Then there’s Jon Bettin, who works side-by-side with his father, poised to continue the York legacy.

“People come here for the atmosphere, because it brings back childhood memories. When my son Jon was about five, we used to come in the morning and he’d ride his scooter around the dining room,” Bettin recalled. “He’s kind enough to let me feel like I still know everything and I’m in charge. But he’s also smart enough to know he can change things that need to be changed. We share that understanding.”

Sirloin tips are still the number one seller. Even without adding mushrooms or grilled onions, they beat any backyard steak and are surely superior to a few more famous lets at twice the price. And with chicken, seafood, and pasta also on the menu, you could eat at York several times a week, and many do. There aren’t many restaurants where you can walk in with a group of eight people and get seated immediately, much less order in minutes and be out the door again in an hour.

“I don’t have the overhead of a corporate office. It keeps our prices low. My clientele is a little older and I’m obviously not going after the bar crowd.” he chided. “Our meat isn’t marinated or over-seasoned and all of our steaks are cooked to order. For the money, you’re never going to find a better steak.”

Bettin’s early experience working in a bakery also shows in the dessert options. While the industry average suggests about five percent of patrons order dessert, York consistently finds closer to a third of its customers like to grab a slice at the beginning of the line, instead of ordering it at the end of the meal like most restaurants.

“Our peanut butter chocolate cream pie is one of our best,” Bettin admitted. “The fudge cake has been a standard from the start, but now we bake it in house. It’s even better than it was 40 years ago.”

Hollywood Casino gave the business a little boost when things were starting to slow down. Bettin credits name recognition and nostalgia, but he’s also amused that folks come from far and wide to drop a few hundred bucks down the block, but still stop by York. The license plates in his parking lot reveal cars from neighboring states, but also from Texas to Florida, Missouri to Massachusetts.

“Our parking lot is in the back, so folks are sometimes surprised we’re still open. People tell us they planned their vacation route to come here. It’s humbling that folks will go that far out of their way to eat at our restaurant,” Bettin confessed. “We’ve always been a destination. When people leave their homes, they know they’re going to York Steak House. But now, we don’t always know just how far they traveled to get here.”

York Steak House is located at 4220 W Broad, and is also the only location to ever have a website: york-steakhouse.com.

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Duecento: Italian Village’s best hidden gem cocktail bar

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Seventh Son Brewing has become something of a Columbus staple. Nearly any night of the week you can find its Fourth Avenue taproom bustling with patrons, enjoying food truck fare in the summer months and huddled around an outdoor fire pit in the fall and winter.

And while the brewery deserves all the acclaim it receives, don’t let that overshadow what might just be your next favorite cocktail bar: Duecento.

I say this because it’s pretty easy for that to happen. At least from a physical perspective. An abandoned building turned chic new watering hole, Duecento still maintains its humble roots from outside the building. The single-story edifice doesn’t look all that exciting or appealing from its Italian Village location, but looks can be deceiving.

Photos: Brian Kaiser

“I am a renovator and designer, and I’m a landlord also. I was working on a house that’s in this area for a while and would always pass the building [that became Duecento] on my drive home from work,” says co-owner Andrew Losinske. “So I’m looking at this abandoned building every day when I’m going home, and I thought to myself, ‘That could be a great little workshop.’ ”

After six months of slipping his contact information under the door of the derelict site to get in touch with the property owner, he took over the location. And for awhile the now-cocktail lounge was more or less a space for him to store his tools and churn out some off-site work.

By chance, Losinske’s friend and current business partner Ted Lawson happened to stop by to meet up before heading across the street to Seventh Son to grab a beer. Lawson, who now lives in Florida, is an accomplished bar and drink lounge owner, and immediately recognized that the spot’s interior was dripping with potential.

And the rest is history.

After several years of renovation (much of which Losinske handled himself), decoration, and permit applications, the cocktail lounge opened on February 2, 2019, with Losinske and Lawson at the helm as co-owners, and a small but tight and enthusiastic staff behind the pair.

From the moment newcomers enter through the building’s small, modest front door, its interior has them absolutely hooked. Don’t lie. We’ve all seen the moment in the movie Spice World when the band steps into their seemingly regular tour bus, and the shot jumps from outside the vehicle to inside, when the group is magically transported into a mansion several stories tall.

Walking into Duecento feels distinctly like this. From the outside, the humble single-story building still feels under decorated and even slightly lonely. Its exterior retains a bit of the defunct quality that plagued it for so many years.

However, once you step inside, everything changes. You enter a sleek, almost cavernous spot, sporting 3,000 square feet, with 14-foot ceilings and a pleasing mixture of vintage and contemporary decoration, favoring handsomely polished wood and low, soft, moody lighting. It’s the best “Ta-da!” entrance in Columbus I’ve ever come across.

Don’t get things twisted though, even with a less-than-bright interior and high ceilings, the centerpiece of the chic yet still-comfortable cocktail bar is its row of massive, ornate chandeliers, providing the space with an aura of classical charm without throwing its style out of balance.

And while the venue alone might be worth a visit for anyone who wants to feel like they’ve just discovered a hidden gem (which they have) or a secret, trendy speakeasy, the drinks are worth staying for. Duecento won’t overwhelm you with variety, but that’s so their focus remains on making their compact menu of streamlined cocktails (all laced nicely with a quiet Italian theme) quickly and well.

Duecento’s cocktail menu was largely created by drink consultant and Columbus cocktail veteran Christina Basham. It will soon be releasing a seasonal warm weather menu, but is still retaining most of its best-sellers.

For the new Columbus hotspot, its most popular drink is also its most unique. The 200 (a nod to Duecento’s name, which means 200 in Italian, and its location at 200 E Fourth Ave.), is made up of OYO Vodka, Nux Alpina, pomegranate, ginger, and lime. A delicious drink in itself, what sets the 200 apart is the fact that it’s poured to patrons from a draft line. And although some cocktail veterans might initially balk at this idea, both Basham and Losinske stand solidly behind them.

“Putting cocktails through draft lines can be a huge win-win,” says Basham, who noted that the trend of serving draft cocktails is catching on as a trend in Columbus and beyond. “The quality of the drink is there [at Duecento], and this ultimately cuts down on the amount of prep time for servers, plus customers aren’t waiting long at all.”

Losinske agrees. “We love serving cocktails from our draft lines,” he says. “And service here is extremely important to us; it matters that customers aren’t waiting 20 minutes for one drink.”

Also on draft is Basham’s flavorful take on the Negroni, and the bar serves several made to order options as well. These include (with some subject to change, likely this month) a black Manhattan, a gin and tonic with Pasubio, an old fashioned, and a Margarita with Aperol, providing the drink with an earthy, dynamic new twist.

What you won’t see at Duecento though, is a list of cocktails that goes out the door. And that’s on purpose. Basham, an experienced mixologist who runs her own consulting service (Bubbles + Agave) is an outspoken advocate of keeping things simple. This includes a streamlined menu and drinks that don’t contain a litany of ingredients. It leads to a reduction in prep time, she says, lends to clarity of flavors, and makes it easier on servers and patrons alike, reducing the time it takes to make any one drink.

Duecento also offers a variety of other beverages, such as craft beer, spirits, wine, and more.

As its likeness with an underground getaway or 20th-century speakeasy suggests, the atmosphere inside is effervescent and fun- loving. It features live music in its DJ booth, plus a spacious dance floor and a set of beautiful red-felted pool tables.

“It can be calm at times too, but on the weekends people here like to get loose,” says Losinske. “They like to turn the music up and dance, and we like to let them.”

Duecento is located 200 E 4th Ave. Follow Duecento on Facebook.

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New Polaris restaurant brings local focus to unique dining experience

Mike Thomas

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Sagas Restaurant Group—the group behind Atlas Tavern—is opening a new concept at 2050 Polaris Parkway in the Spring of 2020.

To help set itself apart from other dining options in the area, this yet-to-be-named concept will utilize novel pieces of restaurant equipment unique to the Columbus market: a Josper oven and Basque grill from Spain.

Imported from Spain's Basque region, the hardwood grill will be one of only 100 in North America. This machine combines the best aspects of an oven and a grill, and is 100% fueled by charcoal and hardwoods. With superior temperature control versus other charcoal grills, the Basque grill can generate temperatures from 450 degrees all the way up to 900 degrees, creating amazing seared charcoal flavor while retaining optimum moisture. 

According to a statement, this new concept will offer "approachable, upscale food at the best possible value," utilizing the best sourced ingredients. Menu items such as oak barrel teriyaki New York strip, lemon rosemary short ribs, wood grilled peach goat cheese and arugula salad, and charcoal roasted chicken with lemon confit are already being teased.

Above all, the developers hope this concept will bring a much needed local focus to Polaris.

"We believe one aspect the Polaris area is still missing out on is the local Columbus culture," a representative said via a prepared statement. "While Downtown, Easton or Bridge Park are all great destinations, the North Side population deserves to have an option for non-chain, locally sourced, and well-designed restaurants without having to drive out of the way or commit to an entire evening out."

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Breaking Bread: Crafted loaves on the rise at 5 local bakeries

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Like dough itself, one of the most compelling aspects of food is the way its meaning can be stretched and changed completely depending on the person you talk to. Or the country in which they live. Or whether or not they’ve eaten recently.

For some it’s about sustenance, and flavor, and fun. For some, even though it’s about sourdough bread, it’s about faith.

Dan the Baker | 1028 Ridge St.

While skittering around his production kitchen crafting several of nearly 1,000 country sourdough loaves he will make this week alone, Dan Riesenberger’s energy visibly changes when I ask him to talk about his sourdough bread. His face catches the light.

“It’s my meditation,” says Riesenberger, more commonly referred to as Dan the Baker. “It’s something that I believe in so viscerally, and that’s why it feels like it’s a part of me. I’m not a religious person at all, but making sourdough bread becomes a spiritual experience. It nurtures people. It nourishes people. It’s a beautiful thing.”

Photos: Rebecca Tien

What sets these loaves apart, according to Riesenberger, are his ingredients. Utilizing cultured French butter to laminate his dough, along with fresh and local ingredients makes a world of difference.

His country sourdough loaves, the baker’s biggest seller, feature a surprisingly dark—almost black in some places—crust with a prominent score running across the top. This crust creates a wonderful contrast with the light bread inside that features a very open crumb structure and classic sourdough tang.

Flowers & Bread | 3870 N High St.

While Clintonville’s young bakery Flowers & Bread may lack some of the name recognition of Dan the Baker or Omega, this isn’t due to lack of quality from the North Side establishment. In fact, the eatery was recently recognized by USA Today as one of the top ten artisanal bakeries in North America, hoisting them up along the ranks of San Francisco’s explosively popular Tartine.

And for good reason. According to baker Felix O’Connor, the sourdough at Flowers & Bread is imbued with one particular ingredient that’s indispensable to any good bread: care.

Not only is the dough left to proof in their fridge for upwards of 20 hours (when the bread is started at 3:00 a.m. daily), a step critical to the development of that particular sourdough flavor, the bakery’s starter is looked after with the attention one might give to an infant.

“We’re always taking care of our starter, we’re feeding daily, sometimes even every few hours. To do so, we mix the original starter with equal parts our and water,” says O’Connor. “It’s almost like a little pet.”

O’Connor’s bread is immediately visually distinct from others’ due to the presence of one small but pleasant addition, that of culinary art.

Using razors, the baking team at Flowers & Bread scored winding rows of ferns vertically into the bread, which featured a perfectly middle of the road, not too dark and not too light crust. Keeping with the sourdough standard, the loaf does see some larger holes, but keeps a tighter crumb structure than many loaves.

Omega Artisan Baking, North Market | 59 Spruce St.

While Riesenberger displays the youthful ambition and exuberance of a super-talented young artisan, Amy Lozier, the owner of Omega, comes off just as passionate, except her energy has settled into an equally impressive calm and confidence that only experience can afford.

Omega opened in the Columbus North Market in 2003, and since then, owner and head baker Lozier has been striking a delicate balance between staying true to her baking style (such as a wonderful rustic French loaf with a nearly blackened crust) while still making the loaves her customers love.

“When we first starting making it our sourdough looked a lot like Dan the Baker’s, with the harder crust and an open crumb structure,” says Lozier. “But our customers really wanted to use our sourdough for sandwiches, so we listened to them. It’s too hard to eat one with tuna falling through all those holes.”

After constant customer feedback, Omega listened, and began making a variant perfect for sandwiches from an English sourdough recipe, one that opts for a softer crust and a less intense sour tang (which comes from the presence of lactic and acetic acid in sourdough starters). Most important to Omega patrons though, the style creates a much finer, almost pillowy, texture in the bread, and a tighter crumb structure that doesn’t allow for noticeable holes.

Laughlin’s Bakery | 15 E 2nd Ave.

Jonas Laughlin could have been a professional singer, but now his symphonies come fresh out of the oven.

The owner of Laughlin's bakery was training to become an opera singer, when unforeseen damage to his vocal cords caused him to end this career pursuit.

Instead, he followed another passion, one we’re all thankful for: baking. “At first, baking was therapeutic for me, and then it just became something more and more serious,” he says.

Laughlin’s is actually best known for its French baguette, a customer favorite combining a crispy exterior with an open, soft white bread that flies off the shelves. “This was actually a really big deal for us,” says Laughlin, noting that it took years to perfect the recipe.

In addition to his baguette, though, the bakery also offers what is likely the most unique sourdough on our fall list. The Italian Village establishment crafts a sourdough loaf with a beautifully dark exterior, riven with lighter scoring and one single, dramatic vertical slash.

But what makes this bread stand out the most is what’s inside. Featuring a small-to-medium-sized crumb structure with modest but clearly visible holes, the bread has a distinct tan. This is because it’s a whole wheat sourdough, something most bakeries don’t take on, but Laughlin felt the grains added a fullness and complexity to the sourdough’s flavor that pushed it in a new direction.

And it really does work. The firm crust imparts a satisfying crunch, but the grains are the star of the show. They’re present, but subtle, leaving a trace of rich, earthy, nuttiness with every bite.

Lucky Cat Bakery | 3825 Columbus Rd., Granville

I’m a dog person, but last Saturday morning at the Clintonville Farmer’s Market, I would have professed my love for cats, and it wouldn’t have been a lie.

For one cat in particular. The Lucky Cat.

The feline-christened bakery has been serving Granville for nearly a decade, and its sourdough batard is one of the standouts on its menu.

From the jump, Lucky Cat’s owner and baker Andrew Semler seems to be tapped into the science of bread making. “Our batard is fully mixed by hand, where some others use mixers,” said owner Andrew Semler. “When you use a mixer, air is incorporated. Not only will oxygen bleach the bread to an extent, it also removes some flavor from the our used as well.”

He goes on to note that Lucky Cat opts for a “stiffer” starter with their sourdough, meaning the dough will have less water content. In terms of flavor, a stiff starter will yield more acetic acid in the final product (versus a more liquid starter that creates more lactic acid). Every loaf of sourdough contains both types of bacteria and acid, but the acetic offers a bit more of that punchy, vinegar-like tang, whereas lactic acid produces a sourness akin to yogurt.

In addition to the acetic twang of the Lucky Cat’s batard, Semler deliberately shoots for a middle-of-the-road crumb structure and a lighter than average crust. This offers less crunch, but according to the baker, this makes the bread easier to reheat for toast and other culinary purposes, and fans of soft and supple bread will no doubt be pleased.

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