You can’t talk about cutting-edge, creative dining experiences in Columbus without paying homage to the OGs of local innovation, Middle West Spirits and Watershed Distillery.
These two distilleries, through their dining and beverage programs, have set the standards that other kitchens and chefs aspire to, with attention to detail and creative flair that are hard to match.
Watershed took immediate advantage of the 2017 state legislation that allows distilleries to serve liquor, opening not only a world-class bar but also a world-class kitchen, both focused on the “watershed” concept of a community gathering place. Owner Greg Lehman strives to push customers just outside their comfort zone, so they leave learning something, but not scratching their heads in confusion.
Lehman credits the kitchen’s success partly to his own prior lack of experience in the restaurant industry. He was able to bring in a standout chef de cuisine, Jack Moore, and just “let him do his thing.”
“We had no idea what was on the menu until just before opening day,” Lehman laughs. “[Moore] can be as creative as he wants to be.”
“We’re proud to put our thumbprint on the city’s dining scene,” Moore said. “The challenge is staying focused and standing our ground.”
“Columbus has a huge corporate testing ground and quick-dining scene that are widely supported,” Moore continued. “We have to do a lot to stay in the forefront of the customers’ minds.”
Watershed prints its dining menus daily, responding to new ideas and ingredients. Their brussels sprouts have become a staple and the stuff of local legend, though. “Years ago, brussels sprouts weren’t a common thing — and now, if we took them off the menu, I think there would be an uproar,” Moore said.
Never content to offer the usual six or seven seasonal cocktails, the bar offers nearly two dozen, every one of which has at least one unique twist. They take risks on ingredients like chamomile-and-rose-infused gin, pistachio liqueur, and matcha that, individually, may not sound all that tempting, but combined, create a sublimely delicious experience.
The cocktail menu booklets themselves are somewhat of collectors’ items, cleverly themed and illustrated each season. This winter’s theme is, to sum it up, cocktails “for the weather you have and the weather you want.”
Despite being a distillery, Watershed also has stepped to the forefront of the zero-proof movement in the past couple of years, crafting nonalcoholic drinks that are every bit as creative and inspired as its spirits.
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Middle West Spirits also opened its kitchen, Service Bar, in 2017. “The word ‘service,’ it refers to doing everything,” Executive Chef Avishar Barua said. “And the only way we could do that was to break the wall between front of house and back of house.”
Service Bar’s approach to food runs the gamut, from elevated fast food to distinctive variations on Bangladeshi family recipes to outright creative risks. The Cheesy Brisket Crunch, a Taco-Bell-gordita-gone-gourmet with near-impossibly tender brisket, has become somewhat of a local staple among foodies.
And if you’re vegetarian or gluten-free, Service Bar has creative, inspired menu options that won’t make you feel like you’re relegated to the kids’ table, or sitting in your grandmother’s kitchen with boiling water and pats of butter.
But, I mean, what do you expect from a kitchen that takes three days to prep its French fries and has a secret weekly menu available only for Instagram followers?
As for their cocktail menu, “The classics have been done everywhere already,” Beverage Director Kyle Nelson said. “I don’t go too much out of left field; I like to keep our menu accessible, with creative ingredients or garnishes. Having a distillery behind us is a big help, and using our own spirits gives us flavor profiles that you can’t get with national brands.”
The feeling of Midwest hospitality, even among the team, is critical to Service Bar’s success. “In New York, in a lot of places, I would spend $500 or $600 on a meal and leave feeling like I was there to impress them,” Barua recalled. “We want to give people a memory, a great experience.”
“One of the harder things that no one thinks much about is, we try to treat our own staff very well,” he continues. “If things are going on in their lives, if they need time for something, we let them handle it and we figure it out. Empowering them to make decisions impacts the customer experience. And if we invest in our people, when they move on, it increases that mindset across the industry.”
Although these two brands may not view themselves as leaders, and continually strive to balance creativity and accessibility, there’s no doubt that they are standard bearers in the local dining scene, lighting the way for richer, more personalized dining experiences in Central Ohio
Service Bar is located at 1230 Courtland Ave. Watershed is located at 1145 Chesapeake Ave.