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Password Please: Exclusive look inside Columbus’ top secret cocktail bar

Regina Fox

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Imagine strolling down Chestnut Street between 3rd and 4th Streets in Downtown Columbus and you notice an old-timey pay phone behind a glass door. 

“Hm, that’s funny,” you muse to yourself. “I don’t recall ever seeing that before.”

Curiously, you pick up the receiver and hear a muffled ring on the other side of the wall. A voice comes through your earpiece, inquiring about your name and member number. Then, one of two things will happen: either you’ll have no clue what the person is talking about, or, you’ll rattle off your personal code and be granted access to one of Columbus’ best-kept secrets: No Soliciting.

Photo by Brian Kaiser

If you aren’t among the roughly 320 individuals who possess one of those personal codes, it’s unlikely you’ve ever heard of this secret, members-only bar, let alone been inside. And this, dear readers, is precisely why the talented and trusted Brian Kaiser and I, armed with camera equipment, pen and paper, pretended to be No Soliciting members for an afternoon. 

From the small foyer with the old payphone where members check in, what appeared to be a black panel wall slowly swung open (imagine Addams Family-style, but cooler) and I stepped inside.

Oaky and sweet smells greeted me upon entry. This was no mistake. No Soliciting’s unofficial official drink is an old fashioned smoked with cedar and cinnamon. (As a person who can’t usually palate bourbon with ease, I put this handsome devil down effortlessly). Bartender Chris Yoha purposefully scorches a bowl of the wood chips and spices before the bar opens. Smart. 

Photo by Brian Kaiser

The front bar area was sharp and sophisticated. The leather booths adjacent to the bar were adorned with vintage headshots of America’s greatest entrepreneurial spirits—Walt Disney, King Camp Gillette, Alexander Graham Bell. I imagined all the important decisions No Soliciting members made in those booths, all while their heroes watched silently over them. You see, most of the club’s membership is comprised of business owners around the city. 

About a year and a half ago, before No Soliciting was No Soliciting, the space was simply part of Rise Brand offices. But, it wasn’t long before CEO Troy Allen was persuaded by local business owners and close friends to open the space to the public…curated public, that is. 

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It began with 15 people close to Allen who are now known as the Founding Members. Wanting to create a space of like-minded individuals, Allen and his team began accepting applications with a vested interest in Columbus business owners. 

“It’s always nice to have that sounding board of other like-minded people when it comes to business owners to be able to talk to, share with, and understand perspective,” said Allen. 

Allen does not consider No Soliciting an eletists’ bar, but stands by the vetting process to protect the unique exclusivity it offers.  

The application contains all the normal fields—name, phone number, email—but further down, hopeful members are prompted to disclose more unique info, such as their expectations of being a member, what they would tell their 21-year-old selves, and who their reference(s) are. 

While there is a “Who do you know here?” tone, Allen says it’s not imperative to have a referral to get in. Rather than a name in the reference field, Allen can respect a “I’m looking forward to meeting someone,” response. He also shot down the notion that No Soliciting is a “boys club.” 

“The diversity that’s in here within the walls when we’re open is welcoming,” said Allen. 

Between members and their guests, Allen estimates the ratio to be a 50/50 split when No Soliciting is open. He guesses women make up a third of the membership, a number he’d like to see rise.

“The ladies who are members are kickass members, frankly,” Allen said. 

Photo by Brian Kaiser

Once members make a selection from the upscale cocktail menu, choose from one of No Soliciting’s 300+ bourbons, or order up a customized adult beverage from the skilled bartenders (all member purchases expensed to their house account), they can venture further into the venue where a stately lounge awaits.

Worn leather couches and armchairs are circled up and poised for conversation. Flags adorn the walls, concealing TV screens underneath. Animal hide rugs and foliage dangling from the skylight soften up what might be a masculine feel. The place has a tasteful sophistication that mentally and emotionally matured me at least a decade. I should’ve wiped the mud from my boots before, I scolded myself.

Allen gleaned inspiration from his experience as a member of Soho House, a chain of private members’ clubs around the world. He respects what the other clubs around town are doing—country clubs, the Athletic Club, the Columbus Club—and extended admiration towards local cocktail bars, as well. But, what he saw lacking in Columbus was a more elevated experience that combined the two.

“To me, there was a hole in this market. So, when we started to do No Soliciting, it was because of my experiences at Soho House…. I wanted people to get that same experience here on a smaller, more intimate level.” 

Above all, Allen’s main m.o.—besides intimacy, exclusivity, and quality—is comfortability. He wants his members to feel a sense of belonging and connectedness, all while enjoying the luxuries No Soliciting can afford upon every visit: excellent cocktails, exceptional service, compatible community, controlled capacity. 

This is the culture Allen and Rise Brands hope to reciprocate in Dublin’s Bridge Park. Not only will there be a second No Soliciting, but the flagship location will also be undergoing some major changes soon as the Rise Brand headquarters relocate to Long Street and are replaced by a full-service kitchen and event spaces for the members.

“Rules are made for people who aren’t willing to make their own,” reads writing on one of the main walls in the lounge. And with No Soliciting’s speakeasy-style access, hushed and humble existence, yet powerful presence in a select part of the community, No Soliciting is certainly willing to write its own.

No Soliciting memberships carry a $1,000 annual fee. While the club is currently not accepting new members, you can be added to the waitlist at nosolicitingbar.com.

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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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Dems & Diners: 5 local restaurants where you may find presidential candidates

J.R. McMillan

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Columbus is used to letting folks know what we think, particularly when it comes to what we eat. Increasingly rare are restaurants that don’t first test their new recipes and menus here before rolling them out across the country.

Our enviable intersection of demographics and popular culture take on additional significance every four years when the race for the White House heats up and inevitably stops in Central Ohio. Our state remains a reliable political bellwether of who is most likely to become the next president, or stay so. No Republican has ever won without Ohio, starting with Abraham Lincoln. And we’ve only been wrong once since before WWII, picking Nixon over Kennedy. (No one’s perfect.)

But the race arrived a little earlier this time, with a dozen entourages and enumerable news crews all angling for a breakout moment. The Democratic Party Primary Debate in Westerville at Otterbein University wasn’t scheduled there because they have a big auditorium and ample parking. Every campaign knows Ohio doesn’t just predict the next president. It sometimes decides it.

So it would be a shame for all of these candidates and a growing gaggle of political pundits to come all this way and miss out on a great meal with the everyday denizens who are in all likelihood going to determine the direction of the country for the next four years.

Here’s a short list of suggestions for presidential hopefuls who might like to grab a memorable bite, shake some hands, sincerely listen, and maybe even seal the deal.

Tommy's Diner | 914 W. Broad St.

This Westside, working-class breakfast and lunch counter has no shortage of options or opinions. Elected officials are as easy to find here as fried eggs. Even the New York Times sent a reporter to camp out in a booth all day in 2016 to take the temperature of voter frustration from across the political spectrum. If you want to impress the locals, order the Big Breakfast—over-easy, pick your pig, and ask for a waffle instead of hotcakes or French Toast. Cut back on the extra carbs by sharing your home fries with your handler.

 Ray Ray's Hot Pit | 2619 N. High St.

Nationally known and proudly homegrown, this smoldering standard in the Old North neighborhood attracts even the academics with its gritty authenticity. There are few metaphors for democracy more fitting than standing in line talking politics at a food truck waiting for smoked meat off the bone or on a bun. Can’t decide? Try everything with a Meatsweats box of brisket, pulled pork, jerk chicken, dry rubbed ribs, and a hot link. Wash it all down with a cold Cheerwine. It might score you some poll points in the Carolinas.

Dulce Vida Ice Cream Factory | 2400 Home Acre Dr.

Legit Mexican frozen confections have been a hit with more than local Latinos since their second location opened in Westerville. It’s a gathering place for families with origins around the globe drawn together by something sweet, a language everyone speaks with ease. Don’t be the candidate who orders plain old chocolate for fear of offending some key constituency. Go bold with Blackberry and Cheese or Goat Milk Caramel. And if it’s been a trying day on the campaign trail, add a scoop of Almond Tequila. We won’t judge.

Momo Ghar | 1265 Morse Rd.

The original hotspot for Himalayan home cooking, nothing quite beats the seasonal chill like a big bowl of delicate dumplings, secretly served at your local international grocery. The Northeast side of the city’s growing immigrant community spans several continents, with recent arrivals from Asia, Africa, and the Middle East joining generations who preceded them. Petite pockets of chicken and pork are outstanding, swimming in a small sea of spicy sauce. But vegetable dumplings and gluten-free lentil cakes could inspire some crossover appeal.

 Stauf's Coffee Roasters | 1334 Neil Ave.

Anchored in Grandview for 30 years, Stauf’s latest location in a recently renovated church just south of Ohio State’s campus is both a departure for the brand, but a reminder of why they’ve stayed ahead of the corporate coffee curve. Millennials could be the largest voting bloc in 2020, so their support is essential and concerns impossible to ignore. Don’t risk a social media fiasco by botching the order of a convoluted caffeinated concoction. No need to be a hero here. Just get a large regular in a mug—black. Done.

The third Democratic Party Primary Debate, hosted by CNN and the New York Times, will air live at 8PM from Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio.

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Newly-opened Mitchell Hall bringing expanded culinary, hospitality programs to Columbus State

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It goes without saying that Ohio State overtakes any conversation regarding Columbus-area colleges and universities. And for good reason: it’s a large, historic school offering fantastic academic, social, and athletic opportunities. With this being said, it’s time for us to take a look around a bit more, and notice the exceptional programs offered by smaller Columbus colleges.

For the last 40 years, Columbus State Community College has offered its students the ability to major in culinary programs, and now it boasts hospitality management, hotel and event planning, and dietetics degrees to its students as well.

Photos: Zane Osler

Its recently completed Mitchell Hall, named for Columbus restaurateur Cameron Mitchell, will house labs, classrooms, and even a full-service restaurant and café and bakery for these programs. The program size will double to accommodate 1,500 students, pushing the creativity and quality of potential new Columbus chefs and restaurateurs to the next level.

“We plan to be regionally competitive. Before this, we never marketed for specific programs,” said Joshua Wickham, Director of Operations for the College of Hospitality Management and Culinary Arts at Columbus State. “We’ve always had our recruiters who recruited for the college—not specific programs. We’re changing that now. We’ve actually hired a full-time recruiter, and all she does is recruit for our hospitality programs.”

But all of this didn’t happen overnight. Mitchell Hall, which was opened to the public for tours for the first time on August 13 of this year, has been five years in the making. The project broke ground in April of 2018. “It’s taken almost 18 months to complete— from a parking lot to this,” Wickham said.

And it also didn’t happen for free. According to Wickham, the building cost a total of roughly $34 million. Public funding came from Columbus State itself, with additional funds from the state of Ohio. Private philanthropy will provide $10 million of support, much of it from corporate sponsorship, including Bundy Baking Solutions, the namesake of the school’s Bundy Baking Lab.

According to Wickham, nearly 75% of the private funding has already been secured, which Mitchell spearheaded with a $2.5 million gift from Cameron Mitchell Restaurants.

Housed within Mitchell Hall’s 80,000 square feet and its three stories are large, sleek classrooms; a culinary, mixology, and baking lab; plus a fully-functional café and bakery and a restaurant that will be open to the public, yet run by Columbus State students.

Each program is eight weeks long, and alternates between classroom sessions, lab work, and most interestingly, a four-hour work shift in either the college’s restaurant or café and bakery. This, Wickham insists, is not just the best way to learn about culinary work; it’s the only way. “You have to touch it, definitely. You just have to touch it,” he said. “You can’t just talk theory. You need to feel the heat of the kitchen, the pressure of the customers. That’s what gives us our edge and will allow us to provide that level of education.”

While the bakery will craft its own bread and sell fresh soups and other small items, the Columbus State restaurant, Degrees, will operate on an entirely different scale. The 50-seat eatery will be entirely student-run (as the bakery will be), and gives students a wholly unique chance to experience their craft live, and with the safety off.

And Wickham’s previous use of the word pressure rings even more true, as Degrees features an open kitchen separated from diners by a single sheet of transparent glass, making sure those studying the culinary arts are well equipped for the high-stress environments they will likely encounter in the real world.

“It’s a different experience when you’re back there cooking and you have a bunch of people sitting right there,” said Wickham.

And while students will take important vocational lessons away from the establishment, Columbus residents shouldn’t write it off as an educational gimmick. With a kitchen featuring a litany of brand-new, state-of-the-art machines and cooking implements, Degrees plans to o er approachable food that is still loaded with flavor and personality.

Although the menu hadn’t been released publicly at the time of press, Wickham says it will feature hearty contemporary American cuisine, with signature sandwiches and flatbreads to boot. In addition to food, the location boasts a full-service bar selling liquor, wine, and beer to customers after 5:00 p.m.

The restaurant will open to the public at the end of October (while the bakery, called Blend, opens in late September), and will serve Monday through Friday from 11:00 a.m. until 2:00 p.m. for lunch, and from 5:00 p.m. until 9:00 p.m. for dinner.

Mitchell Hall sits along the east side of Cleveland Avenue on the Columbus State Community College campus.

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