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Order up: 10 diners offer minimum space, maximum taste

J.R. McMillan

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Somewhere between East Coast delicatessens and West Coast cafés is the culinary intersection of utility and community. Though the Midwest didn’t exactly invent the diner, it has arguably perfected it. But defining a diner isn’t as easy as it seems.

Tommy’s urban appeal and Nancy’s down-home feel are two sides of the same coin. Cap City and Starliner both push the envelope with avant-garde offerings, while Hang Over Easy and Chef-O-Nette certainly deserve a nod. But none really meet the standard for tiny diners, the neighborhood haunts only the locals seem to know.

Despite our critically-acclaimed restaurant scene, the classic diner is working class by design. Most offer open kitchens and open seating without a sous chef or sommelier in sight. Better still if there’s a guy with a gallery of tattoos behind the grill and the coffee is strong enough to stand up a spoon. Breakfast hours are essential; breakfast anytime is understood.

There’s an implicit social compact to rubbing elbows with strangers at tightly-grouped tables or a crowded counter. Enough original or inspired decor with knickknacks and nostalgia so that even regulars find something new every time combined with off-the-menu specials and predictable patrons the staff know by name are all part of the charm.

Unfortunately, that social scene is also what may make these esoteric eateries intimidating for the uninitiated. So here’s an insider’s guide to some of the city’s best tiny diners and the plates that make them great.

For Breakfast

George’s Beechwold Diner

4408 Indianola Ave., North Clintonville

Dinky diner meets neighborhood dive on the edge of Clintonville. The steak and eggs and biscuits and gravy are both solid. If you can’t decide, you can’t go wrong with the garbage omelet, which varies from visit to visit, but includes every meat, cheese, and veggie on the menu.

Jack & Benny’s Barnstormer

2160 W Case Rd., Dublin

Hidden gem is an understatement for a joint tucked away in the back of a hanger at the recently remodeled OSU Airport. Try the legendary Gut Buster at least once—layers of egg, cheese, sausage, bacon, ham, and hash browns with a potato pancake and peppered gravy for good measure.

Stav’s Diner

2932 E. Broad St., Bexley

Skip the standard French toast and substitute challah bread instead for something unexpected. Buttery pancakes with fresh blueberries are always in season. Don’t be afraid to get creative. Order the gyro omelet with feta, but add spinach and tomato for even more Mediterranean flavors.

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For Lunch

German Village Coffee Shop

193 Thurman Ave., German Village

Don’t let the name fool you. The patty melt is superb, covered in grilled onions, Swiss and American cheese, and Thousand Island on rye—as is the Monte Christa, the comfort food cousin of the classic club sandwich with egg-battered bread stuffed with hot turkey, ham and cheese.

Delaney’s Diner

5916 Westerville Rd., Westerville

With a new name, more tables, and a few menu holdovers, you’ll still find the best corned beef hash in Columbus, carved into huge chunks, served with grilled red potatoes and onions, and eggs to order. Crispy country fried steak smothered in sausage gravy also remains a reliable staple.

Grill & Skillet

2924 E Main St., Bexley

Nothing says nostalgia like grilled liver and onions with homemade mashed potatoes, or a thick-sliced, fried bologna sandwich—not even the checkerboard floors. But don’t overlook the weekend specials, like peanut butter and banana French toast, salmon patties with Hollandaise, or their killer kielbasa and eggs.

For Dinner

3 Brothers Diner

3090 Southwest Blvd., Grove City

The three brothers from Oaxaca helped establish the style of another local diner before opening their own. Try their namesake omelet, with bacon, ham, plantains, and Monterey Jack covered in chili sauce and sour cream—or their signature scramble with poblanos, onions, corn, and zucchini, topped with Jack and queso fresco.

Westerville Grill

59 S State St., Westerville

 On the south end of Uptown, evening hours are often the exception when it comes to diners. Don’t miss the smothered chicken, grilled with peppers, onions, mushrooms, and melted cheddar with a side of mashed potatoes, or the weekend-only prime rib, slow-roasted and served with au jus.

Philco Diner + Bar

747 N High Street, Short North

The only entry on the list where all-day breakfast meets beer and cocktails, this upscale Short North pit stop offers a modern twist on every recipe. Seriously consider the coffee-braised pot roast, served with butternut squash, red potatoes, poblanos, and goat cheese, with rosemary onion rings.

Fitzy’s Old Fashioned Diner

1487 Schrock Rd., Worthington

It’s never too late or too early at Fitzy’s, the only 24-hour diner on our list. Go for the breaded and fried, sliced pork tenderloin, served as an entrée, on a sandwich, or with your eggs—or keep it simple with the Fitzer: eggs your way, home fries, and a biscuit all covered in sausage gravy.

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Food & Drink

Restaurant Survival Guide: Local spots trudging forward amid the outbreak

J.R. McMillan

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Just getting by is the new normal for the once bustling Columbus culinary scene. Some are still struggling to make it from one day to the next, while others have shuttered their establishments entirely for now, maybe forever. With the future as uncertain as the spread of the coronavirus that prompted such dramatic measures, a few creative solutions and lessons have emerged to help our favorite haunts weather the weeks, perhaps months ahead.

Photo by Chris Casella

Ray Ray’s Hog Pit | rayrayshogpit.com

Locally known and nationally renowned, James Anderson’s beloved barbecue might be the best prescription for troubled times. With an already abbreviated menu of best sellers and rotating specials, brick and mortar counterparts would be wise to consider running their operations more like a food truck. Light, tight, and low frills—just like any legit pit.

Though the Land-Grant location is temporarily closed, Clintonville and Westerville remain open with added procedures to ensure patrons maintain minimal direct interaction, like a chain and new signage to make handoffs less hands-on and transactions less face-to-face. 

“The taproom generates 90 percent of our business at Land-Grant. It was a no-brainer to close from the very beginning,” Anderson noted. “They close on Thanksgiving and Christmas, so we’ve always gone with their hours. We moved everyone up to the other two, which are going strong and surviving just fine.”

Suggesting cards over cash, changing gloves between any back and forth exchanges, and ensuring longtime customers know what to expect through social media have become standard practices for most businesses. But Ray Ray’s is still trying to keep the experience original and authentic, even as everyday interactions grow farther apart.

“We’ve started doing call-ahead ordering with no minimum, encouraging people to prepay, so there is less hand-to-hand contact,” he noted. “There’s also a 6-foot chain at the front of the line. You have to kind of reach for your order to get to the window. We're protecting customers and employees that way.”

Operating limited days and limited hours have always been part of his business strategy, as is a more limited menu with only those items that always sell well making the cut. Staffing is also a factor facing restaurants that remain operational, often with more workers than they need or too few to make do.

“Right now, I have a full staff, so I'm going to have a full menu. I've already seen some competitors paring their menus down, which I think is a smart idea,” Anderson revealed. “But we're giving all of our staff the option to work or not. If they don't feel comfortable in this crisis, there's no boss telling anyone they have to come to work.”

Photo by Megan Leigh Barnard

Stauf’s Coffee Roasters | staufs.com

The pioneer of coffee culture in Columbus continues to pull espresso shots, steam milk, and bag beans—albeit with some apparent accommodations. To-go and curbside pickup are now standard, with an expanded menu of commodities to hopefully help patrons procure provisions and simple staples without a separate trip to the grocery store.

Blurring the line between supply chains may sound like an obvious approach to address supermarket scarcity. But Mark Swanson, president of Stauf’s Coffee Roasters, knew launching an untested retail strategy amid upheaval in everyone’s daily coffeehouse ritual required rethinking nearly everything.

“We didn’t waste any time and started adjusting procedures more than a month ago. One of the things I love about our team is that they’re creative and flexible,” explained Swanson. “If anyone had an idea to improve what we were doing, we discussed it and implemented it immediately. Then we let our customers know why we were making changes to help keep everyone healthy.”

Offering milk, eggs, and bread for easy pickup, as well as meal kits, soups, salads, and such isn’t an end run around the grocery. It’s a stopgap solution, especially for items that may be tough to find for a while, like diary-free milk alternatives, perishables, and personal hygiene products that may seem incidental until they’re essential.

“We still have sandwiches, pastries, and cookies. We'll start doing growlers of iced coffee as it gets warmer,” he noted. “What we're trying to do is become a place where you can grab a couple meals and maybe six essential things without bumping into people at the grocery. It’s all about reducing risk by reducing exposure.”

Less conspicuous changes required delaying an expansion at the Cup O’ Joe in Clintonville and building up the small-scale side of their commercial coffee roasting business by offering free shipping on beans by the pound mailed directly to customers. They’ve even added a clever contraption in stores to fill bags of beans with less direct contact.

“Everyone at Stauf’s has worked in the service industry. We've all been baristas, servers, and delivery drivers. We’ve been out there on the frontlines,” Swanson noted. “Our changes come from a place of empathy. We know exactly what would have scared us. It’s why information and transparency are so important for our staff and our customers.”

Courtesy of Facebook

King Gyros | kinggyros.com

Ethnic eateries thrive by offering entrées even accomplished cooks can’t replicate at home. But unlike the strip mall spots many select, this Mediterranean mainstay happens to have a drive-thru window, one that has become a life raft for the business and customers eager to remain connected through the current crisis.

Like many first-generation immigrants, Yianni Chalkias grew up working in his family’s restaurant. But when he started looking for the right place to open his own three decades ago— what we now call a “fast casual” concept—the former Taco Bell left little room for tables.

“My dad had a full-service restaurant. But when I was looking for someplace, I knew I wanted to have a drive-thru,” Chalkias recalled. “We’ve always offered the same quality and service with our drive-thru and takeout as we do with dine-in. Everything is beautiful when you open up the box. It’s the experience customers expect.”

An extensive remodel added an expansive dining room and patio that now sit empty. But building a robust takeout business and an exhaustive menu around shared ingredients helped increase selection and control costs, both smart strategies during tough times.

“People crave what they can’t make at home. Like our kabobs, char-grilled salmon, and calamari—or specials like our lamb shanks and Greek meatballs. But vegetarians love our falafel and pita with hummus or roasted eggplant,” he noted. “Sometimes people don't believe we make like 20 different desserts in house. But we do. They may only go out once a week, so ordering dessert makes it more of a special occasion.”

Stepping up their social media presence has proven pivotal as well. Facebook posts and Instagram remind longtime patrons about hours and specials. Short videos also share the familiar faces of staff customers are used to seeing behind the counter, whom many admit they miss most of all.

“I started on Instagram as a way to get out of the kitchen, but it’s become a business tool. I do a lot of polls, just to see what people think about how we’re doing,” Chalkias revealed. “These are vulnerable times. So you have to be sure you maintain your connection to your customers. They’re our family too, and you always take care of family.”

Please call ahead or check social media for current menus and hours of operations, as website information may not reflect recent changes.

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Still Brewing: Columbus breweries attempt to find new footing amid COVID-19

Mitch Hooper

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Pivot is often a term used in start-up companies. It's when a company decides that what it's doing is working, but not entirely, so they move the strategy in a direction that is more profitable. It takes careful planning and months of execution to get it right. And when it comes to breweries in Columbus right now, there has been plenty of pivoting, however, very little time to prepare.

For Colin Vent, head brewer of Seventh Son Brewing Co., and Bob Szuter, co-founder of Wolf's Ridge Brewing, there have been many shifts in their day-to-day operations. While both breweries are still operating—as they are considered essential business under the shelter-in-place order—their focus has moved from filling kegs for the various bars that carry their brews to bottling and distribution. More specifically, the breweries are finding new ways to get the beers into homes beyond the traditional method like stopping in at the bar, or picking up a case at the grocery store.

"We've had a very, very strong carry-out presence every single day," Vent said. "We're selling like 100 to 200 six-packs a day out of the little reach in cooler. We've never seen carry-out like this before; even on a good Saturday we wouldn't sell that many."

While much of the staff at the breweries are furloughed or laid off, this new addition of direct home delivery has provided small financial opportunities to the staff if they were interested.

"All of that is great, but it doesn't make up for all revenue we are losing by not being able to sell pints," Vent explained.

And that seems to be the issue at hand for Vent, Szuter, and presumably other breweries in the city. Breweries make a good portion of its profits through pint sales. When folks can't visit the bar to grab a drink, the ripple effects quickly become an issue. Vent cited variables like long-term contracts with hops distributors as these pre-existing orders were made under the pretense of last year's sales and this year's projections. In other words, these breweries simply aren't producing the same amount of beer as before, but the purchase orders of ingredients are still under contract.

For Szuter, he's skeptical that the Payment Protection Plan—a loan designed to incentivize small businesses to keep employees on their payroll—just isn't enough to cover all the costs that goes into operations.

"For us to bring back and match the full-time equivalent, we'd have to bring back 65 people and there's just not a business for 65 people right now," Szuter explained. "There's enough [work] for maybe 20, 25 [employees]? Maybe 30 if we want to be really aggressive with labor."

There's also the lingering unknown that plays a major role for Szuter: will these loans be forgiven?

"It's a big deal because if we are trying to bring 30, 40, 50 people back to work, we're borrowing a lot of money to do that," Szuter said. "If we have to pay that back within two years, that's going to be a huge impact to our cash flow if we have a debt payment of $10,000 to $15,0000 a month."

It's been a marathon full of hurdles for these breweries. Szuter said as he and his team prepared all the required information on a Wednesday to apply for these loans, by Friday those requirements had changed forcing him to gather the new information needed and resubmit. Fortunately, WRB has been around for seven years and has built solid relationships with the banks they work with. It made getting this information less difficult, but still frustrating. These relationships, however, might not be the case for other breweries and bars.

"A lot of places don't have the systems in place to look at the information as quickly as we might, Szuter said. "Five or six years ago when we were using QuickBooks, I don't think we could've gotten the information as quickly as we needed to so we could get in the queue and apply for this."

Szuter said he's not only concerned for his own business, but other small businesses in Columbus as well. And it's also why he's asking our political leaders to step up and provide some clarity to this fast-paced and on-going situation.

And, in times like these, Vent said it's crucial that the community supports local now more than ever.

"Buy hyper local," Vent said. "This isn't just like, 'Oh, bummer! There's less beer on the shelf. There's a brewery out of business.' And it's like no! It's people out of business. At the end of the day it's people suffering. It's not about the brand, like the Seventh Son IPA doesn't give a shit if you drink it or not; it's Barry and Tito and all the guys that work here. It's those people that need the support."

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Last Call For Alcohol: A look at how COVID-19 is impacting the bar industry

Mitch Hooper

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It's Friday night and Eight & Sand Tavern is empty. There’s not a pint being poured, a March Madness game on the televisions, or a song playing on the speakers. Saint Patrick’s Day? That came and went weeks ago. A month that was supposed to be primed for making cash has turned into quite the opposite.

This is life for Brody Wakefield, owner of Eight & Sand Tavern, and many others involved in the bar industry. Life has come to a screeching halt amid the COVID-19 outbreak. This situation has evolved quickly and the impacts have been sweeping, leaving little time for many of these folks to prepare for the unknown in the upcoming months. Combine an international pandemic with the slow financial months for bars in winter and you are left with a tough situation.

Illustration by Sarah Moore

“We’ve just come out of our two slowest months of the year—where we actually lose money—and we [were] hoping March is the month where we turn a corner,” Wakefield said. “St. Patrick’s Day, patio weather, and March Madness often make March the best month of the year. Now it’s gone.”

Columbus has welcomed many new bars to its city within the last few years and Eight & Sand fits the bill as a newly opened spot. It requires a great deal of overhead and risk to open a bar, and hitting goals and projections are crucial for long-term survival. Though Wakefield said the tavern was on track in many ways, it was still two years out from hitting those projections that can provide regular profits. Given past viruses and diseases that garnered media attention, he said COVID-19 wasn’t something that was initially concerning him. It was business as usual until simply it wasn’t.

“This is unprecedented territory. Like most folks, I underestimated the results early on, citing the many outbreaks we’ve had over the last few decades and thinking our exposure would be minimal. I thought about SARS, H1N1, Zika, Ebola and others that certainly had a global impact, but locally we came out relatively unscathed,” he said. “That thought process didn’t age very well.”

Quickly, what looked like something that would blow over became chaos. Now, with business closed indefinitely, he’s looking into coronavirus-related small business loans with lowered interest rates and extended payment periods, but like many things during a pandemic, there are caveats.

“We are still a young business. We only have one year of tax filings available right now, and we don’t show a regular history of profitability, so those may be barriers we’re not able to overcome,” he explained. “The SBA Disaster Relief portal also crashed [on March 23], so we’re in an additional level of purgatory.”

In a press release, the Columbus Chapter of the United States Bartenders Guild said that industry experts predict 25 percent of Ohio’s 22,000 bars and restaurants will close business permanently due to the outbreak. While the Guild is in agreement with the calls for social distancing, it has left more than half a million Ohioans without a job seemingly overnight. In collaboration with the Cincinnati and Cleveland chapters, the USBG has sent letters to more than 200 public officials outlining the struggles the industry is facing and the kind of relief they will need to survive this.

“The state has laid us off, not our employers,” the press release stated. “The state bears responsibility for providing us with full, livable incomes while we serve through our duty of preventing the spread of COVID-19. We are Ohioans who love to help and serve, but in this time of turmoil, we must ask the public for help.”

This pandemic has exposed some of the problems that are inherent in the service industry. Variables such as low hourly wages have led to servers receiving unemployment checks that are well below 50 percent of their typical income, or simply struggling to even get unemployment. It’s also shown the need for these employees to have benefits in place such as health care, retirement, and paid time off. This, combined with the fact that many places aren’t hiring in the midst of an international pandemic, and you can start to get a clearer picture of the magnitude of this situation for many folks.

Wakefield takes these sentiments to heart. While he attempts to navigate the waters of receiving a loan, his staff lives unemployed and unsure how they will meet their basic needs like rent, utilities and food. However, through all this adversity, he and his staff are banding together.

“Our staff has been incredibly gracious and understanding. We have a group of all-stars that I’d put up against anybody,” he explained. “We opened a GoFundMe to try to ease the burden, and we’ve had some really generous friends and regulars donate.” Still, the unpredictability of this crisis adds challenges. “I’m hoping we can meet that goal but the reality is, we don’t know what to ask for because we have no idea what the timeline will be. There’s so much uncertainty right now, which is perhaps the hardest piece.”

As Wakefield said, it’s time for leaders to lead, and much like other bar owners in the city, he’s doing his best to lead his team. Plus, he’s leading in other ways, too.

“I’ve been turning myself inside out for the past two years trying to get Eight & Sand off the ground. Long days, late nights, and very little time with my wife and three young girls. So now I have been able to really dig in as a father again, which is amazing,” Wakefield said. “Bike rides, our daily viewing of Frozen II, and having family meals again is a recharge I wasn’t aware I needed.”

These impacts on the economy aren’t exclusive to the bar scene, and Wakefield is concerned for those within the restaurant scene, too. He thinks of some of his favorite spots around town like Ambrose & Eve, Skillet, Barcelona, and Red Brick Tavern and knows—much like his own tavern—they will need assistance to survive all this.

“The community is doing what it can to support small businesses, but we’ll need politicians on both sides of the line to work together to help them survive,” he said.

Of course, there are ways we, the community, can support our favorite establishments. Similarly to Eight & Sand, many places have started a GoFundMe to support non-hourly waged employees. There’s also take-out from many spots as well as delivery options with reduced fees on apps such as UberEats, PostMates, and GrubHub. Those are some “easier” ways to support the food and drink scene in the city. But if you want to truly help out, pick up a phone; Wakefield encourages you to make a call to a local representative.

“We also are asking people to reach out to their representatives to press for sales tax relief for the months of February and March,” he explained. “Ask them to loosen SBA stipulations so newer businesses aren’t being left out. Ask them to provide real relief for restaurants.”

And above all else, show some kindness to your fellow community members.

“We just need to be patient and have some empathy for each other. I’ve seen a lot of folks using this situation to lob political spears at their perceived opponents. We don’t have the luxury of division right now. Let’s understand that yes, the service industry is in peril right now, but there will be other industries that follow quickly and they also will need help. The economy could be in real trouble right now. We’ll need real action from our elected officials to solve these problems in the short term.”

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