Well, the Dispatch came out with their Top 10 last week, and it caused a brief round of conversations on whether or not it was valid, and did it really matter? I came down a little hard on it, because the article didn't inspire me to try any of the restaurants listed therein, and uninspiring food writing has no point. I mean seriously, what is the purpose of writing about food if not to inspire someone to eat it? I realize I phone it in sometimes, too, so who am I to criticize?
No one really.
But I will anyway.
One thing I questioned, perusing the list, was the criteria. What does make a restaurant a "Top Ten"? Should it change in an economy where people can't afford to dine like they used to? Should Top Ten restaurants be limited to white tablecloth restaurants with overpriced wine lists? Should all Top Ten restaurants even be full service?
Struggling with these sorts of issues has caused me, in the past, to put out "Top 5" lists with various categories. One issue I take with the Dispatch's list is they chiseled it from 20 (top 10 plus 10 "strong contenders") to 10 last year, owing to the downturn in the economy. As far as I feel, the downturn in the economy should mean the expansion of the list - to include more places which are acceptable to more people. Again, this is just my opinion, but it's my blog so nyeh.
I decided for my list, flavor and consistency would be my top criteria. That, and value. There are plenty of restaurants which serve perfectly fine food which just isn't a good value. If I pay $38 for a lunch for two that I could do just as good (or better) at home, it isn't a good value for me (I'm looking at you, Northstar). Now, the lines outside of Northstar should be proof to anyone with a rational brain that I am pretty much alone in this opinion; taste is indeed subjective and this is just one woman's list. Please feel free to differ all you'd like and add in your own favorites; I am sure to have forgotten someone, and I apologize profusely for it. (Full disclosure: Northstar's sister restaurant, 3rd & Hollywood didn't hire me. You can take my view as retaliation if you'd like. It doesn't change the fact that they charge something like $13 for a martini).
Of course, when I started criticizing the Dispatch's Top Ten, friends and readers began clamoring (that might be a little exaggerated) for me to write one of my own. I feel a little unqualified, because I haven't been doing a ton of eating out this year, and no one is going to food the bill for me to revisit my favorites to see if they are still holding up. Nonetheless, here goes....
OH WAIT! another caveat: I have worked at lots of these places. That when happens when you've been in the service industry forever in the same city. I'd like to think that doesn't cloud my judgement, but who knows.
I'm sure I've forgotten your favorite place, and I'm sure I've forgotten some of my own, as well! But let's discuss it! I love to learn about your favorite places too! (you can share your favorite please with me and over at the Dispatch Editor Ben Marrison's blog)
And yes, I know I need to get out of downtown. And yes, I need to visit more Indian restaurants. And yes, I do have a restaurant or two which won't make it into my list for personal reasons, so I really am no better than Jon Christensen. Although it should remind you that if you are a business owner, you should never cut in line in front of anyone, lest they hate you forever.
In alphabetic order (hopefully):
- Alana's::of course, we all know the Dispatch overlooks Alana's whenever the opportunity is given, which I suppose is fine. It means those who rely on the Dispatch reviews are missing out, while all the cook kids (those who rely on my and my ilk) know what's what. I'll be perfectly honest about Alana's: typically their appetizers far outweigh their entrees. That is perfect, because it means I can go in and try 5-6 different things without becoming bogged down with too much of a good thing. My favorite thing about Alana's is their dedication to seasonality. Lots of other restaurants say they offer seasonal items, but Alana's is one of three truly seasonal restaurants I can think of in Columbus. You know if you go in late Spring you will be rewarded with soft shell crabs; later in the year there are always fried green tomatoes, then tons of heirloom tomatoes and sweet corn - you get the picture. Alana works with lots of farmers - she was really the first person to do so in Columbus, way before it was cool. Alana has a reputation of doing things "her way," and I think it's this reputation which keeps the Dispatch critic out (it should be noted that other critics in the city adore Alana's, such as the Johns from Columbus Monthly). Alana's gets props for having one of the best wine lists in the city, and her wine prices are incredibly reasonable. Alana's is a place to explore new things; it's not the place to pick each dish apart with special requests. If you want a chicken caesar, there are plenty of other options.
info::Alana's Food & Wine (University District) plenty of parking on the street and behind the building.
- Basi Italia::it's a hidden gem. Basi is one of those places who people either love or hate, based almost entirely on the fact that it is probably has the distinction of the smallest dining room in the city, and we Midwesterners loathe being cramped! If you can't abide the tiny dining room, sit outside in the covered bar area or wait til full-on summer and sit on their lovely patio. When I worked at Basi, I marveled at the number of times someone would come in for the first time ever on a Monday and we would see them again before the week was out. The food is just that good. The zucchini appetizer will make you rethink everything you've ever known about zucchini, and Meatball Monday nights are perfect when the paycheck is spread too thin and you still want to have the night out (salad, spag and balls, cannoli for $20). Wine prices are almost ridiculously reasonable. Don't expect tons of fancy food, but solid pastas and entrees. Basi is especially good for vegetarians - their eggplant parm is the stuff dreams are made of, and usually about half of the pastas are vegetarian as written on the menu, or can easily be altered.
info::Basi Italia (Victorian Village) Please valet park! Basi is located in a residential area.
- Dirty Frank's Hot Dog Palace::what? a hot dog place? you are crazy. Someone blasted me for my love of the mac 'n cheese at Dirty Franks, saying that it was plastic cheese sauce. I don't care what it is, it is delicious. I love Dirty Frank's for several reasons: I love Liz Lessner joints (why yes, I am angling for a job - see how unethical I am?!), and I can get a slushie with booze in it. I also love the artwork. I love the soft poppy seed bun so much that I just want to take it and smoosh it all over my face (I'm really weird and have this thing with soft bread products. for some reason they just go right to my face. you should see me with the lard-ridden Amish bread from Yutzy's Farm Market). To be fair, I am actually not crazy about the standard hot dog at Frank's - too much bun/topping to meat ration. I spring for the jumbo beef. I think I'm the only person who loved the Seoul dog (dog topped with kimchee, which makes complete sense if you think about it); It isn't fancy, but you can have a fun date for under $25 with drinks, dogs, tots, and mac n cheese. I don't understand the weird fried leek thing either, but everyone else seems to love it.
info::Dirty Frank's Hot Dog Palace (downtown)
- El Arepazo::it might just be heaven for most boys in my life. Not only is there the mixed grilled thing, or the steak which comes with a fried egg on top, or the Big (read enormous) Mexican burrito, but there are some of the most amazingly beautiful women working at El Arepazo. It's the second thing to come out of the mouth of every boy I send there. Those of you who know me know I don't care for beauty over substance (or speed, or efficiency) when it comes to restaurant workers, but these shorties deliver. Service is always awesome, food is always incredible, and they even get me to consume vast quantities of cilantro every time I visit. One thing I love about El Arepazo is their adaptability; when their business turned into a juggernaut, they expanded and upgraded. Although tempted, they very wisely resisted the urge to move to a "better" location (I think the one they have now is perfect). Also recommended are the patacon and all arepas.
info::El Arepazo (downtown)
- G. Michael's Bistro::three words: Shrimp and grits. G. Michael's is another very seasonal restaurant who uses tons of local products - they are even getting in sides of beef and hogs and butchering their own meats. Choose anything with pork and/or seafood and you will be very pleased. Portions are big, so sharing is fun. If you can't go all out, sit at the bar and have an appetizer with their adorable bartenders. Having worked at G Mike's for 4 years, I can vouch for anything with spicy Maker's Mark sauce, grits, gravy, fried bits....you get the picture. I know lots of food writers who lecture diners to steer clear of specials, but you are instructed to do completely to opposite, especially when dining at G. Michael's. Pay particular attention to the specials, because they usually include the best and most ephemeral ingredients of the season.
info::G. Michael's Bistro & Bar (German Village)
- Kihachi::of course. But again, I must reiterate that Kihachi is a very traditional Japanese restaurant. No sushi cards here. Go to Kihachi to watch a true chef conducting true craft. It's amazing to watch. I've said plenty about Kihachi so I won't go on and on.
info::Kihachi (Dublin) (Federated Blvd and Sawmill Road)
- Mi Li Cafe::the absolute best Banh Mi (sandwich) in Columbus (in my humble opinion). The owner searched high and low before finding the perfect bread for his sandwiches, and it shows. If you aren't feeling brave enough for the pate/tongue/ham role combo, you can always opt for a simple grilled meat sandwich. Noodle dishes are also impressive; this is a no-nonsense restaurant in the culturally-rich area of 161/Cleveland Ave (where loads of yummy ethic restaurants spring up monthly, it seems). Service is very friendly, and inevitably when I've been there, discussions come up among patrons wherein we all talk about our favorite things and how much we love Mi Li.
Info::Mi Li Cafe (NE Side/Minerva Park area) 161 & Cleveland Ave
- Ray Ray's Hog Pit::oh deliriously porky goodness. Oh sweet sweet grass-fed brisket fat. Oh banana pudding and collard greens and Dogfish Head bbq sauce. Oh dry ribs with meat falling from the bone. I love Ray Ray's. What more needs to be said? Again, here it's about taste and consistency. Every time I eat at Ray Ray's I want to fold Jamie Anderson (the owner) up, put him in my pocket, and take him home to cook for me on a daily basis. I love to see someone so good at what they do being successful at it. If you haven't had it, go get some. But you'll have to wait until tomorrow. Get some Audino's onion rolls and you will have even more of my undying adoration.
info::Ray Ray's Hog Pit (Clintonville, corner of Pacemont & High St)
- The Refectory::To be honest, I haven't eaten at the Refectory in awhile, but it wins Top 10 for being consistently wonderful for years. Service and wine selection are always top notch, and prices are very fair considering the work which goes into each item. I do wish they'd get back to more specialized entrees (I miss the days when you would get 3 tiny sides with each entree, each precious and lovely in its own right), but it is a stalwart of the Columbus dining scene.
info::Refectory 1092 Bethel Road (NW Side)
- Skillet::one of my favorite places to show up in Columbus over the past year or so, Skillet is what Sunday mornings were made for. They don't have a liquor license, so evening dinners will be extra affordable. Skillet is another spot for whom "local" isn't just a buzzword. Their menu is also developing a good sense of seasonality. Skillet might be the only place in Columbus where you can get 4 different varieties of egg on some days (the sure way to my heart!) Anytime the vanilla risotto is offered, run to get it. Run fast. it's amazing. Also worthy of noting are all of the veggie side dishes I've had (especially the flawless arugula salad we had a few months ago; dressed only minimally and the perfect foil to the richness of some other items), the pancakes, and any sort of hash they offer. Skillet also has a mobile truck which has been out and about recently (hello pork belly quesadillas).
info::Skillet Rustic Urban Food (German Village/Shumacher Place)
Very Honorable Mentions:
To be considered after further study (These are all places I've eaten once and loved. After a few visits, we'll see how they hold up)::
After having written this, I have to say that I think I like my old Top 5 in Various categories template better. But, that's neither here nor there.