Strong in Spirit

Columbus is not short on new restaurant and bar offerings. The Short North alone has become a veritable meat grinder of options; each new space forced into a fixed geography and through the same grinding die…which is not to say that there aren’t some wonderful dishes and drinks to be had. But the Short North became what it is now ages ago. New ventures there are profiting from the neighborhood’s success, not necessarily the other way around.

So when spots pop up in places you didn’t expect (a swanky gastropub in Clintonville, a gourmet pizza nook in Olde Towne East, an adventurous pan-Caribbean bistro in Merion Village), there’s naturally going to be a little added value. Or maybe a lot. Maybe a freight train’s worth.

Franklinton’s journey dates back farther than Columbus’s, of course – as it was settled some fifteen years prior to the latter – yet it remained a developmental dead zone for a very long time. Once dubbed ‘The Bottoms,’ the area languished for decades, struggling to tread water under federal floodplain restrictions.

Those times, it seems, have come to an end.

It’s been a decade since the completion of the floodwall, and there are a number of projects in the works. Under the guidance of the Franklinton Development Association and its Executive Director Jim Sweeney, one such project has become something of a lightning rod for the neighborhood.

For nearly three years now, the 400 West Rich Street Arts Complex has been steadily evolving into one of the most dynamic spaces in the city. Dating back to 1911, the building was the longtime home of the D.A. Ebinger Sanitary Company (a.k.a. EBCO, Oasis International), the birthplace of the modern drinking fountain and dehumidifier. After starting with just 12 art studios, the building beneath the tracks now boasts nearly a hundred such studios, massive event spaces, a biweekly farmer’s market, and its most recent venture, Strongwater, geographically once the old EBCO lobby. And true to form, it too has undergone its own metamorphosis – albeit over a relatively short timeline.

Sitting in one of the Mad Men-esque waiting rooms within the main space, general manager Kris Howell and chef Will Johnston spoke about the progression from event space to full service kitchen and bar.

“It developed very organically,” Howell began. “We opened the gallery back in August [2013], the bar in October, and the kitchen has been up since January. It works in tandem with the art studios, one feeding the other. We’re trying to keep the creative energy open throughout.

“It is a place where the artists can come hang out and have a drink, but we want it to be a destination, too, to bring people in from outside Franklinton.”

The bar itself features ten handles of craft beer (a number that Howell says is soon to expand) and a nice tight cocktail menu: five offerings, each flashing some combination of a Columbus-borne component or a house-made ingredient.

Perhaps the most interesting amongst them is the Strongwater Rye, a habanero and port-brined peppercorn-infused bourbon that’s sort of the flagship spirit. Needless to say, it completely repurposes the word ‘heat’ when it comes to whiskey. Howell tagged its strength in tandem with the name ‘Strongwater,’ an 19th-century term for alcohol that doubles as an homage to both Franklinton’s flood history and the building’s origins.

As for the food, Johnston dubs it somewhere within the triangle of New American small plates, mid-south barbeque, and vegan/vegetarian. That last part may seem out of place at first blush, but it’s just another nod to the inclusive spirit that drives the entire project.

Johnston, formerly of Black Creek Bistro, had to chuckle openly about his chili pepper-adorned chef’s pants, but was impassioned about his food.

“None of it is an afterthought,” he said.

The whole-kernel corn waffles that prop up the Cincinnati-inspired redeye chili are fantastic both as a base for booze to come or as a late-night topper.

“Cincinnati chili tends to be very sweet,” said Johnston, “so we tried to go more bitter, adding chocolate and espresso notes.”

If chili and waffles or a meatloaf sandwich feels too heavy to you, there are plenty of other options. A couple whole smoked chicken wings with habanero glaze, or a plate of vegan jackfruit tacos with sriracha slaw and chimichurri rojo might set you right.

Johnston spoke adoringly about two of their more prominent local partnerships as well: scratch breads from PerZoot’s Matt Swint, and OH! artisan potato chips. Everything is modestly priced, making it all even more appealing as you consider the comparatively highfalutin hotspots just across the river.

This is still just the beginning for Franklinton, really. Howell made special note of the impending arrival of two major additions to the area: the new headquarters of the Columbus Idea Foundry and the relocation of Glass Axis art education studio coming this fall.

“It just shows that the hard work we’ve all put in, with [building operations manager] Chris Sherman pushing the whole project, sweating and bleeding since day one, it’s all solid. It was the right thing to do.

“Every neighborhood goes through cycles,” said Howell. “Franklinton was vibrant in the past, and it will be vibrant again.”

Certainly, Strongwater is a powerful stroke in the right direction.

Strongwater Food & Spirits is located within 400 West Rich, but can be found in your GPS at 401W Town St. Visit 400’s indoor farmer’s market on March 8 and 22 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. For more, see www.400westrich.com.

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