Columbus’ food scene changes as frequently as restaurants change their menus.
What used to be a city largely known as a home for chain restaurants and strip mall one-offs is now seeing its food experiences expand as fast as its economy. Residents should be all for this, but we have seen a few casualties along the way. Just last year alone, classic establishments like The Florentine closed their doors, while Rigsby’s, Haiku, Cafe Bella, and Salt and Pine, more modern staples, also ended their runs.
If you’ve ever lived in Columbus, you already know about famous upscale spots like The Refectory or The Worthington Inn. You’re familiar with neighborhood mainstays like Thurman’s or Nancy’s Home Cooking. These are all fantastic, but for this piece, we want to recognize a few restaurants that don’t always receive their just due. Spots your grandparents might’ve loved when they were younger but you knew little about. These are a few of Columbus’ oldest hideaways that have stood the test of time and are still churning out their classic cuisine. Let this be your guide to remembering (or understanding) some of the foundation of what has made our city a flourishing Midwestern hub.
Dan’s Drive-In • 1881 S High St.
Unless you live on the South Side, Dan’s can be a little bit of a trip. Just think of it as if you’re on a road trip and looking for a good burger or world class breakfast, but your destination is just off State Route 23.
Open since 1951, Dan’s has been Columbus’ one-stop shop for classic American nostalgia and fare. Behind the counter you’ll find Harley Davidson signage, classic model cars, and giant vinyl records honoring musical heroes of yesteryear. Glancing around the establishment, things look as if they’ve remained the same except for an update here and there.
If you’re planning a trip, you’ll want to bring your appetite—especially if you’re in the market for a good burger. Dan’s offers both half pound (“for the serious burger lover”) and full pound (“Big Mouth”) interpretations of the time-honored American staple. Make sure you try the coleslaw, too!
Jack’s Downtown Diner • 52 E Lynn St.
If you visit Jack’s website, a portion of the homepage reads, “(Since 1942) Columbus’ skyline has changed, but we’re still doing things like we did on our first day of business.”
It’s hard to put it much better than that.
Back then Jack’s decor wasn’t considered “vintage,” but it’s a big part of the charm now. It’s always been a little slice of heaven within the confines of Columbus’ concrete jungle, and a getaway for businesspeople and government workers who remain loyal as daily regulars.
Even more reason to support Jack’s: we almost lost it once before. Owner Chris Kowalski closed his diner in 2015 after the death of his wife, Kathy. As a tribute to the misses and their mantra to “keep things simple,” Jack’s reopened in spring 2016 with nearly the same menu (except for a few new salad options). The meatloaf sandwich and double-cheeseburgers are as unchanged as the classic Coke signage and deco lighting. The only thing different are the prices, which remain super affordable.
Old Mohawk • 819 Mohawk St.
As mentioned before, everyone’s pretty much hip to Thurman’s, Schmidt’s, or even Katzinger’s—and they’re great, don’t get it twisted. But I’m sure if you ask around the neighborhood, plenty of people’s go-to in German Village is the Old Mohawk. The restaurant’s history can be traced back to the 1930s when it was rumored to be a speakeasy that soon turned into a legitimate establishment upon prohibition’s end. After going by the monikers Elk’s Tavern, Mohawk Grill, and Tiffany’s, Old Mohawk settled under its current-day title in 1977.
Upon entry, you’ll find the walls of the Old Mohawk adorned with historical German Village artifacts (including a 19th century roster of the Columbus Liederkranz singing group), purchasable local art, and a picture of Ohio State football legend, Chic Harley. If you’re by yourself, make sure you sit at the bar. It’s almost as old as the restaurant.
While making the founders of its neighborhood proud, Old Mohawk does offer a wide array of bratwurst-inspired dishes, but really, the menu offers a lot more. Quesadillas, stews, and pasta plates all consume the eatery’s sizable menu. If you’re in the market for a great sandwich, order the Mother Mohawk and a side of onion rings. That smoked chicken ravioli is on-point, too. Satisfaction guaranteed.
Red Door Tavern • 1736 W Fifth Ave.
A local favorite since 1964, the Red Door Tavern has been serving the greater Grandview area for generations and remains a neighborhood staple. Upon entry (yes, through a red door) it gives you the feel that not much has changed. Even as a kid this place seemed old‚ in the best possible way. Amongst the large wooden beer barrels, European decor, and dim lighting you’ll find a friendly wait staff ready to serve you.
At first glance of the menu, you’ll find your classic tavern food. Best suggestion: move to the sandwich section. There, you’ll find Sally’s Hillbilly Cheeseburger, also known as Columbus’ best fried bologna sandwich. In the mood for something else? No problem. Try the Reuben or Red Door’s classic Twisted Pelican, which offers a healthy serving of turkey and Swiss between a pretzel bun (with L-T-O, of course) that’ll bust your gut. Make sure to get it with another Ohio classic: tots.
TAT Ristorante di Famiglia • 2010 S James Rd.
If there were a restaurant in Columbus Tony Soprano needed to do “business” at, it’d be TAT. Short for Transcontinental Air Transport, the legendary Italian eatery is named after a Ford Trimotor aircraft that flew to different parts of the midwest and East Coast from nearby Port Columbus International Airport.
In 1929, Italian immigrants Papa Pete and Mama Philomena opened TAT in Flytown, a neighborhood just northwest of downtown. The opening date makes it Columbus’ oldest Italian restaurant, however the business moved out east after eminent domain forced its hand. The TAT family tree would later spawn new editions of the restaurant all over Whitehall before consolidating into the James and Livingston location at which it currently resides.
The dining room, with walls adorned by family photos and Victorian paintings, offers breakfast and lunch, but dinner is where you’ll want to bring your appetite. Each main course comes with soup, salad, and a side (get spaghetti, if it’s your first time). If you’re a fan of prime rib, there’s no better place to undo your belt buckle and belly up. And if you’re really hungry, make sure not to skip out on a calamari appetizer or a plate of antipasto for the table. While not the original location, TAT’s charm and clientele remains classic. It’s as unchanged as the recipes from the old country.
The Top Steakhouse • 2891 E Main St., Bexley
Imagine it’s suppertime in 1957 and you’re lusting for a supper club with a charbroiled ribeye the size of a small hatbox, the finest shrimp cocktail, and a gin martini that’ll knock your fedora off. It wouldn’t be long before you hopped in the Studebaker and headed over to The Top Steakhouse.
Founded in 1955, Bexley’s preeminent hideaway remains Columbus’ home for all things Mad Men. It’s one of the few restaurants left where you can order a Tom Collins without looking completely out of place while your friend orders a craft beer and gets a “huh?” from the waiter (not server). It’s a place where well-done steaks are rare and Sinatra playing from the piano bar is standard. If you’re lucky, Sonia Modes will be on the keys playing “New York, New York,” something she’s been doing for over 50 years.
The dimly lit bar area and dining room make for a unique dining experience no matter where you’re seated. For dinner, anything from the char broiler is a wise move although the seafood is highly formidable—especially if you like crab cakes or mussels. Save room for dessert, too. The chocolate cake, if available, is richer than the woman in a fur coat sitting at the adjacent table.
Windward Passage • 4739 Reed Rd.
From outer appearances, Windward Passage looks like nothing out of the ordinary—and maybe that’s how it keeps out the riff raff—but if you’re a neighborhood resident or simply “in-the-know,” the Arlington staple is a boring cover with an amazing story. Seriously, there’s more to it than being next to a UPS Store in an outdated strip mall.
Owner Pete Gaynor took over the business in 1985 and since then, he’s run it his way—with affordable pricing and friendly service. Upon entry, you’ll instantly feel like you’re on the lower deck of an early 20th century cruise ship, which becomes a dead giveaway of what the menu entails.
Seafood is usually what regulars go for. Straight-from-Lake Erie perch and walleye are among the establishment’s best-sellers. Oysters and Alaskan king crab are also local favorites. You can even get a full rack of kick-ass ribs and two sides for under $23. While dining, you might find yourself largely in the company of Medicare-aged folk, which is perfect ‘cause no one knows where to get classic fare better than they do.
Wing’s • 2801 E Main St. Bexley
Where can you find Asian delicacies, classic American fare, and the best scotch selection in town?
Answer: Wing’s. (Yeah, yeah, the heading gave it away. Whatever.) The self-titled “Far East Restaurant” opened in Bexley in the 1920s, but made its move further east within the neighborhood two decades later. Wing Yee and his family have owned and operated the suburban staple for nearly half a century—and while time’s changed, the establishment’s commitment to quality food and booze has not.
Wing’s is one of the few places where you’ll find a Russian regular at the bar rooting on the Blue Jackets while other long-time Bexley residents are passionately discussing politics over wor sue gai and vodka cocktails at a nearby table (true story). Along with an enormous food menu, Wing’s also offers an extensive scotch bar. Everything from a discernible Speyside single-malt to a $300 pour of 40-year-old Glenglassaugh is available for enjoyment. Might wanna bring your wallet if you’re trying to drink with the big boys, though.