“No restaurant. We told ourselves—‘no restaurant.’”
Greg Lehman, along with his partner Dave Rigo, knew what they were doing. They didn’t know necessarily how to do it at first, but they had a plan.
Watershed Distillery is the product of two Columbus natives having grown weary of their corporate jobs and finding a way to re-involve themselves in the community … and Watershed Kitchen & Bar is the product of years of denial.
Way back in 2010 when they first turned on the still, the gin-slinging duo truly had no intention of opening a restaurant. Early in the life of a business, it’s important to not overextend. Greg and Dave were savvy, making sure to keep up with demand and, slowly but surely, expand their bottled offerings.
The conversation kept coming up nonetheless.
“We started kicking the idea [for a restaurant] around in 2014, what it would look like, how we’d do it. We penciled out the numbers to where it was like, ‘There’s no way. Absolutely not,’” Lehman laughed.
Then in May of 2016, House Bill 351 passed. (For the record, HB351 allowed pertinent permits to be granted to distilleries of a different size, effectively lifting a major gate for our heroes Greg and Dave.) A month later, the wheels on Watershed Kitchen & Bar were already turning.
“All of a sudden, it wasn’t as big of a decision anymore,” Lehman said. “We said, ‘if we’re going to do this, let’s do this now. Let’s just go do it.’
“As a small business owner, everything is an opportunity. I seem to wake up every day with optimism, no matter what’s going wrong.”
So far, at least from the outside, nothing is wrong. Everything is right.
The restaurant went from concept to reality in just over six months, which for those wondering, is like top-gear, roadrunner speed. The key elements of the staff (executive chef Jack Moore, sous chef Mike Glasser, bar manager Alex Chien, and general manager Andrew Schmitt) were assembled within weeks. But from the ambiance to the food to the cocktails, nothing about Watershed Kitchen & Bar feels thrown together.
WKB is nestled next to the distillery in the neighborhood of Fifth and Northwest, tucked snugly between Upper Arlington and Olentangy River Road. It’s certainly a destination, as Lehman freely admits, but it’s by no means a hike. Frankly, patrons should be happy to have a non-chain upscale dining option that isn’t shoehorned into the Short North.
Walking into the restaurant is an experience. The anteroom that houses the host stand and some seating is far enough away from the bar and dining area that you can’t see all the way in. Once you turn the corner and see the massive stills through the full wall of glass, it’s a whole new ballgame.
The space is elegant and airy. It’s neither ostentatious nor bare. It’s the way a dining room next to a distillery ought to look: dark, woody—like you’re inside a bourbon barrel, aging gracefully.
In the kitchen, executive chef Jack Moore brings both experience and character. A veteran of The Black Pig (chef de cuisine) and Greenhouse Tavern, both Cleveland gems, deep background on Moore yielded some thrilling discoveries.
“I was an auto mechanic,” Moore offered, matter-of-factly. “One day, I got laid off. It was right before an Ohio State-Michigan game. I went to a watch party at a bar in Dublin with a pizza place next door. I knew all those guys; they’d hang out at the same bar. I showed up at 9 a.m. that day with no job. Turned out they were hiring.”
The job, as it turned out, was delivering pizzas. Everything is an opportunity, after all. Moore moved from driver to pizza prepper to culinary school graduate to working for more than four years at Sage, Bill Glover’s beloved Old North standout, to working under Beard Award winner Jonathon Sawyer. Not a bad trajectory.
Moore already has the menu in mid-season form. Courses are simply designated as ones, twos, or threes (effectively starters, small plates, and mains), and each has plenty to offer. His inspiration comes, as it so often does and always to great effect, from deep familial roots.
“Grandma always had the cast iron skillet out. We’d get together, the whole family, and cook. It’s not hard to think of foods from my childhood that made me happy.”
That commitment to nostalgia is front and center from the ones; a finger food Moore calls “piccadillies.” Quality cured meat serves as a finger-friendly wrap, housing soft white cheese and a pickle. The combination (upcycled from Grandma’s original, of course) is killer.
“I used to just ask for tubs of those for Christmas.”
Another starter of particular note are the sweetbreads. It’s not something you see on a lot of menus in Columbus—or most other Midwest towns, for that matter. A shame, really, because these little suckers are incredible. Think of the greatest little bite of fried chicken you’ve ever had. Now make it not chicken at all. Sumptuous and delicate, they’re the perfect starter.
Moving on into small plates, I had the pleasure of sampling the meatballs, a savory bread pudding, and the fried chicken. All three had the right stuff: the meatballs, a zip of heat; the bread pudding, a clever thread of smoke. As for the chicken, I’ve scarcely run across a better cooked piece of bird. Assemble all the components on the plate into a single bite, and you’re golden.
From the main courses, I enjoyed both the mussels and the pork chop, both of which were impressive in size. The mussels were bursting from their shells; the sauce, a deep, wine-and-dill spiked brine worth slurping out of the empty shells. The chop, a good two inches thick, was silky and tender all the way through—a testament to its sous vide preparation. The most notable observation I made, in fact, was that everything was impeccably cooked.
Moore has his ducks in a row, and seems to understand that people can be coaxed out of their comfort zones.
“We want to be bold. Every single person isn’t going to love every single thing on the menu. If we got so much kickback that we could only serve [well-done] salmon, then I don’t want to serve it.
“Finding a niche or a theme is exactly what we don’t want to do. We’re going to stand our ground and challenge you.”
And then, of course, there’s the bar. It is a distillery, after all. But the cocktail menu, curated masterfully by award-winning bartender Alex Chien, is not limited by Watershed’s offerings. It is a dynamite cocktail menu, start to finish.
We started with the Bon Apple Tea, an adorable and fragrant drink served, as the name suggests, in a teacup complete with saucer. It’s delicate—a slow drinker. The aromatics set it off. You won’t find many more thoughtful vodka cocktails in town. The Flor de Jerez features Watershed’s newest product, their bourbon barrel-aged gin, Amontillado sherry spiked with Worthington’s own Ramble coffee, and Amaro Montenegro. The flavors are both complex and complementary. It’s a conversation drink.
The Whiskey Lullaby is bourbon, Nocino (Watershed’s stellar walnut liqueur), amaro, Benedictine, and apple bitters. A warming, straight and spirit-forward cocktail. For people who like cocktails.
Finally, for dessert, I snatched the Nostalgia & Moxie and downed nearly all of it myself. I’m not much for sweets, but this bourbon-based dream uses Ovaltine (yes, that Ovaltine) and Moxie (the best classic soda you’ve never heard of) and just hits you right in the feels. Forget nog and boozy hot chocolates. Order a Nostalgia & Moxie.
There was something about the restaurant and its staff: they seemed to just have it figured out. Small sample size, as they’d been open barely a week by the time I rolled in. But by all accounts provided, it was the easiest first week of a new restaurant anyone there had been a part of.
The apparent ease bleeds through, giving the entire experience an air of … well, of not having an air. I plan to make my way over to Chesapeake Avenue again very soon.
Watershed Kitchen & Bar is located at 1145 Chesapeake Avenue, Suite D and opens at 4 p.m. daily. For more, visit watersheddistillery.com.