Wait ’til you see this place…
We don’t know about you, but that’s one of the most enticing six-word sentences you could throw out when offering up a classic culinary experience in Columbus.
The city that turned stone heads ’round the world with Kahiki—one of the country’s first original Polynesian supper clubs—was also birthplace to the original Max & Erma’s (R.I.P.) —arguably the nation’s leader in cozy, cornball comfort.
Yes, kitsch used to be king in Columbus, and despite plenty of our old school favorites biting the dust over years—times get tough when hundreds of new kids show up on the scene—there’s still plenty of time-warped atmosphere to celebrate in the capital city.
These are the types of joints that the likes of Gordon Ramsay would tear to pieces, screaming about dust on the ceiling fans and shameless tack throughout—but we’d fight to the death to keep his big British mitts off of ’em.
Windward Passage: 4739 Reed Rd.
Whether or not you believe that time travel is an obtainable actuality, Windward Passage is as close as it gets. Imagine stepping into a 1975 rendition of a 15th century galleon—maritime lanterns hanging from the ceilings, olden brass boat throttles cling to the floors, dingy oak ship wheels and thick white sailing lines ornament the murky wooden walls—a nautical paradise dressed up in ancient wood and deep sea velvet blues. Even the name sounds like it should be sung in an ol’ timey chant.
Sure, the place is riddled with tack, but that is what gives the place its thoughtful charm—a furtive gem nestled away in a strip mall in Upper Arlington, a neighborhood icon that is nearly as old as its clientele. There is this strange cultural polarity that accompanies this type of shameless kitsch. The obscene garishness can turn up some noses of the elite few, but for the rest of us, eating a gargantuan crimson red lobster with a tiny bib in at a wooden captain’s table is just plain cool—especially because the “too cool to participate” kids might regard it as universally lame.
And best of all, the seafood is pretty damn cheap, all things considered. Most likely because you can tell they haven’t changed their deteriorating laminate menus since their inception. If you are looking for a giant seared swordfish or a lobster tail dipped in butter for under $20, this is the place you should be. Just be sure to wear a red Monmouth cap, a striped kerchief, and the puffiest shirt you can find.
Spaghetti Warehouse: 397 W. Broad St.
Would you like to sit in the trolley?
Dude, is that even a question?
If we’re at a restaurant that’s a literal warehouse with a giant streetcar plopped dead center in the middle of it… yeah, I’m gonna skip the booth.
Perhaps knowing which side of their (free) bread was buttered, the chain opened their first location outside of Texas right here in the Bottoms, which has been serving up Italian cuisine and charm for 30 years.
And although the menus and a few other small things were recently updated, the place remains mostly the same. The food? It’s solid. The lasagna is piping hot, the Caesar salad is ice cold, and… okay, back to all the cool sh*t inside.
If the trolley isn’t your thing, you can sit in a 100-year-old elevator for your meal. There are two confession booths from old churches in the building—a former ice house where they proudly display the steam engine that used to power the whole thing.
And in a place where its brethren might feature a goofy talking animatronic animal somewhere on the grounds, Spaghetti Warehouse ups the ante with the head of a dead moose personally murdered by 26th U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt.
If you live in Columbus and have never been, hurry up and slide into that streetcar—you’re not legit until you do.
94th Aero Squadron: 5030 Sawyer Rd.
Some of our favorite places fall under the category of “you either get it, or you don’t.”
So if you think it’s a fun idea to drive out by Rickenbacker airport and dine amongst World War memorabilia in a building designed to resemble a French villa during wartime, then you get it.
And we get you.
This is real Ramsay territory with the paper doilies and vinyl placemats having nothing to do with bombers and Band of Brothers, but always a staple in the kitsch kit.
But we love the wooden, detailed chairs—straight out of your ancestor’s sitting rooms—and not to mention the stone fireplace and bookshelves beckoning you to stay and soak up much more than just a meal.
As for the meal(s)? Plenty of stuff designed to stick to your ribs. Even if you’re not preparing to jump out of a B-22, these are the meals that you feel like the paratroopers would yearn for back home. Hard to resist something as quirky as the “Courageous Combo,” aka surf-and-turf. And the next time we go, we’re looking forward to storming that Normandy Chicken.
Just make sure on the weekends you clear some space in the cargo bay, so you can bombs away on the Sunday brunch buffet. Salute.
Chef-O-Nette: 2090 Tremont Ctr.
It’s not like Columbus—and this magazine—is suffering from a lack of traditional diners.
But nothing in town is quite like “Chef-O.”
With its wood paneling, unique angular formica counters, and the cornerstone of a late century suburban strip mall, it has a blueprint that just can’t be recreated. It’s like if Happy Days filmed in Upper Arlington.
That’s part of the fun in places like this: on any given Saturday you’re likely to find teens laughing through a stack of pancakes, a family grabbing a cheap lunch before a local sporting event, and senior citizens sipping black coffee next to young professionals nursing hangovers with steak and eggs.
Wallpaper outdated? Of course! Don’t change a damn thing. Especially those beautiful simple burgers on those massive, buttery Kaiser rolls. And don’t even think about changing that pristine sliding glass case full of candy. It’s like something in a small, 1950s single-screen movie theatre, and it’s just wonderful.
No wi-fi, but you can order enough cottage cheese to fill a Golden Bear football helmet for under $3. (Okay, that’s not on the menu—but places like this are so eager to please I am willing to try it…)