Before Columbus was nationally known for its neighborhood haunts and dinky little dives, we spent decades as an incubator for fast food fads that came, cooked, and conquered.
Not all went on to become household names. Some struggled to fend off their restaurant rivals. Some were unable to adapt to changing tastes and trends. Some simply spread themselves too thin. Inevitably, their franchise empires fell.
Loyal locals have helped a few far-flung outposts of these once thriving Columbus culinary colonies survive long after the clown and the crown conspired to kill anything original about fast food—and four are still just a road trip away.
From American Graffiti to Dazed and Confused, the drive-in restaurant is still a cinematic experience. Though Sonic seemed to reintroduce the concept in recent years, Frostop was one of the first, founded in Springfield, Ohio in the 1920s before moving to Columbus. The checkerboard facade and neon sign define the era, but the giant rotating root beer mug on the roof remains as iconic as any golden arches. Built around the same soda stand standards G.D. Ritzy’s echoed decades later, Frostop is the real deal. So it should come as no surprise the nearest one is also in Huntington, WV — in fact, about a hundred yards down the same road. Teenagers and old-timers still flock there in hot rods and station wagons for footlongs and a frosted mug of sweet suds. Though the retail brand has been revived and expanded to include cream sodas and sarsaparilla, nothing beats grabbing a cold growler to take home from one of their few surviving root beer stands. Nearest fix: 1449 Hal Greer Blvd, Huntington, WV 25701
Despite a deeper menu than its contemporaries, the pop shop nostalgia was perhaps ahead of its time. Their thin, crispy-edged burgers and ice cream parlor vibe are strikingly similar to Steak ‘n Shake, founded in Illinois nearly a half century earlier. But Graydon Webb, a former Wendy’s exec, was all in on the idea of premium sandwiches and sundaes under one roof. For a while, it worked, and not just with unexpected flavors like French Quarter Praline, Amaretto Cherry, and Kentucky Fudge Pecan Pie. People Magazine once declared G.D. Ritzy’s had the best chocolate ice cream in the country.
But the early ’80s were a fickle cultural concoction for more than just fast food, and a throwback joint that was more Frankie Valli than Flock of Seagulls was a one-hit wonder with the kids. Most of the remaining G.D. Ritzy’s locations in Columbus became Rally’s, many still sporting their distinctive tin awnings. But Graydon is giving it another go in Clintonville with a new “Ritzy’s” scheduled to open this spring featuring a lot of ’50s fare and flare.
If you can’t wait, or just want to see how it all started, the nearest original G.D. Ritzy’s is going strong in Huntington, WV, offering the same menu of signature burgers, well-dressed hot dogs, thin-cut fries, Cincinnati-style chili, and those famous scoops that still have a faithful following. Not far from the campus of Marshall University, the kids finally figured out what their grandparents knew all along, but their parents didn’t—everything really does go better with ice cream. Nearest fix (for now): 1335 Hal Greer Boulevard, Huntington, WV
A fish and chips franchise seems more like an import than an export from Ohio, but in 1969, a handful of Columbus investors (including Dave Thomas) took a hint from Bob Hope and recruited British character actor Arthur Treacher to be the face of their new seafood venture. Founded the same year as Long John Silver’s, in equally unlikely Lexington, Kentucky, Arthur Treacher’s was decidedly more London than Robert Louis Stevenson in its aesthetic. In their heyday of the late ’70s, the restaurant was fast approaching a thousand locations. Today, there are just seven.
Though the three on Long Island are essentially Nathan’s hot dog stands that also sell fish and hush puppies, the four in suburban Cleveland are time capsules of what once was. The Garfield Heights location still has a sign with the actual Arthur Treacher, whose face and fish are even less familiar to millennials than Bob Hope. But if you’re looking for your malt vinegar fix a little closer to home, follow the familiar looking lantern to Marino’s Seafood Fish & Chips in Grandview where the tradition lives on under another name. Nearest fix: 926 E. Waterloo Rd, Akron; 1833 State Rd, Cuyahoga Falls; 2 Youngstown Warren Rd, Pinetree Square, Niles; 12585 Rockside Rd, Garfield Heights.
Rax Roast Beef
You wouldn’t expect a western-inspired, meat-themed monopoly to emerge in Ohio—much less two. But on the heels of Arby’s 1964 launch in Boardman, Jack Roschman answered with Jax Roast Beef in 1967. Several mergers later, the Rax brand was born in Columbus. Unlike Arby’s, whose phonetic name is an abbreviation for roast beef (R.B. – get it?), Rax was all over the map, opening new locations and trying to find a broader appeal in a crowded fast food field.
They added baked potatoes as an alternative to fries. The salad bar didn’t seem that silly. Even Wendy’s tried that gimmick for a while. Rax also added pizza, pasta, and tacos to it, not unlike Wendy’s short-lived “SuperBar.” Both ideas met a swift and similar fate. But the redhead rebounded, and Uncle Alligator didn’t. They refocused on their core menu at the handful that remained, though they never quite escaped the appearance, or actuality, that if you’re going to knock off an idea, you’d better do it better or not at all.
If you still get an occasional hankering for a Mushroom Melt and a little cup of cheese to dip your fries, there are still two (of the remaining eight) fairly close. Nearest fix: 800 E Main St, Lancaster; 23923 US Route 23 South, Circleville. •