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Brian Kaiser

The Little Corner That Could

“So, it’s a bakery that sells sushi?”

“It’s not a bakery—it has everything.”

I overheard this conversation between an obviously first-time customer, and their more experienced friend as I sat at a table at Corner Stone Deli and Cafe in Clintonville while working on this article. I couldn’t help but smile at what I overheard, as it’s a pretty concise summation of the thought process everyone goes through the first time they come in. I long ago stopped marveling at the mashup of food genres on the menu, as I was too busy basking in the glory of the unpretentious dining room for roughly a decade.

Throughout college and beyond, the quiet streets between High Street and Clinton-Como Park were my daily backdrop. It was the first place I had lived since I was a kid where I knew my neighbors. Though the main drag of High street has always been bustling, the last decade has seen a lot of change in this part of town. I watched as abandoned storefronts turned into trendy shops, and the housing prices in the area went through the roof. Through all of the changes, one character was a constant: Corner Stone. I would spend hours upon hours there doing school work. Sometimes only a cup of coffee paying the “rent” for my table, sometimes staying through the day, and eating breakfast, lunch and dinner there. I lived a turbulent third of my life in that North Side neighborhood. And through each loss and gain, I had sushi, bagels, and giant salads to return me to my baseline.

Song Tjiang and wife Mediana Lien run the store every day without fail. The place has remained mostly unchanged in the 11 years since he bought it. It used to be Mill Street Bagels, and when Song (as everyone calls him) bought the business in 2007, he kept that menu. That explains the bagel sandwiches and salads … but business wasn’t exactly booming, so Song knew he needed to dig a little deeper. With a background managing the sushi department at a Whole Foods, and a rise in popularity for the raw fish dish, Song added a sushi counter to his deli. And that was when the lines of patrons really started growing. Within a year, he added rice bowls and (I would argue) some of the best pad thai in the city to his menu. Add a cooler full of ice cream treats, bubble tea, and delicious cookies, and you have the eclectic menu of Corner Stone that has proven to be a winning combination.

I can picture characters from many chapters of my life within the walls of this place. Friends I’ve lost all but facebook contact with, exes I thought I would spend the rest of my life with, and visiting family and friends who wanted to go to “my favorite place.” The quiet backroom was an incubator for the birth of my writing career. My first paid writing gig was an advice column about house plants. Was I good with plants? Black thumbs hidden behind my back I smiled, “Of course!” Thanks to Google and the bottomless coffee cups at Corner Stone, I was able to quit waiting tables to write full time.

Song and his wife, like any long-time Columbus residents, have watched as the city around them has exploded.

“We used to be the only family restaurant here in Clintonville, [along] with Whole World and Nancy’s. Now we have 20, maybe?”

With Whole World gone the way of the dodo, and new lunch and dinner spots opening up all the time, Corner Stone has remained a .. er… reliable pillar in a rapidly changing place.

In the late winter of 2012, after my mom died and the relationship I was in ended simultaneously, I lost all sense of bearing. That was the year the world was supposed to end, and in a way, mine did. When I needed a hot meal and some respite from packing up her things, I would trudge through the snow, up the street to Corner Stone. The familiar decor and menu would be there unchanged, calmly waiting for me. It was an institution of the neighborhood, and possibly the only time I felt at home during months spent in flux. But Song, his wife, and their employees always seemed cheerful, and grateful for my business, not knowing how vital their presence was to me.

“People want to support Mom and Pop restaurants around here. Neighbors support us a lot.”

And neighbors they are. Song hires locals, and takes pride in giving young people restaurant experience. He knows many of his customers by name, and after buying the building in 2016, he’s here to stay for the long haul. Just like his diners. I remember the hours upon hours I sat at tables, clicking away on my ancient white Macbook writing papers, and years later, grading them. I took comfort in knowing I was in a place where I could really relax and focus on my work, where coffee and a good meal was within reach. I asked Song if it ever bothers him when people camp out at his tables, and he shakes his head, laughing. He can’t even seem to imagine it as a problem.

I sat for hours and watched the sun set through their giant front windows for years, doing homework, job hunting, sometimes just wasting time. As I sat to write this article, I clocked in over six hours in their chairs, and ate my way through examples from each part of their menu as I looked back on the entirety of my 20s. The writing career that started within these walls has come full circle. Now I’m a full-time editor, and I’ve been given a chance to revisit a part of my past. I don’t make it up to this part of town much any more. But I think it might behoove me to make the trip when I have a few hours worth of work to do, and I want to take a stroll down memory lane.

Song makes his rounds, greeting people and collecting their dishes as some click away at their keyboards, and some catch up with friends the old fashioned way, face to face.

“We never rush people,” he says with a smile. 

The Corner Stone is located at 3296 N High St. For more, visit cornerstonedelicafe.com.

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