Columbus restaurant stalwarts return to the scene with High Street joint
By Kimberly StolzPublished December 1, 2011
“I’m the luckiest guy I know,” says Ricky Barnes, as he leans over to pick up a penny, smiling triumphantly. “This penny was here yesterday and I didn’t pick it up . . . and now here it is again!”
“Well, the cleaning guy isn’t so lucky,” Tracy Studer.
It’s that golden time between lunch and dinner at the newly opened Explorers Club; chef Barnes and business partner Studer are taking a breath at the bar and shaking their heads at how it all came together. Just as there are two sides to a penny, there are two sides to the story of Explorers Club; the reuniting of lost friends and the story of a new restaurant, one that snuggles into the neighborhood like a beloved cast iron skillet in grandma’s kitchen.
‘This place is so special’
“What it comes down to for Tracy and I,” said Barnes, “is the busier it gets, the more people, the more neighbors, the more it feels – and it’s strange to say this – that this is the best room, the best building, and the best menu I’ve been a part of . . . this place is so special.”
That’s an impactful statement coming from someone who played a key part in the evolution of the Columbus palate. Back in the day, Barnes was the man with the golden pan, opening the Galaxy Café in Powell in the early ’90s. In that era, driving out to Powell just for a meal, in a building that shared a parking lot with a gun range no less, was unheard of. Yet diners hungry for pre-cliche farm-to-table food came in droves. The menu madness continued with Lost Planet Pizza in the Short North and a revised edition of the Galaxy in Grandview. During the Lost Planet days, Studer started working the front of the house, continuing a friendship with Barnes that began in 1990 when the two worked at the original Bravo.
As all that glitters seems to fade eventually, Barnes eventually closed his C-bus joints and the young man went west, or southwest, cooking, always cooking, and meeting mentors and learning along the way. Upon returning to the 614, he stuck his fingers in the skate shop pie, the print shop pie and eventually ended up back in the kitchen – this time with a gig at OSU, spending eight and a half years enhancing their culinary program. Meanwhile, Studer walked the restaurant mile, working closely with Mama Mimi’s Take ’N Bake and ending up as a wedding planner at the Golf Club of Dublin. He also relocated to Merion Village and became an ardent supporter of the neighborhood. The two had lost touch over the years.
Though the Galaxy was gone, it never really left the minds and hearts of its fans. As Studer pointed out, the former eatery placed No. 5 on a local poll of ‘most missed restaurants.’ With the old magic in the pocket of his heart, Studer put the wheels in motion when the old Crater’s Restaurant, most recently Coyote Jane’s, opened up. The old brick building, sitting like everyone’s favorite shabby-chic aunt at the corner of South High and Morrill streets, was too good to resist.
“I thought, ‘I gotta find Ricky’ – I needed his style, his incredible food,” recalled Studer. “And then he texted me out of the blue – I mean, I hadn’t heard from him in 10 years and there he was!” The two got together the following Monday. “Tracy was all excited about this space,” said Barnes. “And I was, like, ‘Dude, I thought we were just discussing it,’ but then I saw this space and I was, like, ‘Let’s get this sucker!’”
Coming back together after a decade has its perks. “We’re calmer,” laughed Studer. “Our ideas are more mature, our taste buds more mature . . . 15 years ago it was about the money. Now it’s about giving back, about being part of the fabric of the community. When you’re in your 20s, it’s all me, me, me; well, it’s not about you, it’s about the bigger picture.”
For Barnes, the main attraction to jumping back into the big show was the ability to offer high quality food at fair prices.
“I knew we had to do cage-free eggs and, even though they’re more expensive, we don’t charge more,” he said. “It’s just something we had to do. Our coffee is two or three times more expensive, yet we don’t charge more, but we’re helping some grower take his kid to the doctor. It’s about doing the right thing.”
Going back to basics
“It’s all about going back to the basics,” explained Barnes. “I mean, look at a carrot – people live for reality TV and all this s**t . . . go outside and dig up a worm! A carrot is this incredible thing, why mess with it?”
The menu shimmers with creativity, from tweaked classics like brisket to vegan surprises such as tofu fries with ancho chile and almond sauce, along with vegetarian pleasures winding around the two. Old favorites from the Galaxy days make up the foundation, but the rest is pure imagination. “Ideas just pop into your frickin’ head,” exclaimed Barnes. “We made a BLT sandwich special and, I mean, where in the hell are you gonna get something like this? Fresh ciabatta, molasses bacon, charred salsa, homemade mayo . . . it’s a frickin’ monster – and for seven bucks? Take the brisket: it’s a basic braising technique, but we threw in some spices, a couple of beers and it turned out good.”
Part of the appeal of Explorers Club is introducing people to new flavors. “I’m a corn-fed, meat-and-potatoes guy and I remember the first time Ricky made me tempeh [a soy product],” said Studer. “I wanted some more, then I wanted some to take home.”
Some of the local guys from the tire store down the street from the restaurant had perused the new menu and initially didn’t find any of the dishes appealing. Eventually, one of the tire guys took a chance on the place, and Studer told him to try the brisket. He loved it. The jalapeño slaw was a hit, too. “We want people to go outside of their comfort zone,” he added. “Because once they try it, they love it.”
For now, Barnes and Studer are “living the restaurant.” In addition to the two friends working together again, the place is a bit of a family affair for both. Barnes’ children, wife and brother work in the kitchen and the dining room. The chef related a story about his son coming into the kitchen hungover during one Sunday brunch. “At first, I was madder then hell and yelling at him,” he said. “But then I realized, that was me 20 years ago, and for the next six or seven hours, we had a ball and laughed our asses off.” Studer’s partner, Orlando Martinez, serves up original vittles, as well as being the baking genius behind the delicious chocolate flan cake.
Going into their second month of business, Studer said that everyone is loving it. “This happened . . . we are together again for a reason,” he explained. “The stars are aligned; it’s just crazy. We are following our hearts.”