In 1976, while America celebrated her 200th birthday, The Refectory (1092 Bethel Rd.) opened its doors.
In the four decades between then and now, the restaurant, through an unflinching commitment to consistency and excellence, has become synonymous with Columbus fine dining. For our most special evenings—the birthdays and anniversaries, the first dates and Valentine’s Day dinners, for the graduations and fond farewells, The Refectory has been the perennial first choice of Columbus diners for years.
Built in a converted church from the 1850s, The Refectory of that bicentennial birth was modest compared to the temple of classic French cooking we recognize today. The original 60-seat restaurant was opened in the one-room schoolhouse that originally served as Sunday school and meeting area for the congregation of the Bethel United Methodist Church. Since then, a series of restorations and remodels have seen the addition of new and expanded dining rooms, a spacious patio, a larger kitchen, and one of Ohio’s most bespoke wine cellars.
But it isn’t just the iconic facility that has made The Refectory a pillar of dining excellence in our community for nearly half a century. According to owner and CEO Kamal Boulous, the secret to the restaurant’s success has always been its people.
He credits their 40 years of growth and prosperity to relationships that have been built and maintained between long-time staff members. Few, if any, other Columbus restaurants can boast a more seasoned staff than The Refectory, with multiple employees holding key positions for more than 20 years. And he would know—he’s been with The Refectory for 39 years.
“The Refectory thrives on continuity of management,” he said. “Sandra Losco, our business manager has been here since ‘79. Chef Richard [Blondin] has been here since ‘92. We all come head-on at what we do; we work relentlessly in the pursuit of excellence. The secret ingredient to our success is that none of us do anything for self-promotion. After 40 years this isn’t about ego.”
All of the accolades and honors heaped on the restaurant shouldn’t suggest that there haven’t been hard times as well.
During the recession, when fine dining establishments were falling to the wayside from coast-to-coast, The Refectory was not immune to the evolving expectations of the American diner, a diner who was increasingly looking to make every dollar go further. Eschewing the stereotype of rigidity attributed to establishments serving fine French cuisine, The Refectory chose to adapt as well. Expanded hours and a more casual “bistro menu” helped to transform the restaurant from a “special-occasions-only” experience into something that didn’t require an excuse. Boulos and company also began to offer more wine tastings and expanded their popular Music Dinners series from 6 – 8 per year, to several per month, catering to the increasing appetite of diners for more entertainment with their meals. For the efforts, in the year ending 2009, at the height of the financial crisis, The Refectory saw a 1 percent increase in business. While rather anemic growth compared to, say, a fast casual concept, to achieve any growth at all in fine dining in those years was quite a feat.
Most recently, The Refectory family has been bereaved by the death of Jeff Elasky, the restaurant’s long-time general manager and a 35-year veteran, after a bout with cancer.
“Jeff spearheaded our wine program,” says Boulous, speaking about his friend and colleague—the two worked together for the entirety of Elasky’s tenure at The Refectory. “Our wine cellar, completed in 1991, started off as 12 bottles in a locker. Jeff grew it into the program that we have today.”
It should be noted that the wine program at The Refectory was recognized by Wine Spectator with the Grand Award in 1991, the only winner from Ohio and one of just six other cellars in the world to be recognized that year.
But, world-class wine is only half of the reason The Refectory has been synonymous with fine dining in Columbus for the last four decades. The other side of the coin, at least for the last 24 years, is the kitchen headed by Blondin. An import from Lyon, France, Chef Richard was pastry chef under the legendary chef Paul Bocuse, one of the founding fathers of nouvelle cuisine, an offshoot of classic French cooking. Nouvelle cuisine focused attention on fresh ingredients and unique interpretations of French standards. Diners at The Refectory have enjoyed Chef Richard’s interpretation of crème brulee for years, a recipe which is based on Bocuse’s, a dish that is responsible for reintroducing the now-iconic dessert to the world.
Chef Richard’s menus follow a similar philosophical trajectory to that of nouvelle cuisine, focusing attention on procurement of the freshest ingredients while reimagining traditional French fare. Some dishes, like the aforementioned crème brulee or the warm pear tart (pictured) are so closely associated with the restaurant that they are available year round. Other dishes, like the venison terrine, are featured as seasonality and availability of ingredients permits. The latest iteration of the terrine features a lentil tuile, macerated sour cherries, a black truffle duxelle quenelle, concasse tomato, beet coulis, and a splash of chive oil. This dish is endemic of Blondin’s style: a blend of perfected French technique reimagined in a Midwestern context and served at just the right time. Together, these ideas merge in a refined exploration of traditional Continental ideas that manage to capture the unique terroir of their adopted homeland.
Start with an iconic and storied building and combine dedicated and loyal professionals with world-class food and beverage. Serve. Refine and repeat. For 40 years this simple recipe has been at the heart of The Refectory, a restaurant that has been indelibly linked to four decades of our city’s best moments. Countless birthdays, anniversaries, and proposals have been seen under the vaulted ceilings of that converted chapel. We trust our most precious moments, those times when it really is more than just a dinner to this restaurant. And for 40 years, when it mattered most, The Refectory was there. Here’s to the next 40!
There are several chances to catch the restaurant’s popular Dinner Music series, with the Pter and Will Anderson Trio (11.10), Chatham Count Line (11.11), Ari Hest (11.30) and more. For other events and menu information, visit refectory.com.