Rooftop patios are nothing new. But the trouble always tends to be the view. Downtown Nashville has some cluttered so closely together, the only thing you can really see past the ledge? Another rooftop patio.
Stepping back far enough to see the skyline isn’t easy either. Too far away and the lights look more like a mirage than a metropolis.
In wide-open downtown Columbus, Juniper gets it just right. Floating atop the Smith Brothers Hardware building, the vantage point for both the downtown silhouette and the not-so-short Short North was closer than co-owner Steve Rayo expected. After an exhaustive search for suitable space for his patio project, he found the right spot was overhead all along.
“I’d been looking at other buildings downtown since 2012. We’ve had our original two spaces here for 15 years, but we just couldn’t find the right fit,” explained Rayo, co-owner of Dock580, the event company that operates The Loft and The Venue, also at Smith Brothers. “We finally came up here and discovered it was exactly what we were looking for.”
The extensive rehab of the building in the late ’90s included unexpected foresight. Supports on the roof run all the way through the building to the foundation, and an unused elevator shaft made the prospect for a patio restaurant and bar surprisingly practical—though not without its share of construction challenges.
“It took a lot of engineering and architecture to get us here. It’s a building on top of a building,” Rayo said. “The roof alone would never have held the weight. It would have been impossible.”
You’d presume couples and companies looking to schedule event space would be reluctant to do so solely on artist renderings of what Juniper might look like more than a year later. But the ingenuity of the design and exclusivity of the venue seemed to supersede those concerns.
“We started to show the place with plans and nothing on the roof but steel beams and cement floors. There was no structure at all,” he said, noting weddings for last year and this year were nearly full before they even opened. “We’re booking well into 2019.”
Though the existing event spaces were well established, the retail restaurant concept was risky. Initial financing fell through, delaying the original opening timeline. Fortunately, Dock580’s “one-stop-shop” approach to event hosting and catering gave them a crucial head start in the kitchen, and those additional months to plan and polish every aspect of Juniper’s launch made the delay seem deliberate.
“Our executive chef Andie Henry was born in Antigua. We flew his mom up here, and she spent several days with us on the menu,” Rayo revealed. “It’s not Caribbean food as Columbus knows it. This is what you would get if you went to someone’s home for dinner in Antigua.”
Caribbean home cooking is actually a fitting moniker for most of the menu. Small plates are inherently shareable, though you may not want to at Juniper. Regional rarities like authentic Johnny Cakes (pan-fried quick bread topped with tender pork butt and crunchy slaw) or the deceptively simple Chop-Chop (mashed eggplant, okra, squash, and spinach served with house naan) offer something for carnivores and vegans to crave even days later. Conch Fritters with mango habanero aioli could become your new seafood favorite, and it’s the only place you’ll find them in Columbus. Oat-bound chickpea cakes offer a welcome gluten-free and vegan alternative with similarly seasoned flair.
Almond-crusted walleye with wilted spinach and a bourbon butter sauce and plantain chicken roulade—tenderized breast wrapped around a whole plantain then breaded—epitomize the upscale presentation of traditional dishes you can expect at Juniper. Some have proven so popular, they’ve started offering entrée-size portions as well.
“We’ve also added a full-size strip steak and a sous vide short rib we cook for 42 hours,” explained Rayo. (No, that’s not a typo.) “Sous vide makes it incredibly tender. It’s always perfect.”
Smith Brothers was built during the Prohibition era, a theme reflected throughout from the speakeasy inspired door to the separate elevator for their secret bar. Though the beer and wine selection is impressive, gin is the obvious attraction for period cocktails with contemporary interpretation. With 47 gins ranging from local to exclusive (one of only 490 bottles in the world is pretty exclusive), your next romantic rooftop rendezvous will have plenty to toast.
In fact, the restaurant and bar are so well executed, it’s easy to forget Juniper started as an extension of an event space and you can book the whole place if you’d like. But you better plan early. Red, White, and Boom is already taken for private parties until 2020 and wedding dates are nearly as scarce, minus a few fast-approaching openings for couples who are flexible on the date for their big day.
“For brides and grooms who want to get married outside, this offers the best of both worlds. On a beautiful day, with the walls and roof retracted, you’re completely outside with downtown as your backdrop,” he noted. “If it’s raining, you’re still outside — but you don’t have to put up a tent.”
“When you’re up here in the evening, you really experience downtown three different ways,” Rayo explained. “You start with the daytime skyline, and as the sun sets all of the buildings turn different hues of orange. Then when the lights start to appear, Columbus suddenly looks three times larger. It’s breathtaking every time.”
Juniper is open Tuesday through Thursday, 5–10:30 p.m. and Friday 5–midnight. For more, visit juniperrooftop.com.