Written by: Nick Houser
Date: December 4, 2015
Forty years ago, Cincinnati was by far the “Queen City” of Ohio restaurants, with the Maisonette, Pigall’s, and the Terrace Room leading the pack.
Columbus arrived in the Ohio restaurant scene in the mid 1970s, emerged as the clear leader in Ohio from the early 1990s though 2009, and is still, according to most, number one in the state.
Columbus’ entry in the fine dining arena may have begun with L’Armagnac, opened by Chef Dale Gussett in 1976 near Grant Hospital downtown. L’Armagnac featured classic French dishes with fine sauces in a tiny, romantic setting.
Dale sold L’Armagnac in 1982 after which it evolveded into Galantine’s in Westerville, anyone remember Chef Tom Johnson and John Bessey? Gussett returned to Columbus to open L’Antibes in the Short North in 1993 with partner Larry Williamson. Matt Litzinger bought L’Antibes in 2007, and closed it this summer with plans of changing it to a field to table concept.
Since 1976, The Refectory has offered outstanding French cuisine in an historic church on Bethel Road, and has been a consistent top restaurant and Columbus’ only Wine Spectator Grand Award winner. Chef Richard Blondin has been stellar for years. Owner Kamal Boulos has been at the Refectory for 39 years.
In 1978, Chef Ziggy Allespach opened Ziggy’s Continental, which he sold in 1989.
In 1981, Chef Hubert Seifert opened the Gourmet Market which is now know as Spagio on Grandview Avenue.
In 1986, Kent Rigsby opened Rigsby’s Cuisine Volatile in the Short North. For 28 years, the restaurant, now known as Rigsby’s Kitchen, has been a consistent “top 10″ favorite – especially with Kent in the kitchen.
Master Chef Hartmut Handke raised the bar when he opened Handke’s Cuisine in the Brewery district in 1991 after at tour of duty as executive chef at the legendary Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia. Chef Handke had been at the Athletic Club of Columbus for years before moving to the Greenbrier.
Chef Handke brought international attention to Columbus in 2003 when he represented the U.S. at the Bocuse d’Or in Lyon, France, considered by many to be the most prestigious culinary competition in the world. Chef Handke sold the restaurant in 2009.
In 2007, Chef Richard Rosendale, another Master Chef, opened Rosendales in the Short North. Rosendale then also served as Executive Chef at the Greenbrier and represented the US at the Bocuse d’Or in 2013. Rosendales also closed in 2009, delivering a “double whammy” to the Columbus restaurant scene.
In 2010, Michael Ruhlman, author of 21 books and a native of Cleveland, following a food tour by the “Columbus Food Mafia,” which included Jim Budros, Steve Stover, and Rich Terapak, declared Columbus “the best restaurant city in Ohio.”
Cleveland has had some great restaurants over the years, from Chef Francois in Vermillion to Johnny’s Bar on Fulton – both are still going strong.
More recently, Chef Michael Symon has built a small empire with Lola, Lolita and other spots. Now, James Beard Award winner Jonathan Sawyer has received national attention for The Greenhouse Tavern, Noodlecat and now Trentino, a very popular new Northern Italian style restaurant in University Circle.
Is Cleveland mounting a challenge to Columbus as the top restaurant city in Ohio? Stay tuned.
A little more Columbus restaurant history
Columbus Restaurant Neighborhood Pioneers
Columbus has come a long way as a restaurant town. And so, we want to recognize some of Columbus’ neighborhood pioneers.
Presutti’s Villa on Fifth Avenue in Grandview
Kent and Tasi Rigsby in the Short North – which was a terribly run down area at the time
Hubert & Helga Seifert on the “Bank Block” on Grandview Avenue
He has operated Gourmet Market, Spagio, Aubergine.
Chef Hubert notes that when he opened in 1981, there were only six food outlets in a roughly three mile radius; now there are more than 80 in Grandview, Upper Arlington and on Fifth and King avenues.
Hartmut and Margot Handke, Handke’s Cuisine, in the Brewery District
Bill Sapp, Lee Henry in the SR 161 corridor – described in The New York Times as “fried meat row”
Columbus Restaurant Pioneers
Billy Ingram (White Castle) 1921
David Thomas, from Col. Sanders to Wendy’s
Cameron Mitchell – now has launched 15 different concepts
Plus Schmidt’s, Max & Erma’s, Donato’s, and on and on
And, in just the last few years, City Barbeque now has 24 stores and Jeni’s has 19