For some folks, summer's the time for Mickey-filled family vacations, grueling multi-state bike trips, or freewheeling hops aboard the music festival circuit. Not us; we prefer to summer right here in Cleveland, where the climate finally suits our clothes, and our gardens, dogs and chickens keep us pleasantly engaged.
That's not to say that we don't dig the occasional weekender, when we can explore the food and fun of a nearby city and still be back for Sunday supper. One of our favorite one-tank trips is Columbus, a city that appears to be updating itself faster than Java software.
For eons, Columbus has been trying to outgrow its bland reputation as "Test Market City, U.S.A," where white-bread Americans gobble up the latest fast-food creations on their way to church. In truth, Columbus is a rapidly growing city filled with young culture-minded professionals eager to spend their dough at the newest bars, bistros and boutique specialty foods shops. Every time I visit, I'm blown away by the delicious progress.
Friday, 4 pm
Summer on the half shell
Before checking into your hotel, roll straight into the Short North District. What not too long ago was a very artsy but very brief stretch of blocks just north of downtown has crept clear up High Street almost to the OSU border. It's loaded with bars, bistros, art galleries and funky retail shops.
We were seduced by a marquee-style sign with 1,000 pin lights that combined to form the name "The Pearl," followed by the words "oyster room." The impulse to devour fresh-shucked oysters and crisp, cold Chablis was too strong to overcome. Opened in February of this year, the Pearl (641 North High St., 614-227-0151) is the first new restaurant concept in five years from mega-operator Cameron Mitchell. But this is no chain: With a sharp vintage-meets-modern design, heart-of-it-all location, and chef-driven fare, this Pearl is one of a kind. We stuck to oysters, shucked at the sleek subway-tiled oyster bar, and wines by the glass.
Meats, cheeses, gimlets
Pop into Mouton (954 North High St., 614-732-4660), a petite cocktail lounge with razor-sharp styling, for a few nibbles of charcuterie, artisan cheeses and great local bread. Pair those snacks with an expertly crafted classic cocktail like a Gimlet or Negroni, or select from the brief but brilliant wine list.
A few short blocks away is Middle West Spirits (1230 Courtland Ave., 614-299-2460), located on an alley just east of the main drag. One of the first Ohio-based micro-distilleries, Middle West whips up award-winning spirits like OYO (o-WHY-o) vodka, made from local soft red winter wheat, plus whiskey and bourbon. Every Friday and first Saturday of the month this attractive urban distillery opens its doors to the public for fun and informative tours and tastings. Tours last 90 minutes and reservations are required.
To hear Magdiale Wolmark speak about food is to get to the very roots of the farm-to-table movement. For a decade, Wolmark ran a popular vegetarian restaurant in this breezy storefront on the edges of Victorian Village. Now, at Till (247 King Ave., 614-298-9986), he applies the same principles of sustainability to the meat, poultry and seafood he serves. He personally drives hundreds of miles to source his biodynamic beef, which is ground into delicious, guilt-free burgers. Pole beans, pulled minutes before service from the restaurant's urban garden, are sautéed and served with a light mustard sauce. House-smoked trout is molded into a cake, seared up crisp, and topped with a runny egg. There still are plenty of vegetarian and vegan dishes for the neighborhood crowd that has grown dependent upon it.
Saturday, 9:30 am
To market, to market
Columbus' North Market (59 Spruce St., 614-463-9664) is nothing like Cleveland's West Side Market – and that's a wonderful thing. This 140-year-old public market (in its current home since 1995) is filled to its wide-open rafters with choice vendors and small businesses, each offering something unique. This is where Jeni Britton-Bauer launched her professional ice-cream career, and you'll still find a Jeni's scoop shop inside. Grab a cup of locally roasted java from Touch of Earth, a Bavarian pretzel from Brzel, and just explore the scene. For a hotel room snack before dinner, pick up some fine cheeses from Curds & Whey and amazing European-style bread from Omega Artisan Baking. Then walk over to the Barrel & Bottle and ask the good folks what wine or beer to pair with it. Every Saturday through fall, a farmers market pops up just outside the main building.
Meet me in German Village
Summer is prime time to stroll the cobbled lanes of German Village, located just south of downtown. That's when the postage stamp-sized front and side gardens of these immaculate brick homes explode with color and life. Park your car and wander down picturesque streets like City Park and Mohawk. Pop into Pistacia Vera (541 South Third St., 614-220-9070) and tell them it's your first time and you'll be rewarded with a free macaron. This picture-perfect dessert bistro offers a full spread of delicate French pastries and classic European desserts. Grab an iced coffee on your way out.
The lunch crowd
For lunch in German Village there are a number of ways you can go. Katzinger's (475 South Third St., 614-228-3354) is a blissfully frenzied deli with dozens (and dozens) of amazing sandwiches, built with quality meats atop quality breads. Get in line, place your order, grab a few pickles from the pickle barrels and wait for your name to be called. If that sounds like too much work, walk around the corner to Harvest Pizzeria (495 South Fourth St., 614-824-1769), a contemporary café serving flawless wood-fired pizzas. Sporting a buoyant and charred-edge crust, pizzas like the double bacon, the mushroom and gouda, and the classic Margherita are as far away from greasy belly bombs as pie can get. A nice beer, wine and cocktail list manages to elevate the food even more.
Beer Town, USA
Like Cleveland, Columbus currently is enjoying a micro-brewing boom. Longstanding pioneers like Columbus Brewing and Barley's are now joined by more recent entries into the craft brew scene like Elevator, Four String and Seventh Son. The latter (1101 North Fourth St., 614-421-BEER) holds forth in a converted industrial space with garage doors that fly up along with the temps. It's located in Italian Village, just east of the Short North, and it's worth visiting to sample brewery fresh American strong ale and Humulus Nimbus Super pale ale.
Elevator recently moved its production brewery from the burbs to a central location not far from its gorgeous downtown restaurant. On Saturdays, the brewery opens up its taproom (165 North Fourth St.) from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. where it pours pints and growlers of its popular Three Frogs IPA, Horny Goat porter, and Bear Ass pale ale.
To see what modern mead is all about, pop into Brothers Drake Meadery (26 East Fifth Ave., 614-388-8765), at the northern edge of the Short North. In addition to making and serving high-quality "wine-style" mead – often with local honey – in its bustling barroom, Brothers Drake hosts live shows on a small stage located adjacent to the patio.
I drove all the way to Columbus to eat the food of a Cleveland chef. Okay, make that former Cleveland chef. John Dornback, who perfected his craft at places like Giovanni's and Parker's, runs the eminently appealing Basi Italia (811 Highland Ave., 614-294-7383). This light-hearted bistro has so many things going for it, from its hideaway locale in residential Victorian Village to its close-quartered dining room and secret-garden back patio. But it's the food that draws us back, seasonal ingredients transformed into soul-satisfying Italian-style dishes. Zucchini, briefly cooked with almonds and pecorino, is a house staple. Asparagus with smoked prosciutto and egg, porchetta with butter beans and candied fennel, and lamb steak with peas and mint are just some items that keep this gem packed.
A different kind of zombie
Proof that tiki lounges never really went out of fashion (they merely went underground to the odd basement bars of tikiphiles), the Grass Skirt (105 North Grant St., 614-429-3650) opened up last spring to the unabashed glee of many. An abandoned downtown theatre space was converted into an over-the-top bar and restaurant that evokes fond memories of the Kahiki Supper Club, which ruled the Columbus kitsch scene for 40 years. Sip on deftly crafted tiki classics like Mai Tais, Blue Hawaiians and Zombies, or a host of more contemporary cocktails. For snacks, order up a plate of grilled Spam sliders, served with swiss and Chinese mustard on sweet King's Hawaiian rolls.
On your way out of Dodge
I was turned on to Columbus' remarkable taco truck scene by Bethia Woolf, who leads a whole host of specialty food-themed tours at Columbus Food Adventures. Unlike the trendy chef-driven food trucks that we've come to know and love, many of the ones that congregate on the western and northern edges of Columbus are stationary for long stretches of time, and they're run by Latino operators who stick, by and large, to authentic offerings. Each specializes in one thing or another – like tacos, gorditas, pupusas, tortas and tamales – and most are incredible. Check out Taco Trucks Columbus for a complete list and map of dozens of taco trucks that you can hit on your way out of town.