What better way to say “welcome” than to offer a tasty snack to a guest? We do it at home all the time, but we love it even more when restaurants do it. An unexpected treat at the table or bar is a friendly gesture that invites us to relax and enjoy, and it helps curb our hunger while we order something bigger. This week we’re stoking your appetite with some of our favorite food freebies in Columbus, as varied as pickles and popcorn. —Kristen Schmidt
Bread & butter
Bread service, once a ubiquitous part of any meal out, has begun to fall out of favor. Many restaurants have dropped it altogether, while a few will provide bread baskets upon request only. And too often bread is an afterthought — not much more than a couple of stale slices served with cold butter pats.
This is understandable — much of that bread goes to waste, especially in this increasingly carb-conscious world — but nonetheless disheartening for carboholics.
However, there are a few places around town that still put some thought (and love) into their bread baskets. Here are our favorites. —Shelley Mann
698 N. High St., Short North
No contest, the best bread in town. Rigsby’s has its own bakery, Eleni-Christina, and every meal at the Short North mainstay starts with a little burlap sack filled with still-warm slices of sourdough or walnut-and-raisin-studded multigrain. Spread liberally with softened butter and devour immediately.
511 N. High St., Short North
DeepWood offers a well-rounded basket, with moist date-walnut bread, hearty country white and a crumbly flatbread. But it’s the butter that’s really special — big triangles sprinkled in coarse red sea salt.
811 Highland St., Victorian Village
This neighborhood gem goes against the flow in many ways, including its bread. Rather than the typical Italian breadstick, diners get little glasses filled with savory shortbread sticks made with cheese, herbs and plenty of butter.
263 E. Whittier St., German Village
At the European-inspired German Village restaurant, a half-loaf of crusty white bread is served with a ramekin of the most remarkable dipping oil. It’s olive oil mixed with an almost creamy seasoned tomato puree rather than the typical balsamic.
The Turkish restaurant, with locations at Easton and in Bexley and Dublin, serves up big baskets of warm chargrilled pide bread with a spicy infused oil dipping sauce. It’s sorta like naan, but thicker, fluffier and with a crispier crust.
3712 Riverside Dr., Upper Arlington
1369 Grandview Ave., Grandview
The wood-fired pizza spot’s homemade bread is what every restaurant should aspire to. It’s nice, big hunks of lightly toasted focaccia served with a shallow dish of olive oil loaded with fresh herbs.
Amuse-bouches are a chef’s gift to the diner, a little thank-you for gracing the restaurant with your presence. Or, as Chef Alana Shock puts it, “an offering of love.” They’re much smaller than small plates — just a bite-sized hors d’oeuvre designed to showcase the chef’s artistry. This is the most expensive of the food freebies, really, because you’re shelling out for a multi-course meal to get it. But it’s also the most delicious. —Shelley Mann
2333 N. High St., North Campus
Alana Shock is this town’s amuse-bouche queen. The chef does strategic sweeps of the dining room all evening long, meaning she personally bestows every single diner with a special gift (not that she’s, you know, busy cooking or anything). It’s just one reason why Columbus diners regard Shock as not just a talented chef, but a dear friend.
649 High St., Worthington
Chef Thomas Smith is another one who doesn’t leave amuse delivery duty to the servers. When he’s working, he’ll likely be the one to bring out the amuse — often a lovely Hawaiian raw tuna preparation called poke.
1092 Bethel Rd., North Side
As he does with everything on the menu, Chef Richard Blondin takes great pride in his amuse du jour, using it as a way to introduce the diner to his distinct French cooking style. So you may get a sliver of pate, or a bit of alpaca—the starring ingredient in his famed Alpaca Terrine.
M at Miranova
2 Miranova Place, Downtown
Everything is beautiful at Cameron Mitchell’s most upscale dining experience, including the amuses. Whatever the offering that night, it’ll be served like a small-scale work of art — I loved, for instance, a tiny mound of glittering tuna tartare served in a soup spoon.
I always love to see what a chef as imaginative as DeepWood’s Brian Pawlak dreams up for an amuse. He’s a master with meat, so get excited if the night’s offering is a carnivorous one (a tempura short rib holds a special place in my heart).
We found three places with awesome complimentary pickles, so we gave them their own category. Then we thought, hey, pickles should be in a category of their own more often. They’re also a tad old-fashioned, which makes them even more endearing. —Kristen Schmidt
The Top Steak House
2891 E. Main St., Bexley
The relish tray has been part of the dining experience at The Top since it opened in 1955. Pickles, sauerkraut and olives are the steady stars, but the kitchen adds goodies from its garden when it can.
Ted’s Montana Grill
191 Nationwide Blvd., Arena District
A little dish of addictive half-sour pickle discs land at your table at Ted’s just after you’re seated, but they typically don’t last long. Patriot Pickle Company makes these treats for the national chain — a spokeswoman pointed out they’re unique and healthier than bread.
475 S. Third St., German Village
There are deli pickles, and there are Katzinger’s pickles. It’s downright fun to dip a pair of tongs in a barrel at this German Village mainstay — just obey the signs and take only what you need to accompany your sandwich.
A little nibble to help absorb whatever you’re imbibing is always a welcome sight at the bar. Don’t be surprised, though, if the innocent litlte bar snack arouses your hunger and compels you to order something off the menu at these restaurants. —Kristen Schmidt
122 E. Main St., Downtown
Bacon! You need us to say more? It arrives in crispy strip form at the bar periodically. If you’re smart, you’ll have a Manhattan or Old Fashioned or just a glass of bourbon in front of you. Get it while it’s hot, friends.
Pie’s Gourmet Pizza Bistro
7601 E. Main St., Reynoldsburg
Chef Bill Fugitt loves to smoke and cure things, and he doesn’t stop at meat. Fugitt sometimes smokes popcorn kernels with bacon, then pops it to make — yes, gentlemen — smoky bacon popcorn. Bar patrons might also find duck-fat popcorn or salty caramel popcorn or candied nuts at the bar.
A classic for a classic: Enjoy a zingy pretzels-and-bagel-chips mix at the bar along with your martini (dry, gin, shaken, up).
Happy hour really hops at Rigsby’s, where the bar is scattered with cocktails, glasses of wine — and tiny dishes of olives and, sometimes, charred bread rubbed with tomato and garlic.
This snack’s star has popped far above its days as an overpriced-something to crunch on at the movies. Yesterday is to bowl of nuts on the bar as today is to popcorn machine in the bar’s corner brimming with the salty stuff. We even found some at a car wash in Grandview. —Jackie Mantey
5545 N. High St., Worthington
This Italian restaurant has a comforting, homey charm. Case in point: Man, will they feed you. Patrons of the bar can indulge in free popcorn and an occasional free appetizer — wings, pizza, subs — that the staff sets out on the countertop.
384 W. Third Ave., Harrison West
Zeno’s is a great place to watch a football game this fall. Belly up with an appetizer of free popcorn from behind the bar and then order a few pizzas. This is for your own good; you’ve got four quarters of drinking away the misery induced by being a Browns fan ahead of you.
Hal & Al’s
1297 Parsons Ave., Olde Towne East
This divey-but-hip bar is known for its vast craft beer selection and vegan food (check out the vegan-friendly sushi nights every Thursday), but saving some cash (for more craft beer, we assume) with a basket full of complimentary popcorn is always an option.
743 Parsons Ave., South Side
Plank’s has been around since 1939, which means it has both free peanuts and popcorn for those imbibing at the pizza place. No denying the classics here.
Sax Car Wash
1319 W. Fifth Ave., Grandview
The washes at Sax take about 15 minutes, so snag a bag of free popcorn while you wait. The popper is right beside the shoe shining station. Also among this car wash’s offerings o’ random are a few stands of greeting cards and a wall of NFL car window flags.
Navigating the tea menu here is like taking a voyage around the world. It’s fascinating, and it makes decisions difficult. Start with the daily sample of one variety of tea offered at ZenCha. Not your cup of tea? They’ll offer something different the next day.
Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams
One way Jeni’s introduces “avant garde” flavors like Goat Cheese with Red Cherries to the masses is by letting customers try before they buy. Columbus’ ice-cream palate has thusly matured, teensy spoonful by teensy spoonful.
The Hills Market
7860 Olentangy River Rd., Worthington
The Hills always features something to taste, but Ohio Market Day events, featuring items made in Ohio, are the motherlode. At the next Ohio Market Day, 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 13, try grain-based salads from Little Eater (a pop-up restaurant at The Hills), Sweet Tooth Cottage cookies, Tasteweaver sauces and more.
The North Market
59 Spruce St., Arena District
Work your way around the market, keeping your eyes peeled for tasty samples at the many vendors inside. A few reliable stops: Brezel, Omega Artisan Baking, CaJohn’s, Pam’s Market Popcorn, Taste of Belgium and Kitchen Little.