Kevin and Lori Ames were well ahead of the Columbus restaurant curve when that curve was almost a straight line. In our less cosmopolitan days (the mid-’90s), the Ames’ influential approach to kicky brunches (Dagwoodz), remodeled dive bars offering good grub (The Press Grill) and casual/fine dining (Frezno Eclectic Kitchen) breathed life, fresh ideas, fun — and Zs! — into a still-gentrifying Short North.
The pioneering couple later moved Downtown — with less inspired results (Cafe Lola; Burgers, Dogs and Fries; Cinco) — to take part in that area’s renaissance. With their just-opened, if revisited, Frezno Bar and Grill in the Brewery District, the Ames seem to be in the right place at the right revivifying time again, especially considering their new neighbors are Double Happiness (which, post-Freshstreet’s exit, has started launching month-long “pop ups) and the still-much-anticipated White Rabbit.
This new Frezno is huge, with two spacious and relaxing patios and two dining rooms. Inside, vintage tile, painted bricks and airy high ceilings lend the joint a quaint old saloon feel. Ironically, the bar area is much quieter than the main chamber, where (on crowded nights) sound can boom, echo and carom off of hard surfaces so much it’s disorienting.
So stabilize yourself with a drink. Frezno has some nice prices ($3-$4) on a few Ohio-brewed pints and plenty of $20-something bottles on its play-it-safe wine list. Since this is a gastropub-and-buzzword-free zone, cocktails aren’t a big part of Frezno’s draw.
No, that would be well-executed and satisfying, if hardly envelope-pushing, Cal-Ital and Southern-inflected dishes such as the standout, Marlene’s Fried Chicken ($16). That biggie featured an impressively greaseless but crackly, golden brown floury crust encasing two juicy and tender, deboned breast-and-wing quarters atop polenta (stiff, coarse, rich), nifty greens (sauteed with pancetta) and wholly unnecessary Thai chili sauce.
Also exhibiting a fine knack for oil-gurgling were good, zestily dry-rubbed Sesame Chicken Wings ($10, with a sweet mustard side sauce); warm, fresh and crunchy House Made Chips ($6, with a blue cheesy, sorta high-rent “queso” dip); and excellent Oyster Fritters ($11). Served with a rustically hacked slaw, those marvelous mollusks (they’re understandably not super-abundant) were Po’ Boy-style, meaning crispy cornmeal jackets cloaking perfectly, just warmed-through shellfish.
The also strongly recommended Short Rib Tacos ($11) were another “small plate” that delivered big flavors. Toasted flour tortillas were overstuffed with super-juicy, pot roasty meat flattered by a colorful, thick-cut slaw (jicama, carrot, red pepper) with a neat little spark of “roasted poblano” heat.
Landing in the “solid” category were extra-large pastas like the Jambalaya ($18; with good quality shrimp plus chicken and chorizo in a racy tomato sauce chunky with celery, onions and bell peppers) and the chilled texture-fest accurately called Spicy Asian Noodles ($13; with chicken and healthy vegetables in a “Thai peanut dressing”).
Clocking in at the OK level were the garlicky and spicy if skimpy Voodoo Shrimp and Mussels ($13 with barely “grilled sourdough bread”); a salad-y (asparagus-adorned and arugula-crowned) Prosciutto Pizza ($15, with a not-so memorable crust); plus a creamy, garlicky, cheesy and very average Traditional Caesar Salad ($5).
With this certainly agreeable and just brand new Frezno, Kevin and Lori Ames aren’t currently ahead of the local restaurant curve menu-wise. But once again, they’ve bravely invested in a character-rich if somewhat neglected neighborhood in need of an energy injection but on the cusp of attracting money and attention to a historically important part of Columbus. In my book, that’s a pretty damn good thing.