In sync with the spirit — and spirits — of Alive’s bar guide, here are places that serve terrific drinks, but also cook great versions of regular cravings like burgers and tacos, pizza and sushi. See, sometimes you can have it all.
Ever Ready with $10 Spaghetti
Spaghetti and Meatballs from Giuseppe’s Ritrovo: Arches, brick and a jazzy atmosphere contribute to the cool sophistication that makes this beloved Italian trattoria a magnet for movers and shakers as well as families, friends and dates. Though Giuseppe’s is an upscale place known for many-grades-above chow, it’s also famous for its never-changing $10 plate of spaghetti and three huge meatballs. Rich and tangy, dark-looking and long-cooked “Sunday Gravy”-style meat sauce is the star of this hard-to-beat Parmigiano Reggiano bargain, but the perfectly al dente pasta and super-soft meatballs — plus tableside gratings of Parmigiano Reggiano — provide strong accompaniment.
To Drink: The yards-long arsenal of bitters atop the bar are a tip-off how serious Giuseppe’s is about cocktails. So is this: Curio’s main drink-designer previously worked his shaken-and-stirred magic here. For something light, the fizzy and pretty, orange-scented Cappelletti Spritz (wine-based Cappelletti Aperitivo, house orange bitters, lemon and prosecco; $8) starts out soft and fruity, finishes bitter and crisp, and actually improves on the vastly popular-in-Venice classic. In a darker but immensely fun vein, Giuseppe’s New Orleans-honoring Vieux Carre (Bulleit rye, Hennessy, Carpano Antica, Benedictine and bitters; $13) arrives in a chilled and napkin-wrapped, value-conscious metal flask, and it’s absolutely delicious — spicy and with cherry and cola notes. Giuseppe’s also has an extensive, Italian-heavy wine list (a lotta $40-and-under bottles), plus a solid selection of craft beers.
Biodynamic Beef Burger and Ohio Lamb Burger from Till Dynamic Fare (served with excellent roasted redskins): In an era when burger prices routinely reach the mid-teens, these crustily seared, ridiculously juicy and delicious, completely handmade things are actually worth the cost ($17). If you haven’t been, Till’s like a solution to an algorithm for demanding contemporary “foodies.” It’s hip but accessible, urban but farm-focused. Offering a restrained menu that’s edgy yet familiar, artsy-casual Till sources rigorously and follows “made-from-scratch” as if it were a religion. And nobody makes better burgers in Columbus. Laboriously hand-chopped and meticulously hand-shopped (the chef drives to a special biodynamic farm to get “super-organic” beef, meaning it’s limited in supply), they come on lovely, soft-yet-firm housemade buns with creative-but-not-in-the-way toppings. The epiphany-igniting clean-tasting beef is steaky, whereas the lamb (my favorite) is a little wild.
To Drink: Exhibiting parallel care with food and drinks, Till’s prime-ingredient cocktails rock ($10). A pretty-in-pink, perfect-for-spring, recent gin-based special called Jasmine was especially refreshing, with extremely dry, grapefruit-led citrusy flavors. And Till’s self-described “Perfect Manhattan” could be taken literally (in cocktail-ese, “perfect” denotes equal parts sweet and dry vermouths). To achieve “perfection,” Till’s champion Manhattan uses housemade bitters (created with OYO whiskey), James E. Pepper rye, plus Dolin and Cocchi di Torino vermouths. Till’s short but sweet beer list — most come in econo-minded 22-ounce “pints” — includes North High Brewing’s very fine ESB, Heavy Seas Loose Cannon IPA and the delightfully sour Petrus Oud Bruin. Wines — with categories like “obscure,” “in our region” and “classic” — are likewise light in number but weighty in curatorial logic.
Mexican Food from Bakersfield: The best tacos in the Short North (at least) use housemade soft corn tortillas, and come from this rowdy and handsomely lit fun palace. Sure, the Cincinnati-bred, mini-chain is kitschy with its over-a-barrel dining, goofy Wild West-esque saloon vibe and faux outlaw image, but its zesty food only seems to get better, and its cut-loose revelry never ends. Start with the limey and nicely seasoned guacamole ($6), served with freshly fried tortilla chips. Then eat one of my favorite tacos in town — the spicy, juicy and citrus-kissed-piggy-filled Cochinita Pibil ($3). Also recommended are the rare-around-here, corn-speckled, meat-free huitlacoche taco ($4; huitlacoche is mushroomy/truffly), plus Bakersfield’s killer, best-bangs-for-your-pesos tortas ($8).
To Drink: Not only does bargain-friendly Bakersfield make the best cheap margaritas ($6/Mason jar), but it’s heavily stocked with prime whiskies and tequilas. Plus, it features rotating, high-test $3 shots du jour (e.g. Four Roses, Espolon). Modelo Especial is on tap ($4), and there’s a decent selection of craft bottles for $5 (e.g. 21st Amendment’s Bitter American). Ginger-addicts like me should seek out the bracing and not-one-bit-sweet Red Headed Stranger cocktail ($9, named after a Willie Nelson album) made with Buffalo Trace bourbon, Domaine de Canton, lemon juice, cayenne pepper and Angostura bitters ... and decorated with lotsa candied ginger.
Brunch at Wolf’s Ridge Brewing: One of last year’s “hottest” and best new restaurants serves an indulgent Saturday and Sunday brunch with characteristic intelligence and graceful “farmhouse-industrial” style. Expect hearty dishes with beery inflections, artful presentations and nice prices. WRB’s wonderful take on Eggs Benedict ($11), one of my favorites in town, crowns herby and salami-esque discs of homemade pork pate, addictive tot-like potato balls and perfect poachers in a lush avalanche of tangy, hops-kissed hollandaise sauce. The inspired Toad in the Hole ($10) — it’s an old British dish — skillfully encases over-easies within trimmed and toasty brioche rounds flattered by intense beer-cheese sauce, creamy roasted fingerlings and crispy bacon.
To Drink: WRB’s killer Bloody Maria ($10) twists and spins the famous tomatoey a.m. libation by replacing vodka with smoky 12-year-old Bowmore Scotch and El Espolon tequila. Garnished with a terrific housemade curry-pickled green bean, it’s light and refreshing and features a sneaky heat. For something completely different, the “speedball”-like Stout and Espresso ($7) combines on-site brewed black beer with a splash of pleasantly bitter coffee to surprisingly inspired effect. Flights of WRB’s distinct beers (5/$8) are another fun “I ain’t working today” weekend-kickstarter.
Easy — and Cheapie — Sushi
Sushi from M: If cost and/or intimidation steer you toward grocery stores for a sushi fix, you know you can do better. I suggest you hit up happy hour (Monday-Friday, 5-7 p.m.) in one of Columbus’ priciest restaurants for some of the city’s least expensive “sushi” (many are fusion-y and not-so-raw). Obviously you’re not gonna get crap fish at Cameron Mitchell’s flagship operation, which looks like a flamboyant lounge in a ritzy California hotel. No, you’ll get silky, peppered filet mignon carpaccio wrapped around inverted rolls stuffed with sweet and crunchy tempura shrimp and cream cheese. That’d be M’s huge and famous Surf-n-Turf ($8), which fittingly resembles a tempting serpent. Heat-seekers should target the messy-but-excellent Spicy Scallop ($6.50), which caps the best California roll in town (full of sweet, real crab meat) with diced and hot-sauced scallops, plus deep-fried crunchies.
To Drink: M’s well-deserved reputation for creative cocktails entails that it boil Peruvian tree bark with aromatics to make its own tonic water. This heady elixir grounds an amazing, tangerine-tinted-and-tangerine-hinting, full-bodied Tonic and Gin ($10, with Plymouth gin and fresh lime). For more fizzy fun, try a tart-finishing alcoholic cherry “pop” (Bourbon Cola, $12) made with Four Roses bourbon, Ruby Port, cherry bitters, fresh raspberries and sarsaparilla syrup ... which M bottles for a ticklish presentation. There’s also a huge, un-cheap wine list rife with French Champagnes.
Pizza from Harvest Kitchen + Bar: Contemporary and vintage get equal time in the unpretentious and handsome design of the brilliant new Harvest pizzeria in Clintonville. That ethos could also describe Harvest’s pizzas, because their lovely, edge-charred, fragile-yet-chewy thin crusts harken back to the genuine Italian article, whereas their local-focused toppings are very 21st-century American. For a crowd-pleasing pie, try the Fennel Sausage ($15) with Canal Junction gouda and smoked provolone. If you like a little sting, you can’t beat the Spicy Yuma ($14), with more local Canal Junction gouda, plus chipotle-spiked tomato sauce, chorizo, jalapenos, corn, roasted peppers and mozzarella. If you’re in the mood for seafood, target the excellent Geary Street ($14), with chopped clams, garlic, fresh mozzarella, Parmesan and oregano.
To Drink: Harvest hits the trifecta with its terrific Curio-esque cocktails (which include chalkboard specials such as a bitter lemonade-like Sensual Peelings made with Watershed Four Peel Gin, Cocchi Americano and Chartreuse, $10); 10 smartly chosen taps (e.g. Dupont’s classic Saison, $8, and a hoppy and citrusy Harvest Pale Ale made by Elevator, $4); and a nice, food-friendly and $10-above-retail-bottle-priced wine list with plenty of deals (including $6 glasses of riesling and grenache) and specials (Bedrock’s Heritage Sonoma Zinfandel).