Unpretentious diner brings homespun style to its all-American fare
“I often tell people what we cook is like diner food on steroids,” said a server so personable and nice I felt bad having to yell at the guy. But shouting was the only way I could be heard on a crowded night at Over the Counter.
Open a couple months, Over the Counter is a cartographic rarity: Its space spans the border between Columbus and Worthington. But the boundaries the restaurant straddles are more than geographic.
With multiple TVs, a popular patio, dimmed, tavern-style lighting, an emphasis on adult beverages, plus a menu of reimagined classics, Over the Counter operates on the border between a sports bar and a gastropub, between a sleek-but-casual neighborhood hangout and a family-friendly spot for indulgent grub.
To its credit, this long-and-narrow establishment committed to house-cooked fare doesn't glom on to any such labels. It's just Over the Counter, an unpretentious, modern and inexpensive place with blond wood and gray paint brightened by splashes of pop-art panache and mid-century style.
And a good selection of Ohio-brewed beers. Also available to sip: the seasonally perfect, aptly named hard cider called Bubbles ($5.50) — a delightfully crisp and refreshing “rose ale” made by Cincinnati-based Rhinegeist. Offering fizzy carbonation and tart acid that effectively wick oil away from the tongue, the wine-like cider goes great with fried food like you get in the whopping Appetizer Platter ($12.79).
What elsewhere is often a batch of previously frozen and forgettable bar snacks stands out here for being made from scratch. At Counter, chicken tenders are enormous, juicy and tempura-breaded; mini corn dogs are appealingly sweet and salty; fried vegetables actually resemble vegetables; and house dipping sauces such as pickle-packed Thousand Island and tangy ranch dressings are way-above average. Sure, I'd prefer the platter's puffy-yet-crisp, golden-brown batters were less oily and less thick, but not enough to forgo ordering it again.
Ditto for the impressive fried fish sandwich (Fish Sammy, $9; served with fresh slaw). Like most of Counter's sandwiches — which compose the bulk of its menu — this towering construction of crisp-battered cod, good shoestring fries, house pickles and house tartar sauce arrives on a deeply toasted bun and with a side of nice and warm, house-made potato chips.
Flavorful candied walnuts and fried goat cheese “medallions” stand in for croutons, but the Route 23 Salad ($4.79), with a lively, lemony dressing, is one of the menu's relatively lighter items. So are two soups always available (each $4) — an uncharacteristically straightforward chili and a creamy, more interesting chicken & rice chock-full of poultry. Both were slightly under salted, but I find that immeasurably better than the opposite.
I also enjoyed the mold-breaking Sloppy Joe ($5.99). Rather than the usual loose-and-saucy enterprise, it stars a meaty filling whose cooked-down, zesty-sweet sauce — plus plenty of red peppers and onions — is completely incorporated into hearty clumps of ground beef.
Following a server's recommendation, on one occasion, my tablemate and I shared a gloriously immoderate Patty Melt ($7.49) and a pleasant Black Bean Burger ($7.09). The former is a good-sized, juicy patty with caramelized onions, melted Swiss cheese and Thousand Island dressing all messily tucked inside of buttery, crunchy sourdough toast made with high-grade Lucky Cat bread.
The uncommonly crisp and sturdy Southwestern-seasoned bean burger is advertised as “vegan.” But, along with avocado and a virtual salad of fresh sandwich fixins, it's topped with an abundance of smoky-and-spicy, non-vegan chipotle sour cream sauce that I suggest you get on the side.
If Counter is crowded at the time, be prepared to make this request by speaking in a very loud voice. And be prepared to have an enjoyable, homemade meal and an enjoyable, upbeat evening.