Travis Owens on the closing of the Columbus institution, and what might come next
On Saturday, June 30, Travis Owens closed Curio at Harvest for good. With him, he took one of Columbus' most inventive cocktail menus and a point of proof for the city's claim to culinary pride.
To patrons, the closure came as a shock. Owens, the bar's creator and owner, announced the news on social media just one day before the bar's final bow. But even he felt “mixed emotions.”
“For myself, personally, it wasn't anything that I felt like we had accomplished everything that we needed to accomplish,” Owens said in an interview. “I think that there could have been many more years. The time had come to make a move.”
Curio opened in 2012 on South Fourth Street in German Village, tucked into a nook next to Harvest Pizzeria, which opened at the same time. Owens, who spent some 15 years bartending around the city, conceived of Curio as an extension of Harvest's farm-to-table vision.
“The agreement in the beginning was to open the best cocktail bar in the city,” Owens said.
While Curio gathered recognition — best bar in Columbus, best bar in Ohio, mentions in Eater and Imbibe Magazine — Harvest stretched its legs, opening in Bexley, Clintonville, Dublin, even Cincinnati.
Curio remained in German Village, though. Owens won't divulge much about what led to the bar's closing, but he hinted at differences between himself and parent company, Grow Restaurant Group.
“My core values over time were going in a different direction than the values of the restaurant group,” Owens said.
At Curio, where “standing room only” was the default, few patrons ever found themselves enjoying a drink at a table, which were scant to begin with. Instead, they likely stood in close quarters with friends, shouting to be heard, precariously grasping their glass.
The tight squeeze only lent itself to Curio's underground, speakeasy atmosphere — despite the fact that it sat above ground and served food from the family-friendly Harvest next door. But not even the Prohibition decor outshone Owens' drink menu, which changed with the seasons.
“We sparked curiosity, and you know, there's a little play on words there, but it is the truth,” Owens said. “Bringing unique things to the table is what the name is all about.”
And like its other namesake, the “curio cabinet,” Curio used its cocktail menu as a display for ingredients. One recent concoction, “Takoi As Fuhk,” came out of a meal Owens and his crew shared at a Thai restaurant in Detroit. Owens called it “pad thai meets old fashioned”: roasted cashew-infused whiskey, curry bitters and kaffir leaf.
Owens mimicked Mexican mole in the “Spaghetti Western,” which featured a roasted guajillo chili on top. Another memorable drink employed bee pollen in a twist on a gin fizz.
“I know that I, with each menu at Curio, was always trying to one up myself, one after the other, which created a ton of work,” Owens said. “But I'm a glutton for punishment.”
The challenge was taken up by other Columbus bars, too. When he started, Owens said, most restaurants only offered rudimentary cocktail lists — “martini menus,” he called them. But Curio's interest in the out-of-ordinary, and the attention that brought from out-of-town, seemed to light a fire.
“I think the biggest jump in the last six years has been in restaurants, where they've gotten away from your standard cosmopolitan and they're going more toward stirred, boozy cocktails, you know, things that aren't so esoteric,” Owens said.
Harvest will take over Curio's space in German Village, with a much scaled-down menu. Meanwhile, Owens is returning to his family and taking time to consider his next project — possibly a full restaurant concept, with a greater emphasis on customer experience.
Whatever that may look like, Owens said he's far from finished with the Columbus cocktail scene.
“I imagine I'll start getting hungry here real soon,” he said.