First enjoyed centuries ago by Native Americans, "grits" refers to a soulful porridge made from ground corn. The dish has long been popular in the South, especially in coastal states, where shrimp was typically added during the summer shrimping season. In the late 20th century, when ambitious chefs began garnering national attention from the New York Times (et al.) for delectable versions of shrimp and grits, a new American classic was born. Since we are Americans, the sumptuous concoction is cooked in a melting pot that includes all manner of influences.

First enjoyed centuries ago by Native Americans, "grits" refers to a soulful porridge made from ground corn. The dish has long been popular in the South, especially in coastal states, where shrimp was typically added during the summer shrimping season. In the late 20th century, when ambitious chefs began garnering national attention from the New York Times (et al.) for delectable versions of shrimp and grits, a new American classic was born. Since we are Americans, the sumptuous concoction is cooked in a melting pot that includes all manner of influences.

Just Google "shrimp and grits recipes," and a stunning number of variations pop up. That's because the inherently delicious dish has become a blank canvas on which chefs can put their stamp. Once a rarity in Columbus, ever-more popular shrimp and grits are now available in places varying from brewpubs to "Top 10" restaurants. In preparations ranging from spicy to creamy to meat-enriched, here are a few luscious examples.

THE ICON

G. Michael's Bistro & Bar

G. Michael's is one of the best fine-dining restaurants in Columbus, but it's breezy, not uptight. Mardi Gras tints in the front room - where the long wooden bar is, and I prefer to sit - hint at a party-time vibe. Expect top-shelf ingredients, Low Country-influences and masterful cooking chops. Bonus: the best happy hour deals on food in town.

Dig in: Shrimp and grits is synonymous with G. Michael's in Columbus. The restaurant practically put the dish on the map here. Since Chef David Tetzloff studied in the culinary hotspot of Charleston, South Carolina - i.e. the default capital of shrimp and grits - you know you're in expert hands. In fact G. Mike's version is so popular that a waiter there recently commented, "If we ever took it off the menu, there'd be rioting in the streets." It's iconic with good reason. A moat of salty, butter-softened tomato broth that would please Goldilocks - it's not too rich, not too tart and not too spicy - surrounds an elevated island of stone-ground golden grits populated with three good, tail-on shrimp. The soothing grits both counter and blend in with the saucy moat's chopped tomatoes and generous strips of addictive pigmeat - country ham and zesty andouille sausage.

The Tab: $14 (small plate) or $24 (entrée)

MEAN GREEN

The Crest Gastropub

The Crest is so successful and forever-packed that it could probably just rest on its laurels as one of the premiere places in Clintonville with a hip aura - manifested in the proverbial "rustic-chic" look, crap-ton of great beers, excellent happy hour deals and local-focused menu. But instead of sitting pat (and casually raking in a seemingly endless stream of dough), the two-year-old eatery is restless to get better. Good for The Crest. And good for its customers, who can enjoy the best food the place has ever offered, in the form of its newer "sharables."

Dig in: This meal-sized "sharable" is not only the best thing I've eaten here, it's one of the better bargains on this list. Six sweet, tender and big poached shellfish arrive embedded in rich and tangy, stone-ground cheese grits. "Green harissa" (think zesty pesto), which speaks to The Crest's creativity and its Middle Eastern/Mediterranean bent, plus more verdant flourishes in the form of grassy micro-greens, complete the go-green triumph.

Tab: $12

WHERE THERE'S SMOKE, THERE'S FIRE

Milestone 229

Some of the most spectacular views of Columbus come from this futuristic-looking restaurant sitting pretty on the Scioto Mile development. The swooping architecture of the gawk-inducing, metal and glass building seems a fitting complement to an expanding and dynamic 21st-century Columbus still inventing itself. But Milestone's Downtown and westward river vistas aren't the only views worth writing about - its bold and flavorful plates deserve attention too.

Dig in: This take on shrimp and grits is NOT for sissies. It's still made using the smoky, fiery and Louisiana-honed recipe of Milestone's departed, opening day chef - and no one here is silly enough to fix what ain't broke. Stiff white grits enriched with white cheddar cheese center a biggish bowl. Radiating out of the comforting mound are six meaty, wild gulf shrimp, which extend out into a thick and intense "tomato fondue" that'll light up your tongue in flavorful flames. The devil-red gravy is tangy, salty and smoky from seared nuggets of andouille sausage. Nuanced fruity notes emanate from roasted red pepper bits and stewed tomatoes.

The Tab: $19

THE CREAMIEST OF THE CROP

Rivage Atlantique

Chef Rich Flagg - a South Carolinian by way of Boston - left this upscale-but-casual Worthington seafood specialist last summer, but his successor, Colleen Pendergast, is proving to be a great replacement. Pendergast has added flavorful bistro-style dishes (many available in supremely affordable half portions), but has prudently retained Flagg's greatest hits - like his beloved Charleston Shrimp and Grits.

Dig In: Named for a city that has its grits together, this one's for those who like it easy on the spice. The lovely bowl features South Carolina-sourced, stone-ground Adluh grits that are so rich, buttery and creamy, you could drown a whole week's worth of bad moods in them. Seriously, with my first soothing and comforting slurp, I felt a crappy day melt away, and began happily humming "Cream" by Prince. Then I dug into seven good-tasting shrimp that formed a pretty pink arc around the grits; in the arc's center were a couple dark-seared pieces of andouille sausage. Rimming the bowl - like a solar corona - was a ring of "andouille cream sauce" that offered salty and smoky contrasts for the dreamy grits.

Tab: $19

SURF-N-TURF

Hubbard Grille

Once a buzzy upstart, the Hubbard Grille has smoothly evolved into a Short North stalwart. And the tall, brown and handsome place - which is snazzy, not fancy, and bustling, not hectic - has plenty to offer. There's a nifty patio linked to the bar via glass garage doors; great deals on food and drinks during happy hour (which is all day on Sunday); and standout $10 specials on Monday (serious burger, fries and a craft beer) and Tuesday (good fried chicken dinner).

Dig in: If you're one of those "Where's the beef?" meatheads (hey, it takes one to know one), well, here it is. The beef isn't gratuitous, because Hubbard's Short Ribs and Shrimp is a synergistic dish that tastes as good as it looks - and it looks terrific. The elegant, triptych-style presentation divvies up a trio of "sharable" servings onto a three-sectioned plate. Each portion contains scallion strands atop good-tasting shrimp. Underneath is a layer of the kind of pot roast-y, short rib meat that activates that Homer Simpson drool-and-moan-inducing mechanism in the primate brain. Then come the grits - cheesy (but not excessively so) and comforting. The piece de resistance is a "tomato jus" - think delicious gravy imbued with a little tomato tingle.

The Tab: $13 ($6.50 during HH)

HOOCHED-UP AND FAJITA-ED

Barley's Brewing Company

A trailblazing pioneer and elder statesman of the modern Columbus craft beer movement, the sensational suds arm of Barley's is currently expanding so it can triple its beer-making capabilities. Restaurant-wise though, the casual brewpub has retained its same old wood-and-comfy-padded-booth look, the addition of more ambitious menu items shows the kitchen is on the move, too.

Dig In: This unexpected combination of dance-on-your-tongue fun takes influence-gathering runs through the Low Country, Louisiana and the Lone Star State. Over a half-dozen sweet-tasting crustaceans are scattered about a bowl holding a pool of tomatoey broth armed with welcome spikes of Cajun spices and jolts of hooch. Contrasting textures and nods to Texas arrive via a mess o' fajita-riffing sautéed onions and chili pepper strips plus thick and puffy slices of Texas toast garlic bread. The bread and cheesy white grits (the grits are delightfully dairy-intense) help mediate the intoxicating, mild sting of the boozy jus.

The Tab: $15

Photos by Meghan Ralston