The 2020 Year in Columbus Dining

G.A. Benton

What can I say about eating out in 2020? That sometimes it seemed, well, way out?

I should officially begin by stating well-known facts that bear repeating: 2020 was one of the worst years ever for restaurants, and locally owned establishments need and deserve all of the support they can get. For me, this means ordering takeout from worthy places on a weekly basis.

I should also mention that the last time a server waited on me in a dining room was more than nine months ago, and that happened in a neighborhood eatery that no longer exists. Back in the non-plague days (remember those?), you'd find me blithely over ordering food from servers in various restaurants at least three times a week. 

But in a year when coronavirus was in the actual air and dining inside with unmasked and unknown people became a dicey proposition, choosing a new place to review often meant devising a plan to consume a to-go meal close by, before the food became cold or texturally compromised.

So I began driving around town with my own plates and cutlery. Armed with these, I staged dozens of improvised picnics — sometimes in charming small parks, sometimes in locations that were rather bizarre. Lately, I've been eating in my car with the heater on.

It speaks to our city’s resilience and strong restaurant scene that, even amid intense, pandemic-linked challenges, a lot of interesting and terrific places premiered in 2020. Luckily, I was able to sample the fare prepared by many of them. Hopefully, every one of them will survive the literal and figurative dark winter ahead.

With all of this said, here are some delicious reasons why I’ll be sipping celebratory champagne soon from a glass that will not be half empty. 

Hip Pocket

Frankfurt Street in the Brewery District was THE epicenter for hip new restaurants in 2020. On High Street,Dough Mama opened a branch that serves the same great pies, pastries and trendy biscuit sandwiches as the original Clintonville location. But the newcomer offers dinner dishes, too — think comfort food with an elegant edge — such as the Sausage & Apple Pot Pie.

Biscuits were big in 2020. They were downright enormous atBoxwood Biscuit Co. — which functions as the food-service arm of refined Law Bird Bar next door to Dough Mama. Although currently on hiatus, expect Boxwood to offer its Biscuit & Gravy Flight, along with its creative oversize biscuit sandwiches, again soon.

Just a few steps from Boxwood sits wonderfulEmmett’s Cafe.Culture-hopping, dynamic, brunch-leaning dishes are the game, and Emmett’s wins going away with flavor-bursting bowls, well-crafted sandwiches and imaginative treats. Among its impressive fare is the Meat + Tato, one of the best new breakfast sandwiches in Columbus.

A few blocks east, in the original Max & Erma’s building at Frankfurt and Third, you’ll find one of the more auspicious local restaurant openings in years:Chapman’s Eat Market, which is owned and operated by BJ Lieberman, a Michelin-starred chef. Despite those credentials, Lieberman runs an unpretentious place that serves fun, eclectic fare that ranges from a killer cheeseburger and superior fries to a dynamite Thai-Burmese-style curry (Chicken & Shrimp Khao Soi) and the Mexican-riffing Lamb Shank Barbacoa. Chapman’s also offers a special-occasion, eight-course tasting menu for only $60. 

Garden Variety

Columbus has become a hothouse for vegan restaurants. A corollary of this development is that an ever-wider variety of plant-based dishes is now available.

Looking for reimagined all-American classics? Try Portia’s YumBurger fromPortia’s Dinerin Clintonville.Vida’s Plant Based Butcher in Grandview will hook you up with deli sandwiches (often featuring house-made seitan) and a very fine Sloppy Joe. Fans of Ethiopian food who go toNile Vegan(with branches in Grandview and theUniversity District)will find healthful, spicy and delicious entrees served on injera (fermented flatbread) “platters,” such as the terrific Chickpea Sauce Combo.

It takes a special talent to make vegan food as tasty as fast-food favorites, but two excellent places have routinely been displaying such wizardry: Village Taco on the South Side (try the Taco Bell-esque Double Crunch Cheezy Gorvita Bacunator and the Rollin’ Green enchilada-burrito) and hellaciously goodSeitan’s Realmin Clintonville (try the Poppers and the Arby’s-inspired Beeef N Chedduh).  

Meat and Greet 

Inveterate carnivores were well catered to with strong restaurant openings, too.

Wario’s Beef and Pork,which operates from a walk-up window right across from Nationwide Arena, makes ridiculously good and freaking enormous Philadelphia-inspired sandwiches and potato dishes. Put simply, there is no better Philly-style cheesesteak in town than The Steak Wario’s Way. If a collision between a cheesesteak and loaded potatoes sounds great — and I guarantee it is — get the Wario’s Spuds.

Cleaveris an excellent, meat-centric establishment and sibling of The Butcher & Grocer, a popular shop committed to artisanship and local sourcing (both are located in the same Grandview strip mall). Cleaver’s changes seasonally, but its always delectable Meatballs and its Cubano — a standout Cuban sandwich — taste even better when partnered with its fantastic steak fries.

You don’t often see camel meat and roasted goat on local menus. Ditto for chicken suqqar — a spicy and addictive curry-like preparation. Well, they're all available in healthful and delicious design-your-own bowls sold byAfra Grilla Somali-centric eatery with a drive-through window in the Northland area that’s become a go-to for inexpensive to-go meals in my household.

Elevated Sub-Continent Cuisine

Offering artfully plated food, carefully curated ambiences and professional hospitality, upscale eateries are designed for dining in. Put another way, their charms rarely translate well to cardboard boxes. So, with a few exceptions (like Chapman’s, which I visited when the place was only doing takeout), I put reviewing fine-dining establishments on the backburner. But before the pandemic hit, I had terrific meals inside two very different upscale Indian restaurants.

Named after the Hindi word for “courtyard” — a spacious courtyard leads to its entrance —Aangan India Bistro is a big and snazzy establishment in the Crosswoods area with white tablecloths, glittering cut-glass chandeliers and a tall, vaulted ceiling. This is the place for skillfully prepared cuisine classics such as Vindaloo and Lamb Rogan Josh.

You’ll find a much more modernist sensibility at trendy and elegantRoohin the Short North. The roomy, chic eatery is equipped with plush blue and peach-colored booths, stylish tiles, pretty wallpaper and decorative plates. Dinner plates are decorated with what Rooh calls “progressive Indian cuisine.” Expect international accents, ingredients such as “curd rice mousse” and a fantastic version of Butter Chicken.

Truck Stops 

Ordering from food trucks became an easy way to circumvent many of the threatening issues associated with the coronavirus. Fortunately, 2020 was a banner year for these open-air eateries.

Some of the best Mexican food I've had recently was cooked in a parking lot across from Ohio State East Hospital. There,Alebrijes serves crave-inducing, smoke-scented grilled chicken that’s very similar to the signature dish of its predecessor, the beloved Los Potosinos taco truck. Alebrijes also offers lusty pork ribs and take-note specials such as outstanding chicken mole.

In Clintonville, two strong-performing mobile eateries are keeping locals well-fed all day long.Winston’s Coffee & Waffles knows how to get mornings off to a great start with its namesake specialties (The Empire is an excellent assembly: a sausage-embedded first-rate waffle topped with egg and cheese).Taste of Greece and Moroccan, a gyro specialist that acquired new ownership last year, offers lunch and dinner fare that includes overachieving Brussels sprouts and a terrific, shawarma-like Moroccan Burger served with addictive fries.       

The only place in town specializing in the food of Uzbekistan isRed Square Grille, which is parked outside of Romashka Euro Deli on the Northwest Side. You can’t beat Red Square’s deals on kebabs (Shashlik) and scratch-made savory pastries, such as its lovely chicken-and-cheese Samsa.

Offering what it calls “Native American street food,”NAICCO Cuisineis another locally unique eatery. An inspired and inspiring project from the Native American Indian Center of Central Ohio (NAICCO), this food trailer showcases exceptional house-made fry bread in dishes such as the crowd-pleasing NDN Taco and the extremely comforting, empanada-like NAICCO Pocket.

Tacos from Alebrijes