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Columbus, OH: The New Midwest
by Ryan Kasley, PGN Philadelphia Gay News
When I was first asked to attend an LGBT media trip in Columbus, OH, I was skeptical that it would be worth my while. When I thought of places to get away from Philadelphia for a long weekend, the Midwest didn’t exactly jump to mind. In fact, I wasn’t even sure where Columbus was, let alone what there was to do there. Did gay people even live there?
But when I saw the trip itinerary and researched the bars and restaurants that we would be attending, my jaw dropped to the floor — there was some seriously good food. That alone was enough to convince me to go. Three full days of amazing eats? Sign me up. And I am so glad that I did.
I had an absolute blast.
I stayed at The Joseph Hotel (a Le Meridian brand) in the popular Short North arts-district neighborhood. The Joseph is the newest hotel in Columbus. Its modern architecture seemed designed around the incredible modern art collection that it houses. Apparently, the owner of the hotel, the Pizzuti family (also a major developer in the area), has one of the top private art collections in the world. As a guest at The Joseph, I also received special access to the Pizzuti collection gallery that was right across the street.
My bedroom was extremely comfortable, smartly furnished, had a beautiful view looking north over High Street and the rest of the Short North neighborhood and was replete with even more great art. Staff and service, from check in to check out, was top notch.
We kicked things off with handcrafted cocktails at Curio, a small, moody bar across town in the German Village area. Not quite a speakeasy-style joint, but similarly intimate, we broke the ice with fellow LGBT journalists from across the country and got to know our hosts from Experience Columbus.
Dinner was at a German Village establishment, Barcelona, where we had a Midwestern take on tapas. The plates were still small, but the dishes were a little richer and heavier in a comfort-food kind of way. I had the pan-seared scallops in a creamy cremini mushroom sauce with dates and chili flakes over crispy bacon and baby lima beans. Delicious.
Post-dinner drinks were had at Club Diversity. “Club” might be an overstatement, but this stand-alone Victorian home-turned-gay bar served generously strong martinis. If it had been a little warmer out, we would have mingled in an enormous backyard/patio area that I’m sure will be packed all summer.
Back up in the Short North, we capped the night off with more libations at Union Café. While not exclusively a gay bar, Union dominates the LGBT nightlife scene in the neighborhood. Even on a Thursday night, it was packed.
Friday began with a farm-to-table breakfast at a Columbus institution, Skillet. This hole-in-the-wall doesn’t seat more than 20 people — but that won’t stop throngs of loyal customers from queuing outside for hours. We had the place to ourselves for a special seating before they even opened and were joined by Shannon Hardin, an openly gay black Columbus City Councilmember.
Hardin really piqued my interest. I got the sense that, if Columbus was appointing open LGBTs to city government, despite being surrounded by conservative state politics, they were setting the progressive standard for the rest of the state to follow.
But I wasn’t ready to pack my bags and move to “C-bus” just yet.
However, after a walking tour of the incredibly charming and historic German Village, it was quickly becoming hard to resist. We made stops at a couple points of interest, including an excellent independent bookstore, Book Loft (I found a coffee-table-grade French cookbook for nothing), and wound up at The Kitchen for lunch.
Chefs and co-owners Jen Lindsey and Anne Boninsegna expertly guided us through this cook-it-yourself social kitchen. We broke into small groups and each prepared one of five courses. I helped prepare a strawberry chiffon cake while sipping a crisp pinot gris. The decadent lunch was served family style at a rustically set table that sat all 15 of us.
We spent the afternoon wading through the Columbus Museum of Art, which is nearly finished with a massive expansion project.
To fend off our food comas, we stopped by Fox in the Snow for locally roasted coffee. After a brief respite, we headed to Seventh Son Brewing Company for a refreshing flight of some of Columbus’ best beer.
C-bus takes beer seriously. There are 25 breweries in town that form the popular “Ale Trail.” The five closest to downtown, which included Seventh Son, are known as “Brewer’s Row.”
Next to the Short North is the Victorian Village neighborhood, named for its stately historic homes. Tucked between two of these beautiful buildings is Basi Italia, where we had dinner that night. I had a simple but expertly prepared rigatoni salumeria with sweet sausage, tomato, raisins, fennel and pine nuts. Co-owner and operator Trish Gentile dined with us and led us through a thoughtfully curated wine menu with amazing finds from Napa, France and Italy.
Entertainment for the evening was provided by Nina West’s Excellent Adventure Drag Show at Axis, a gay club across the street from Union Café. After Nina, we wandered over to Union for more libations before heading back to Axis after midnight for dancing. Again, both bars were packed.
We spent most of Saturday on a food tour of Grandview, a town right next to Columbus. Highlights included Café Brioso (a locally roasted coffee emporium), Spagio (Chef Hubert Seifart used to cook for the royal family of Spain) and Third and Hollywood (think old-world glam meets farm-to-table fresh).
Later that afternoon, we strolled along High Street through the Short North and poked around to do a little shopping.
Dinner was at The Guild House, which was attached to our hotel. Rustic and sophisticated, the artisan creative American cuisine was the perfect “last supper” in C-bus.
Saturday night was absolutely bustling in the Short North. It happened to be a Gallery Hop night, and the streets were flooded with people ambling up and down High Street. Every bar and restaurant was packed. It was buzzing with an energy that I would have never expected.
Who knew you could have so much fun in Ohio?
There is so much happening in Columbus right now. It’s a little hard to put a thumb down on its identity. As the youngest big-city in Ohio, C-bus is still coming into its own. It’s youthful, vibrant and immeasurably optimistic about its future. It checks all the boxes as far as the food, drink and arts scene. What more could one ask for from a city?
Columbus is redefining Ohio and the Midwest and absolutely deserves a visit. I know I’ll be back again soon.