Where to eat, drink in Columbus, Ohio

Friday June 30th, 2017

Heading to Columbus soon? Trying to figure out the best places to eat? Whether you’re looking for an extremely hot piece of chicken or a breakfast biscuit with goat cheese and chorizo, we’ve got you covered right here with a list of the tastiest destinations to hit while you’re in town. 

Hot Chicken Takeover

59 Spruce St, Columbus, OH 43215
This review of Hot Chicken Takeover originally appeared March 16, 2015. 

Nashville’s Thornton Prince liked the ladies a little too much. Specifically, he liked the ladies who weren’t his lady a little too much. So legend has it that one morning after a particularly late night, Prince’s girlfriend fried him some chicken and – as punishment for whatever dalliance Prince committed the night before – loaded the chicken down with hot pepper. Prince loved the spicy chicken so much that he opened a restaurant serving it, and that place has stood for decades.

At least that’s the legend. The truth might be less interesting, but anyone who has ever eaten the skillet-fried birds from Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack knows the chicken is interesting enough without embellishment. But until recently, Hot Chicken has been cloistered in Nashville. The spicy wing went forth from Buffalo’s Anchor Bar and conquered the nation, but Thornton Prince’s cayenne-rubbed miracle has remained a regional fascination.

Fortunately, that’s changing. When I arrived in Columbus, the sportswriter community was buzzing about Hot Chicken Takeover. The place had started in 2014 as pop-up serving out of a window in a restaurant co-op, and late last year it moved into its current home on the second floor of the North Market complex near the Columbus Convention Center. From 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Thursday through Sunday, the staff double fries brined chicken and coats it with a cayenne paste to serve to a Midwestern audience that – like most people outside Nashville – probably didn’t realize the how much better Hot Chicken is than a hot wing.

Hot wings are fried and then tossed in a sauce. Hot Chicken is fried and then coated in that devil paste that was supposed to teach the philandering Thornton Prince a lesson. You can eat a Hot Chicken wing, but you may also eat every other part of the bird as well. The traditional presentation includes a breast or leg quarter staked to a piece of white bread with a toothpick. The bread soaks up the grease and leaves the chicken light in texture and heavy in flavor. Pickles sit atop the toothpick to help manage the capsaicin.

At Prince’s, the “Hot” option (the place’s penultimate offering on the Scoville scale) feels as if it might melt the face before liquefying the internal organs. This is a compliment. Every runny-nosed sniff is a reminder of Thornton Prince’s girlfriend’s alleged rage. I can only assume that those who order Extra Hot at Prince’s had their nerve endings burned out in an industrial accident and must eat that wicked stuff to once again feel—if only for a moment. Since Hot Chicken Takeover is not serving a clientele conditioned to cayenne for generations, helpful employees walk down the line armed with menus and explanations. They educate the uninitiated on the concept of Hot Chicken, and they offer helpful advice so diners aren’t over- or underwhelmed by the heat. Cam, who worked the line on the day I visited, said that since I had eaten Hot Chicken in Nashville before, I should take what I would order at Prince’s and go up one notch. Since I would order Medium at Prince’s, I should order Hot at HCT. Those masochists who would order Hot at Prince’s should order Holy! at HCT.

A meal at HCT comes with the requested piece(s) of chicken (breast, leg quarter, wings or drumsticks) staked to the aforementioned white bread with sides of vinegar-based slaw and macaroni and cheese. The thick, gooey mac and cheese is the star of the sides and provides an excellent foil to the spice on the chicken. But before settling for the basic meal, consider one available upgrade.

For an extra $2, HCT will replace the white bread beneath the chicken with a waffle. Yes, a waffle. Under Hot Chicken. The resulting flavor combination is far too sublime for an idea so simple. The thick waffle stands strong against the grease and heat. Dab it in the warm, house-made syrup for the ultimate spicy-sweet bite. This probably should go without saying, but it’s just a sound philosophy to always upgrade from chicken to chicken and waffles when offered the option. On top of this glorious combo, HCT offers free sweet tea. Not some powder mix, either. Real, honest-to-God brewed tea with the sugar melted into the liquid before it cools. Go ahead, give a little Ess-Eee-See chant for real sweet tea that far north. A Big Ten team holds the national title – and may not be letting anyone take it away for a while – so cherish the small victories. Besides, once Hot Chicken Takeover completes the mission stated in its name, Columbus may feel like an SEC town anyway. Just with a much better football team than the town that created Hot Chicken in the first place.

Philco Bar + Diner

747 N. High St, Columbus, OH 43215
This review of Philco Bar + Diner originally appeared July 6, 2015. 

Something about breakfast for dinner feels slightly subversive to me. It shouldn’t, because in almost every city in America there is an IHOP, Denny’s, Waffle House or Huddle House willing to cook eggs or pancakes or hashbrowns at any hour of the day. Still, sitting down at 7 p.m. to order a biscuit last week felt a bit rebellious. I never cared much for the unwritten rules that dictate when we shall eat waffles and when we shall eat burgers, but my parents always seemed a little mortified when as a high-schooler I’d heat up chicken, green beans and mac and cheese for breakfast or eat waffles for dinner. For them, the lines that separated meals were clearly delineated. They never were for me.

As you’ve probably guessed, I was a goody two-shoes growing up. Eating dinner for breakfast or breakfast for dinner was basically the limit of my rebellion. But it felt good. Maybe that’s why I was drawn to Philco, the upscale Columbus, Ohio, diner with a sign on the door that proudly proclaims the place is open for breakfast from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m.

Philco sits on High Street, meaning it is an easy walk for anyone bar-crawling their way through a Friday or Saturday night. Here’s a humble suggestion. Start your night with breakfast at Philco. They serve dinner entrées there, but why deprive yourself of the most important meal of the day (for the second time that day)? Order one of the local beers on tap or a cocktail, and then order a breakfast biscuit.

The biscuit sandwich from Philco Bar + Diner will call to you.
Andy Staples

The sandwich begins with a large, impossibly fluffy biscuit thick enough to withstand the flood of juice from the quartet of items wedged inside. The combination of a slab of chorizo, a fried egg, goat cheese and shallot preserves packs salty, sweet and umami into each bite. Some of the shallots will fall off onto the tray. You will scoop those up and devour them. Some bits of the chorizo will crumble and roll away after each bite. You’ll collect each one and reunite it with its biscuit neighbors. You may also have ordered the Johnnycakes, which are great. But that won’t matter. All you’ll want is another one of those biscuit sandwiches.

You’ll crave it. It will call to you. And it won’t matter what time of day it is.

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