The tables at Rigsby’s are clad in brown paper, and the servers are wearing jeans. But never fear—the food is still elegantly simple, never easy.
You know how they say that, over time, spouses or even pets and their human companions come to resemble one another? The same can be said of restaurants and their owners over the course of many years. Alana’s, for example, is every bit as eccentric and laissez-faire as its namesake. The boisterous spirit of chef Hubert Seifert is evident in the splashes of color in art and food at Spagio.
But more than any other restaurant in the city, Kent Rigsby is omnipresent in his restaurant, once a brave outpost in a seedy Short North and now a nearly 30-year-old institution. Rigsby’s intellectual curiosity, his constant study of Italian and Mediterranean cooking traditions, a luxurious but clean-cut aesthetic and his passion for art are inherent in the space that has borne his name since 1986.
It’s Rigsby’s forward-looking mind and heart that inspire the constant evolution of the restaurant, which just a couple years ago was still a waiters-in-ties-and-long-aprons place. Service remains a hallmark at Rigsby’s, but it has become noticeably more casual, responding to the evolving attitudes of people who eat at fine dining places today. These patrons have a few requirements: impeccably sourced and prepared food, just-right service and an atmosphere in which elbows on tables and jeans are not necessarily frowned upon.
Not all restaurateurs are able to keep up with a changing clientele over the decades. You know the places—the ones you raved about 10, 20 years ago but that never moved on from the attitudes and aesthetics of those times. But Rigsby’s feels youthful and contemporary still.
I first noticed big shifts at Rigsby’s when the restaurant hired talented cocktail muse Nicolene Schwartz to reintroduce diners to bitter liqueurs, amari in Italian parlance. This killed two birds with one stone: It honored the heritage, authentic food products that Rigsby adores and it did so in a way that would appeal to chic young things. They flock to the bar at happy hour, where on Wednesday nights they can also sample a relatively new menu of artisan grilled cheese sandwiches for $5 a pop. Never mind that Rigsby’s has had a grilled cheese sandwich on the lunch menu for quite some time; serve it at happy hour at a digestible price and, voila, it’s cool.
Change is evident in the dining room, too, where brown butcher paper stamped with the indelible straight-edged skillet logo of the restaurant is laid on tables and jaunty striped kitchen towels stand in for napkins. Waitstaff have shed those passe long aprons, instead donning skinny jeans, chambray shirts, hip-length aprons and Chuck Taylors.
Clever, all this window dressing. It does change the air in the dining room. Diners feel free to laugh a little louder, linger a little longer. There’s no stiffening to attention as the starched-shirt waiter approaches.
How does food fit into all of this change? The food at Rigsby’s remains some of the best in Columbus, but even here there have been subtle revisions. Exceptional bread, from the restaurant’s own Eleni-Christina Bakery across High Street, is served with fruity and slightly bitter olive oil instead of butter. Portion sizes across the menu hit the bullseye almost every single time, giving diners only as much as they can eat comfortably. You’d think this skill would be a no-brainer for kitchens that crank out hundreds of meals a day, but portion distortion of both the too-big and too-small extremes abounds. Fried foods are few and far between, and heavy dairy and cheese are used with restraint. Vegetables hardly take a backseat—rather, they’re used as greeting cards for each new season.
Take the Perline ($20) pasta for example: These tiny pasta purses filled with cheese were dressed with pancetta and squash in winter but had changed into some bright-green peas for an early spring visit. Either way, the bowl is a beautiful and flavorful beacon of the season. Similarly, Colorado lamb chops ($30) arrived with a deep orange wedge of acorn squash stuffed with a bit of lamb sausage, a bright pile of spinach and a puddle of Snowville Creamery yogurt. This dish was deeply comforting and fortifying for a blustery and unkind February evening. Visit now with a hankering for lamb, and you’ll receive a rustic spiedini of lamb ($27) with fresh zucchini salad and a sauce made of that same yogurt. (If you haven’t tried it yet, do. The plain is a culinary chameleon, and the flavored varieties are pure dessert.)
Not such a fan of change? There are menu constants if you are a creature of habit. One excellent option is the Cacciucco ($30), a cousin of cioppino and even bouillabaisse. Tender fish and shellfish lounge in a bright and light tomato broth, accompanied only by a slice of charred bread. This is such clean, honest eating. I thought the same of a Crispy Pork Belly starter ($9), which was served with Umbrian-style lentils and salsa verde when we tried it. The flavors were true and clear, the pairing of the pork with lentils so smart. And though the experience lasted only a few bites, it was really memorable.
This isn’t to say the menu is ascetic—indeed, you can be plenty naughty at Rigsby’s. Indulge in bracing Sicilian meatballs ($9) with tomato sauce, polenta and sharp shavings of cheese. Beef Carpaccio ($14) is a bit over-the-top when capped with a crispy sweetbread salad, but why the hell not? The real gut-buster is the Vacherin Glace ($12), a dessert for two. The traditional spumoni ice cream flavors—chocolate, strawberry and pistachio—are sandwiched between layers of porous meringue that melts on contact and tastes just like childhood. Because this could not possibly be enough, it is topped with chocolate sauce, whipped cream, cherries and a sprinkling of chocolate chips. It is a whimsical delight, and it could serve six.
Rigsby’s isn’t perfect, even though it’s one of those places about which fans say you can order at will from the menu without consequence. That wasn’t the case with a grilled calamari starter ($13), which was underseasoned and unevenly cooked. Even a wedge of cheesy polenta couldn’t perk it up. The same night, an almond-lemon cake ($10) sounded appetizing but proved a rare disaster; the cake was dry and bitter, and I had to ask for help identifying what turned out to be a blueberry custard sauce. It was the color of wet cement.
That anyone still mentions Rigsby’s Kitchen in a conversation about the best dining in Columbus is a testament to Kent Rigsby’s talent for his business—and a credit to son Forbes Rigsby, who can be found most nights running the kitchen and whose influence is strongly felt on the menu. Change is unavoidable—the trick is in whether it passes you by or whether you move thoughtfully with the tide. Rigsby’s Kitchen is doing just that, with grace.