When Elizabeth Lessner says it's been a challenge to open restaurants Downtown, she's making a gross understatement.
When Lessner, who owns three restaurants in the Downtown district, opened Dirty Frank's in 2009, she contended directly with crime. A gunshot victim staggered into the restaurant one day. She witnessed a stabbing.
But she also saw the block-Fourth Street between Rich and Main-change over time. Police frequent the area more often. Little Palace has gone from being a run-down, infrequently open restaurant to a hipster hotspot. Customers now crowd the doorway at Dirty Frank's.
"In three years it has changed so much," she said.
Other restaurateurs are seeing what Lessner is seeing. An impressive number of restaurants has opened in the city's center in the past year. Among them: The newest MoJoe Lounge outlet, Milestone 229, Element Pizza, Lexi's on Third, Market 65 and Lessner's own Jury Room. And more are on the way.
Of course, there was a time when all of the city's dining destinations were Downtown. But over the years, the restaurants left the city's center, along with the stores-and the crowds. Lunch spots have always done well, but not so long ago, Downtown was a ghost town after 5 p.m.
People who run restaurants Downtown today say they're attracted by the neighborhood's revival, seen in major civic projects like the Scioto Mile and Columbus Commons, and by the construction of more residences. Gourmet grocer The Hills Market will open a Downtown location in spring 2012. But the challenges-parking, not quite enough density, lack of retail and service businesses, strings of vacant storefronts-are daunting.
Downtown gets its mojo back
Mark Swanson, president of MoJoe Lounge, had been scouting a fourth location for his business, and Downtown was looking more attractive.
"We felt this was the right time to be Downtown," he said. "There's a place going in near Jury Room, and there's Jury Room, and you see Little Palace and Dirty Frank's and Market 65… There's a lot of activity south of Broad."
The newest MoJoe Lounge opened in July in the southeast corner of the Lazarus Building, directly across from Columbus Commons. The kitchen is churning out inventive dishes through the casual MoJoe lens.
Swanson said the first months in the space have brought surprises both positive and negative. Happy hour business was better than expected, but weekend mornings have been slow. MoJoe started serving brunch this month.
"It's going to take a while for folks to know we're here and we're consistently open," Swanson said.
Swanson, like plenty of other business owners who venture into emerging neighborhoods, has staked a good portion of his new location on hope and likelihood.
"There are vacant storefronts around us, but we believe those will fill in. I know that real estate agents are showing them," he said.
MoJoe locations are specifically built to rely on their neighborhoods-Short North, German Village, Easton-for business. The newest one might prove a test of that model.
"We genuinely hope that we can earn a living in our neighborhoods, but we also believe we're in good neighborhoods. Our priority in each neighborhood store is that neighborhood. Those are our regulars, our bread and butter," Swanson said.
Swanson's not the only one banking on more housing, more business and more people Downtown. In September Yavonne Sarber was waist-deep in the creation of De-Novo, a 4,000-square-foot bistro under the Kyrie's Cafe sign at 201 S. High St. Sarber, whose Vonn Jazz is located near Worthington, said she scouted Downtown for months before settling on her space.
"We kind of feel we need to get in before we can't," she said. "We see the rapid growth Downtown, and this is a good time where we can afford to get in. I believe in a couple years, there's going to be quite a bit more down there."
Sarber's project lured Chef Robert Harrison, who most recently ran the kitchen at the now defunct Short Story Brasserie in Granville. De-Novo is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner with seating for about 120, and an additional 20 spots at the bar.
"It's a place you can stop a few times a week," Sarber said.
Attract & retain
That's music to the ears of economic-development groups that are working to promote business-and restaurants, specifically-Downtown.
"Our city has allocated a lot of resources to developing Downtown, and they realized all along that an important component was going to be a vibrant food scene," said Katharine Moore, executive director of Dine Originals, a coalition of independently owned restaurants. "Is it a big risk? Yes it is. I think it takes that entrepreneurial spirit to imagine carving out a place for yourself in a new landscape."
Kacey Brankamp loves finding places in that landscape for restaurants. As retail recruiter for the Capital Crossroads Special Improvement District, she matches potential retail and restaurant tenants with available space Downtown. Capital Crossroads is a public-private partnership that acts as a big condo association for a neighborhood.
"They say that retail follows rooftops…but I think Downtown is a unique counter to that," Brankamp said. "You have 100,000 daytime workers, 9 million visitors and a growing residential population with 65,000 residents in adjacent neighborhoods. And there's a large student population of 40,000 students. There's a huge demand for retail goods and services."
There are plenty of challenges. There's a perception that Downtown is less safe than other neighborhoods. Restaurants rarely have dedicated parking lots. Locating on certain stretches of Downtown can be isolating, and businesses would rather cluster together. And the right space is hard to come by; many of the most charming spaces do not contain kitchens. Building one is expensive, and in many older buildings, the process would be structurally complicated.
Downtown restaurants, more than businesses in, say, German Village or the Short North, depend on events to get customers in the door, Moore said. A softball league tournament last August was a huge boost for restaurants Downtown. So was an extended run of "Wicked."
The guys behind the Columbus Brewing Company restaurant-Doug Griggs and Mike Campbell-had wanted to open another restaurant, but Downtown wasn't the focus of their location search. Until they started hearing more about the Scioto Mile.
"The first thing you hear is, 'We're redoing the park and it's going to have a fountain,' and then you hear 'patio,' 'great views.' The more we found out about it, the more excited we became," Griggs said.
Milestone 229 has a three-year lease on the one-of-a-kind space on the Scioto Mile, with an option to extend the lease. From the dining room or patio, diners get a breathtaking view of the Scioto River, the Columbus skyline and sunset. The menu straddles a line between upscale and casual fare, offering pizzas and sandwiches but also dressier entrees and a slick cocktail menu.
There is literally no other restaurant like it in Columbus, so it's an interesting experiment in restaurant ownership.
Milestone's greatest built-in asset is its perch on a wildly popular new public space. But that public space-like Columbus Commons-will be far less of a draw in February than it is in July. Though programming in Bicentennial Park was a boon to Milestone in the summer, Griggs thinks the business will hold its own even in colder weather.
"We knew going in that there was going to be some seasonability," Griggs said. "We want to do a good enough job with the restaurant itself that we could stand on our own… I think we've done that. The feedback's been good."
Lessner frequently heads to Twitter to encourage people to come Downtown to the Jury Room, luring diners with delicious descriptions. But she acknowledges it's tough to build momentum in a Downtown restaurant.
On recent Friday and Saturday evenings, when her Surly Girl and Betty's in the Short North were buzzing with diners, Jury Room was sleepy and not quite half-full.
"The Downtown locations are harder, but they're more rewarding," said Lessner, who also owns Tip Top Kitchen & Cocktails Downtown. "We can't take customers for granted Downtown. In the Short North, you have a steady stream of people all the time… Downtown isn't quite dense enough yet."
Griggs echoed that.
"We're very destination specific," he said. "You have to decide you're going to [our] area and drive there. There are not other businesses around."
Lessner knows that scenario well. When she opened Tip Top about five years ago, Gay Street was not the bustling dining destination it is now. Far from it.
"We love being first in an area that's revitalizing. Just the idea of being part of our city coming back [is exciting]," Lessner said. "If I can contribute in a meaningful way, if I can bring back some vibrancy, nothing would make me happier than to see Downtown pop."
Meet the people bringing dining back Downtown
Dirty Frank's, 248 S. Fourth St.
Jury Room, 2 E. Mound St.
Tip Top Kitchen and Cocktails, 73 E. Gay St.
Doug Griggs and Mike Campbell
Milestone 229, 229 Civic Center Dr.
De-Novo, 201 S. High St.
Photos by Alysia Burton