A food renaissance is underway in the quaint town of Wooster, just 90 minutes north of Columbus.
A modern farm-to-plate restaurant employing a chef formerly of Cleveland's illustrious Greenhouse Tavern shaves salt-cured eggs onto fresh asparagus, produces its own hams, roasts its own coffee beans and distills its own cognac. Attached to the eatery is an edgy butcher shop where an artisan makes sauerkraut and smoked duck-and-cherry sausages. Sharing space with the butcher is a hip deli that sells wine and more than 50 kinds of beer. And within a five-minute stroll, you can be at a state-of-the-art craft brewery or a cute Hungarian bakery. Yep, we must be in Wooster.
About a 90-minute drive from Columbus-and approximately 60 miles from Cleveland-Wooster is a small college town and the seat of government for Wayne County. This is farm country, always has been. But in the foodie-mad 21st century, "farm country" has a new cachet of cool to it. Capitalizing on this, the rejuvenated downtown Wooster restaurant scene is reaping what it has always sown, only now, in a more fashionable style.
Witness five-year-old Local Roots, an expansive co-op and community center where a wooden plank depiction of Ohio decorates a "farm-to-cafe" counter restaurant. Local Roots (which offers local arts and crafts) sells a cornucopia of high-quality Ohio groceries. These are exclusively used to produce fresh and flavorful breakfast and lunch-style fare.
A simple salad becomes memorable because of just-harvested lettuces and homemade balsamic dressing. Soups, like a zingy southwestern-style black bean (made with Shagbark Seed & Mill beans) or chunky organic chicken and veggie, are excellent choices, too. And I loved the Cafe Favorite-a grilled farmers cheese, sliced apple and caramelized onion sandwich on cracked wheat bread from nearby Broken Rocks Cafe and Bakery.
Just around the corner is The First Amendment Public House-a sleek, fun and friendly three-year-old tavern. Rehabbed church pews, outlaw country tunes, a glossy wooden bar and a postmodern red, white and blue motif set the scene for serious craft beers, juicy burgers (get The Rotunda with smoked brisket on top and jalapeno slaw on the side) and weekly Science Cafe discussions frequently led by College of Wooster professors. Often playing to packed houses, Science Cafe topics range from the green revolution to toxic algae blooms to the five-second rule.
Like 'most everything in Wooster, Tulipan Pastry and Coffee Shop is only a short stroll away, in the center of Downtown. Old-World photos, high ceilings, brick walls and classical music greet customers hungry for Tulipan's darling ambiance and Hungarian food. Try the homey veggie soup-based Pork Goulash and the Chicken Paprikash Palacsinta (delicate-yet-comforting crepes with a sour cream and paprika sauce). And do not leave without an armful of sweets, like kifli (aka kolache), Tulipan's light, lovely and famous lemon-glazed Hungarian cheesecake, and-my favorite-gerbaud (terrific torte with crushed pecans, raspberry jam and dark chocolate frosting).
Take a shopping break right next door at nifty Lucky Records, a year-and-a-half-old vinyl specialist. Owner Dave Rodgers is quick with a smile, fluent in current and vintage releases and local cultural events, and knowledgeable about Wooster's newly vibrant restaurant scene.
The vintage and the contemporary likewise mesh seamlessly at Wooster's mighty food triumvirate (alluded to above) of Louie's Local Meats, Spoon Market and Oak Grove Eatery. Three-year-old Spoon, which includes a nicely stocked culinary boutique, is the aforementioned deli. Locals flock there to hang out, sample beers and wines and order house-made salads, sides and sandwiches from a menu written on butcher paper. Try the Reuben-like City Slicker or the Weird Science (turkey, nutty-cranberry slaw, Swiss cheese and grain mustard).
Speaking of butcher paper, in the rear of Spoon is Louie's, an independent business and fantastic meat shop led by Adam Nussbaum. Using hard-won classic techniques-and locally raised livestock-Nussbaum and crew fashion a wealth of wonderful sausages like Polish Boys, kielbasa, boudin, chorizo and must-have smoked spicy Hungarian links.
This brings us to the jewel of the revitalized Woosterian vittles movement: Oak Grove Eatery. Connected by a door to Spoon, Oak Grove (premiered autumn 2014) occupies the old South Market Bistro space, and is where ham, coffee and cognac are made in house.
Owner (and former South Market chef) Eric Lloyd and head chef Colin Brown oversee the small, gastropub-like and handsome restaurant and its intensely local-focused, scratch menu. Meals served all day might include an enormous and wonderfully sweet and savory Cinnamon Roll Sandwich (runny local egg, house ham and bacon); that beautiful asparagus and salt-cured egg dish (it incorporates a quail egg and local cheese to riff on hollandaise sauce); a lovely salad with nut-crusted goat cheese croute; phenomenally fresh, pan-roasted sweet poussin with heady mint-and-pea sauce, peppery foraged greens and tri-colored carrots (basically, spring on a plate); plus a classed-up and irresistible Cleveland-Italian classic-Cassata Cake.
If a beer sounds good now, head to high-performing JAFB. Open, like so many places in this story, for less than three years, JAFB (i.e. "Just Another F---ing Brewery") occupies a warehouse-y space with sports-tuned TVs and 16 of its accomplished brews on tap. When I visited, they ranged from dark and fruity Abbey Dubbel to refreshingly citrusy New Stunt IPA to crisp Old 30 Pilsner.
No visit to Wooster is complete without ripping into a brawny pizza from the city's landmark eatery: Coccia House. Baking monster pies out of a barely converted modest home since 1958, perennially packed Coccia (pronounced "coach-ee") is a way of life here. Locals-who routinely line up outside and gladly wait up to two hours to score a treasured pie-know to request "light grass" if they want less of the proprietary herb sprinkle, and to get their pizza "bricked" if they want the thick Coccia crust to be extra crispy.
These are celebratory pizzas of abundance. They arrive loaded with attractively browned provolone, a lush-yet-tangy sauce emboldened by oregano and a lot of garlic, and a ton of toppings you'll taste in every bite. The zesty pepperoni is popular (ask for "pot" if you like your pepperoni on top-toppings here typically come tucked under the cheese), as is the mild and house-made crumbled Italian sausage.
Whatever you get, plan on leftovers and the heaviest pizza box you've ever lifted. And then start planning your next trip to again taste ever-quaint, yet new-and-improving Wooster.
G.A. Benton is a Columbus-based food critic for Columbus Alive and The Columbus Dispatch.