Columbus has transformed its urban core over the past two decades, but Downtown's restaurant scene remains sluggish. Here's what's holding it back—and why its success is about more than just food and drink.

Veritas is the sort of restaurant food-lovers gush about with each other. It offers a boundary-pushing chef’s tasting menu, well-paired wines and an intimate setting in the bottom of the beautifully redeveloped Citizens Building. There’s even an upstairs bar, The Citizens Trust, with unique cocktails, interesting beers, plush couches, a pool table and other upscale touches in the soaring first floor of the former bank.

It is also the sort of restaurant that owner and chef Josh Dalton always wanted but couldn’t have afforded in the Short North, at Easton Town Center or in Dublin’s new Bridge Park development. The big, open kitchen and opulent spaces are a product of its location, Downtown, where the dining scene is eclectic but has just never clicked—which can make filling seats a challenge but also means much more attractive lease deals. “It was our opportunity to get a restaurant that was beyond our means,” Dalton says about moving to the building on Gay Street.

Dalton opened Veritas Tavern several years ago in Delaware as a prestige project—his popular 1808 American Bistro paid most of the bills. Veritas grew through word-of-mouth and gained a reputation for excellence, but Dalton wasn’t satisfied. He wanted to bring it to the big city, and in late 2017, Veritas opened Downtown to much buzz. “It was a way to get as many people as possible to taste my food,” he says.

That hasn’t exactly worked out—not yet anyway.

Downtown Columbus hasn’t been a magnet for the dinner crowd in decades. The gutting of urban centers across America in the ’70s and ’80s struck here more than once. Columbus lost its retail mecca, Lazarus department store, long ago, then Columbus City Center failed in 2009 and was demolished. In fact, parking garages and lots feel as numerous as the office buildings they serve. Little retail remains, and many of the restaurants are casual, lunch-only operations.

The gutting left Downtown—a large area centered on Capitol Square and stretching from the Arena District to the north, Interstate 70 to the south, the Scioto River to the west and the Discovery District to the east—with a tiny population. Even though the number of residents has increased dramatically over the past two decades as civic leaders and developers have focused on Downtown redevelopment, the current population of about 9,000 is still small compared to other parts of town.

There is still a large daytime population of tens of thousands of state employees, as well as private sector workers at Nationwide Insurance, American Electric Power, Huntington Bank, Columbia Gas, CoverMyMeds, Chase, PNC Bank and others. That’s all right for restaurants catering to the lunch crowd, but it is a slog to keep those workers from heading off to the suburbs after work. “Once it is 5 o’clock and the whistle blows, they head out,” says Bob Welcher, president of Restaurant Consultants Inc. “Downtown isn’t where it is at.”

Dalton sees the 9-to-5 workforce flow out of Downtown like receding flood waters each night. “At 6 o’clock, people leave. I’m like, ‘Stay, don’t go,’” Dalton says. “We’re trying, we’re getting better, but there are still a lot of empty seats during the week.”

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The hole in the middle of Columbus is getting smaller. Since former Mayor Mike Coleman made Downtown revitalization his signature issue, Downtown has steadily improved—first with tentative historic rehabs in the early 2000s, now with massive new multiuse developments that are turning the heart of the city into one of the hottest construction zones in Central Ohio. More than $450 million in construction projects are currently underway in Downtown, while an additional $2.1 billion’s worth have been proposed, according to a February 2019 report from the Capital Crossroads and Discovery District special improvement districts.

If you haven’t visited Downtown in a decade, you’re in for an eye-opening experience. Where the struggling City Center once stood, you’ll find Columbus Commons, a 6-acre park that hosts concerts, festivals and more. That park is surrounded by new multiuse projects, such as the recently completed $90 million 80 on the Commons, and is a short walk away from a rejuvenated riverfront with new greenspaces, bike paths, boat launches and gorgeous views of the Downtown skyline.

But the shiny new buildings and pretty new parks can go only so far in reinvigorating Downtown. What really brings energy to a neighborhood are restaurants—or, more specifically, lively and sophisticated dinner spots where people gather after hours for food, fun and camaraderie. Those types of eateries are lacking in many areas of Downtown, particularly around Capitol Square and RiverSouth, the new neighborhood that has sprouted up near Columbus Commons and Bicentennial Park in recent years. And despite the building boom and an active theater district, the area still is struggling to attract new restaurants, as well as maintain what it has. Downtown lost six eateries last year while gaining eight, one of which has since gone out of business. Without more dining vitality, its transformation won’t be complete.

A lack of consistent weeknight traffic has likely sunk a lot of Downtown restaurants, from the reimagined Chintz Room and De Novo to the 250 High building’s Salt & Pine, a onetime stunner of a restaurant that is now closed to the public and serves as Condado Tacos’ test kitchen. Similarly, several concepts have shuffled in and out of the northeast corner of the KeyBank Building at Third and Broad streets, while the PNC building’s ground floor, which once housed an Au Bon Pain, has been empty for years. “That’s a tough market, Downtown,” Welcher says. “If I had a restaurant to open and I looked Downtown, I’d say the demographics aren’t there.”

Welcher’s sentiment plays out in the site selection for national brands building in Columbus. RAM Restaurant & Brewery opened in the Short North (but later closed) and in Dublin’s Bridge Park. Shake Shack will be in Easton and also the Short North. Giordano’s, a well-known Chicago pizza chain, opened on Polaris Parkway. When Stone Brewing Co. selected a site for its second brewery and restaurant, it picked Richmond, Virginia, instead of Downtown Columbus. BrewDog, which has its U.S. headquarters in Canal Winchester, has opened pubs in the Short North and Franklinton.

There are bright pockets of activity and success, though. The Fourth Street corridor, from Wolf’s Ridge Brewing just north of Spring Street to The Walrus near the corner of Fourth and Main streets, has become a vibrant bar and dining destination. In just one block there is Mikey’s Late Night Slice, Hadley’s Bar + Kitchen, 16-Bit Bar + Arcade, Red Velvet Café, El Camino Inn, Dirty Frank’s Hot Dog Palace, and around the corner is Pecan Penny’s, The Walrus and Sidebar. A few blocks north sits Pins Mechanical Co., Elevator Brewing Co.’s taproom and Wolf’s Ridge.

“There is a lot of positive energy in a lot of places [Downtown],” says David Miller, president of Cameron Mitchell Restaurants, which has seven properties in the Short North but none Downtown other than M, which is in Miranova Place, away from the hub of Capitol Square and the city’s grand theaters.

Miller mentions Gay Street, which intersects the two pockets on Fourth, as one of Downtown’s jewels. The Edwards Cos. have been developing apartments and condos along Gay, spawning something of a restaurant row there anchored by Due Amici, Tip Top Kitchen & Cocktails and Tiger + Lily. Veritas is also on Gay but further west, just out of the more densely developed strip.

“Clusters work,” Welcher says. “Lots of restaurants in one place attracts people. Look at the Short North.”

The reason Cameron Mitchell has seven restaurants all within a few blocks is that the foot traffic, residential density and daytime office population mean steady business. People also gravitate to the Short North to grab drinks, window shop, have a bite to eat, then maybe get an ice cream cone—all of it walkable. “That density doesn’t exist Downtown,” Miller says. “It’s coming, it just isn’t there yet.”

High Street Downtown is a particularly vexing corridor. Elevator Brewing does well on one end, albeit closer to the Arena District, the convention center and big hotels, yet near Columbus Commons restaurants have struggled to survive or even get off the ground.

A brewpub, Blasted Barley Beer Co., slated for one of the retail spaces in the Highpoint development that fronts High Street and the Commons, scuttled its plans for Columbus. The site sits adjacent to De Novo’s last restaurant space, which has been empty since early 2018. A good chunk of Highpoint’s retail spaces, facing High Street, remain empty.

One of Highpoint’s tenants has been a hit. Condado, a locally owned taqueria with Day of the Dead décor, has bucked the trend on its block. Owner Joe Kahn is a Downtown evangelist. “We are doing great,” Kahn says. “When we opened [in 2015] it was supposed to be the next big area. We were excited to be there. We love the Commons. There aren’t a whole lot of restaurants; I was hoping for more.”

Kahn isn’t shy about his location’s success. When prospective restaurant owners come through and ask about Downtown, he lets them know that it can work. “We tell people they can do it,” Kahn says. “I always say, ‘If you have a good concept, do a good job, you can make it Downtown.’”

He admits that it isn’t perfect. He wishes the Commons offered more programming, like concerts and other events, and says there needs to be more apartments and residents, and most of all, more restaurants.
“We can do better, if we had more synergy,” Kahn says. “High Street has taken longer than Fourth Street. Fourth Street has a lot of energy, and we hope Fourth Street and Downtown become one area.”

Another Downtown believer is Troy Allen, founder of Rise Brands, which owns Pins Mechanical and 16-Bit. Allen is partnering with Schottenstein Real Estate Group to renovate a ramshackle building just behind Pins into Rise Brands’ new company headquarters. Nearby, he recently opened a new members-only bar, No Soliciting. Allen says he likes the energy Downtown and that his locations there give visibility to his brands, which has led to deals to open Pins and 16-Bit locations in Bridge Park, Easton and in Cincinnati, Nashville and Indianapolis.

Marc Conte, deputy director of research, planning and facilities for Capital Crossroads, agrees that Downtown is broken up into smaller enclaves. He thinks retail, like in the Short North, is vital for the area’s redevelopment. “The thing we really need is shopping retail Downtown,” says Conte. “We need more feet on the street. That will lead to more workers, more residents.”

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One of the obstacles to development Downtown is not just that it is big. There are also a lot of small property owners who have one or just a few parcels, and there isn’t a cohesive vision of how to tie it all together, Conte says. The Arena District had Nationwide Realty Investors. Crawford Hoying built Bridge Park. The Georgetown Co. and Steiner + Associates created Easton with local billionaire Les Wexner providing much of the vision.

That’s not the case Downtown. Developers Jeff Edwards, Brett Kaufman and others have several projects, but nothing on a grand scale that could tip development into high gear. However, there are more than 1,500 new hotel rooms coming in the near term to Downtown and the Arena District. “There is a lot of room to redevelop and build Downtown,” Welcher says. “That’s good, and sooner or later it will happen.”

Welcher feels like the Short North is nearing its peak, and areas like Franklinton and Parsons Avenue on the South Side will see stepped-up activity as developers look for the next big thing, but Downtown, with its proximity to the Arena District and the Short North (and lots of parking spaces), also could benefit.

“In every city we are in, the urban revival is alive and well,” says CMR’s David Miller. “I truly believe it will happen. We will have a restaurant in the Downtown core again; it just needs to grow a bit first.”

That growth won’t happen overnight. It took the Short North, once a forlorn and dangerous neighborhood, decades to become the city’s hottest playground. Before every restaurateur wanted to plant his or her flag in the Short North (including award-winning Cleveland chef Jonathon Sawyer), it took pioneers like chef Kent Rigsby, entrepreneurs like Sandy Wood, and a lot of small business owners and developers to build the neighborhood’s momentum.

Downtown doesn’t have the same character as the Short North, with its arches, iconic murals, renovated buildings and densely built apartments. In fact, one of the issues holding back residential growth Downtown is that developers mostly have to build new instead of renovating old. There are a few exceptions, such as the historic Atlas Building (built in 1905), which has been converted to apartments.

“In places like Cleveland, the downtown residential population is much, much higher than here,” Conte says. “Cleveland also has more buildings to renovate or convert. We demolished a lot more than other cities did.”

Thanks to that misguided “urban renewal,” there are blocks and blocks of Downtown that are bereft of storefronts or even street-level spaces that could be repurposed. That leaves much of the area with a disconnected feel, especially for pedestrians at night. “One of the festering problems [is] our storefronts, or lack of them,” Conte says. “We are still learning how to do it.”

The new apartments are coming, though, with more than 2,000 units completed or in process since 2017. Big projects like the Millennial Tower are on the drawing board, and they’re not as pie-in-the-sky as they once seemed.

“I think it changes when the apartments come on. There is tons of stuff going on Downtown,” Dalton, the owner of Veritas, says. “Our parking is a lot better than the Short North.”

Conte would like to see developers fill in more of the parking lots and vacant or underused parcels Downtown. More residences and other development, like stores and restaurants, might also persuade more companies to locate offices Downtown, instead of in Grandview Yard, Bridge Park or Polaris.

The Columbus Crew’s proposed stadium in the Arena District beside the Columbus Clippers’ ballpark, while not in Downtown proper, should help since the team’s crowds have only known the lonely confines of the state fairgrounds. Cleveland’s urban core benefits from three professional sports venues, and Cincinnati’s pair of stadiums on its riverfront has yielded new downtown development, including apartments, restaurants, offices and even a regional headquarters of General Electric at what is known as The Banks.

“Someone needs to have that vision,” Kahn says of Downtown’s next big leap forward. “It is poised for something, and once that happens the market will be hot and people will be clamoring to come.”

Dalton looks out the window of Veritas onto the rough façade of The Nicholas development and what will be hundreds of apartments across Gay Street. He sees dollar signs on the new building, as he did during the Columbus Blue Jackets’ playoff run. He hopes CAPA’s next season is as successful as last year, when smash hit musical “Hamilton” came to town.

“‘Hamilton’ was great for us,” Dalton says. “The shows make a huge difference.”

“The shows are great,” Kahn concurs. “You know when it’s theater season.”

Though he is still waiting for the buzz around Veritas to translate into a packed dining room, Dalton believes Downtown is on the upswing, no matter the challenges.

“It’s not there yet, but I think we made the right move,” Dalton says. “We wanted to get in on the ground floor. I miss things about Delaware, but I think we made the right move. Obviously, we believe in it.”

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