Far-better-than-average bar food makes this Polaris tavern more than just a neighborhood watering hole.
As in most cities on the rise, neighborhoods very much inform our eating habits in Columbus. “Oh, we rarely leave Dublin (or Hilliard, or New Albany or insert suburb here)” is likely a phrase we’ve all heard uttered, or mumbled ourselves at least a few times. To warrant bursting one’s neighborhood bubble, a restaurant must be truly special.
Atlas Tavern, a burger and beer bar just shy of celebrating its second birthday, might just be the needle that’ll pop any thin film we’ve enclosed ourselves in. Especially if you’re in the market for far-better-than-average bar food, and at a price that’ll make the gas money spent to get to the Polaris restaurant worth it.
Sure, we live in a time when you can scarcely throw a rock and not hit some new burger joint or beer hall. Short on sports bars, Columbus is not. But few are as thorough in the details as Atlas Tavern.Like what you’re reading? Subscribe to our weekly newsletters.
In fact, the differences are so subtle, you might not even notice them—but you’ll feel them. In the way wood beams with recessed lights that run the width of the dining room are hung 6 feet or so below the lofty ceiling, creating an almost cozy atmosphere. In the enthusiastic waitstaff that insists “everything is good” and means it, while sharing their favorite orders (not just what’s popular). In the soft-boiled eggs (read: not grossly overcooked) fanned out on a rather large rib-eye salad. Or breaded and fried cauliflower wings ($7/$12/$18) that come with Sally Albright-inspired “sauce on the side,” so the first bite is as crisp as the last.
It’s clear owner Pat Daly is no freshman in the restaurant scene. That the kitchen takes the time to make its own ranch dressing, when no customer would bat an eye at the bottled stuff, is telling and makes eating here all the more fun.
The Ohio beef brisket burgers don’t hurt, either. The Ranch Hand ($12), a ranch-seasoned burger, might hold the top spot as the most popular—a behemoth with bacon, onion straws, ranch and all the usual fixings. But the Bulleit Burger ($12) is no slouch and perhaps a little easier to tackle. It’s as layered as an onion—smoky bacon, crispy buttermilk onion straws, a bourbon-sweetened barbecue sauce and a beef brisket patty with just the right amount of minerality. The Signature Black Garlic Burger ($12) is an umami bomb, explosive with a fermented garlic schmear as rich as a long-simmering gravy. It’s a nice balance for the smothering of Swiss cheese, onions and browned mushrooms. (For your sides, opt for the waffle fries or Mexican street corn.)
While burgers are smartly served on Lucky Cat Bakery rolls, they occasionally suffer from soggy bottom-bun problems that no amount of toasting seems capable of offsetting. Keep your cloth napkin handy. The flavor makes up for the mess.
Daly also owns the local outposts of Wings Over Columbus, so I came in with high expectations for the wings. The sauces alone take up almost an entire page of the menu (and all are made in-house, I’m told). Wings are juicy and Goldilocks-right in size—neither too big nor too small. The Best of All ($13) is a worthy investment to sample a mix of traditional and boneless wings—a half-pound of each, one sauce choice per, paired with a side of waffle fries. I highly recommend the Louisiana Sweet Heat sauce for a subtle burn.
Skip to the last page of the menu for shareable items—think: Super Bowl party apps like Buffalo chicken dip and pulled pork poutine—that would easily make a good meal on their own, especially if you’re with a group. Like the Cheesy Poofs ($6), crisp pork cracklings doused with a movie-popcorn-satisfying level of cheddar dust and served still warm from their fry bath.
The Garden Smorgasbord ($12), a large board of four dips in tiny Ball jars surrounded by veggies, chips and pita for dipping, is a nice spread that’ll satisfy both omnivores and vegetarians, even if some of the dips are humdrum. While I’d dip anything edible in the savory roasted leek and garlic, and would happily slather the avocado chimichurri on any sandwich in sight, the cream cheese-heavy sun-dried tomato dip and oddly sour garden salsa are rather forgettable.
If you need a large shareable, order the nachos ($9/$12/$17). The small could easily tide over three to four people while waiting for burgers. It’s drizzled with chimichurri for an herbaceous pop against melted cheese, sour cream and beef chili.
The problem when so much on the menu hits the spot is that when something doesn’t, it’s glaringly out of place. For all the time spent crafting the omnivore dishes, I wish they’d give the California Veggie Burger ($11) the same courtesy. The house-made veggie patty, a mix of sweet potatoes and black beans, is lackluster in flavor. In a field of solid standouts, it’s a far cry from the quality and flavor found on the rest of the menu.
The Southern Fried Chicken—featured naked on a sandwich ($12) or doused in Buffalo sauce ($11)—has the same fatal flaw. The breading slides off with each bite, making it awkward to tackle. There’s better elsewhere on the sandwich portion of the menu.
Like the Steak Bomb ($13), a Philly cheese steak-inspired sandwich featuring juicy prime rib shaved and tossed with sautéed onions and peppers, plus Muenster cheese serving as the glue and a savory rosemary aioli that left me licking my fingers after every bite so as not to waste a drop. Or the shrimp po’boy ($12), the only seafood offering. Breaded, tossed in a cayenne-laced Cajun seasoning and fried until surprisingly tender, it has all the hallmarks of what makes a drive-thru fish sandwich guiltily satisfying (minus the guilt here): shredded lettuce, a wonderfully fatty tartar sauce laced with corn and tomato, dill pickles and a hoagie roll with just enough crunch on the crust.
Wash either of these down with a crisp Gaffel Becker Kolsch ($6.50) and you’ll roll home happy. In fact, most dishes here are screaming for a hoppy companion chosen from an impressive beer selection that keeps up with the trends—a mix of Ohio standouts, rare international finds and rotating seasonals. On one visit, my dining companion, a bit of a beer nerd, uttered a few enthusiastic profanities under his breath as he tried to decide which hazy IPA to order first. (Rhinegeist Brewery’s smooth and hoppy Kappa Flounder, $7, won out with no regrets.)
What could be considered out of character is that such a burger- and beer-heavy establishment has an illustrated booklet dedicated to cocktails. Take a closer look and you’ll see they all share the same, simple formula—booze, fresh juice and maybe some bitters or simple syrup for balance. These cocktails are not at all overthought, in a refreshing way. Skip the popular and rather sweet Honey Bear ($10) and turn instead to the Illegal Gimlet ($10), an equally spicy and refreshing concoction with mezcal and ginger-habanero syrup that’ll serve as a nice balance to whatever you order. Or the Bourbon Grapefruit ($10) with an oversized ice cube made of grapefruit juice that gets a little more pleasantly puckery as you drink it down.