In our Icons series, we reflect on some of the city's longest-tenured restaurants and learn what keeps them in the game—starting with The Refectory.
The familiar brick building on Bethel Road that houses one of the city's most celebrated restaurants was Bethel United Methodist church for more than 100 years, until the late 1960s when the congregation relocated down the street and the building was put on the market. In 1976, a group of investors led by the late Catherine Tarini, the co-founder of DeArini's Tavern & Grill, bought the place and opened a restaurant named, logically, The Olde Church-House Restaurant, serving what was called “continental” cuisine (aka Americanized French).
Within a year Tarini was out, and the restaurant was taken over by the other investors. In keeping with the style of the times, their plan was to open a disco in the then-unused, high-ceilinged west wing—the sanctuary. Fortunately, a mirrored ball never hung in the old church. Even more auspicious, Kamal Boulos entered the picture.
In 1977, a very young Boulos was managing the dining room of a resort in upstate New York when he caught the attention of The Olde Church-House's owners, who were vacationing. They invited Boulos to stop by their Columbus restaurant sometime, and he did, en route to Las Vegas. That visit turned into a part-time gig in 1977, and soon thereafter became a full-time job.
In late 1980, developers Richard Corna and Benny Ciotola bought The Olde Church-House. They had one critical condition: that Boulos, then the restaurant's general manager, stay on for at least one year. As Boulos describes them, Corna and Ciotola were doers. In short order, they remodeled the building, added a large kitchen and turned the sanctuary into what is now the main dining room. Corna came up with a new name, The Refectory, and Boulos continued as GM.
After nearly 10 years of working long hours six days a week (never once asking for a raise), Boulos approached Corna about buying the restaurant. Though The Refectory was doing quite well, Corna not only said yes, he offered it at a more-than-fair price and even agreed to finance the deal—Boulos' devotion was repaid. That was 1990. Twenty-seven years later (and more than four decades since The Olde Church-House opened), Boulos' restaurant has not only endured, it has become a beacon for what an upscale dining establishment and community member should be.
Not surprisingly, Boulos wants to give all credit to his staff, especially the late Jeff Elasky, whom he hired in 1979. Elasky is best known for building The Refectory's wine cellar into the best in the city—and one of the best in the nation. The wine list he and Elasky built was unique in Columbus at the time, Boulos recalls, and a model for others in that it was not driven by wine distributors but by the quality of the wine itself. “We were the first restaurant to put vintages on the wine list and to take something off the wine list when a vintage changed that we may not have liked as much,” Boulos says. “You have no idea of the fallout it created with local distributors at the time!”
By 1991, The Refectory had earned the most coveted wine award in the business—Wine Spectator Magazine's Grand Award. It was the only restaurant in Ohio at the time to be so honored. It's still among only a few restaurants in Ohio to receive the magazine's Best Award of Excellence, which it has received every year since 2003.
Elasky died last October, just five months after being diagnosed with cancer. Boulos still cannot talk about his friend without choking up with emotion. His moving eulogy on the restaurant's website ends appropriately with a call to “raise a glass to toast Jeff” who “has been an irreplaceable part of The Refectory for 37 years.”
Boulos also is quick to heap praise on Sandra Losco, the restaurant's business manager since 1979: “All the late-night dreaming and planning [Elasky] and I were able to do for many years was totally made possible by Sandra running the business side.” Thirty-eight years in, Losco still loves her job and still revels in making customers happy. For a recent 50th wedding anniversary, she secretly made arrangements for one of the couple's favorite songs to be played at the right moment. It brought everyone to tears of joy and for Losco, “that makes it all worthwhile,” she says.
The care that Boulos shows for his employees and his devotion to the job may be the reason so many employees stick around. To name a few: chef Richard Blondin is celebrating his 25th year, John Saunders has been a server for 36 years, and Scott Crabtree has been the restaurant's custodian for 35 years. As Ted Manley, a former server who is now a lawyer and businessman, says about Boulos: “His work ethic is legendary.His curiosity is endless.And his integrity is beyond reproach.He has always served as an aspirational role model for me and for the many people that have worked at The Refectory.”
The Refectory has become an unabashedly white-tablecloth French restaurant. A native of Lyon, France, chef Blondin's menus consistently pay homage to the recipes and techniques of French cuisine. Despite a lifetime in the kitchen (he worked in France and elsewhere in the U.S. for several years before coming to Columbus), Blondin's enthusiasm for cooking remains unchanged, especially when it comes to finding new ways to use seasonal ingredients. (Boulos notes that “every few weeks, Chef comes up with a new dish.”)
While The Refectory is sometimes talked about as an old-school French restaurant, which it is in style and service, there is little old-school about Blondin's menus—even if Dover sole meunière remains a crowd favorite. Instead, these are dishes of the season, many of them Blondin's inventions.
The Refectory is as busy as ever, thanks to nightly dinners, weddings, catering and a celebrated entertainment program that brings in musicians—including local and international talent—for dinner and evenings of classical, jazz, blues, folk and other styles. What started as four events a few years ago has blossomed into more than 100 music programs annually. And earlier this year, the venerable restaurant added a retail wine shop.
What Boulos enjoys talking about most—besides his employees—is how The Refectory has managed to transcend dining and become a part of the life of the city by hosting events and gatherings—social, political, business—almost every day of the week. He is most proud of its charitable contributions. “We almost never turn down a request for charity,” he says, “whether a simple gift card or a whole event, we get hundreds of requests every year and happily say yes.”
You can call that an old-school idea, but it's also a model for how a successful restaurant, employer and community member should be—an icon indeed.