Cover: The 2018 year in Columbus dining

G.A. Benton

So many new restaurants, so little time. That pretty much describes another year of dining out in Columbus. In a booming culinary hotspot like our city, it's difficult to comprehensively explore every buzzworthy eatery that premieres during a 12-month period — even when you're getting paid to do it.

Well, boo-hoo, right? Limp appeal for sympathy aside, my policy of waiting a month for new restaurants to get their act together before I visit them — and I visit multiple times — can make my job tricky. Especially when a wave of interesting places opens just as the insane holiday season starts. So, it's with a dash of hubris that I present a year-in-review list of notable new eateries that includes a few restaurants I haven't even written about yet.

The majority of these establishments speak to local trends. Several are easy-to-try inexpensive. Some are more ambitious and require a splurge, but are worth it. One group offers the kind of envelope-pushing creative cooking that merits a place among the creme de la nouvelle creme of the 2018 crop of Columbus restaurants. But all of the following startups helped make it fun to eat at some place new this year. Bon appetit, mes amies.

Get Smashed

Calling burgers a trend would be a stretch to say the least. But noting whatkindof burgers a community is lately clamoring for offers a peek at where a culture's head is. And the mouth beneath our collective head is leaning toward thin, retro-style diner burgers smashed on a griddle.

One prime example of such a purveyor isRitzy's,a new iteration of a once-thriving, locally raised chain. Rocking a “Happy Days” ambience and soundtrack, Ritzy's became a sensation all over again in September, when founder Graydon D. Webb opened his first shop to serve Central Ohio in decades in Clintonville. Bonus: Ritzy's makes terrific ice cream.

If you wanna be like LeBron James — and why wouldn't you, he's a better player and role model than Mike (yes, Jordan) — you can now enjoy LeBron's favorite burger, the “Galley Boy,” at the new branch ofSwensons that recently opened in Dublin. Swensons, which, like LeBron, hails from Akron, is so old-school it specializes in carhop service. More good burger news: Look for Hilliard and Polaris branches of Swensons to sprout in 2019.

Perhaps the most in-demand smashburgers are made by a business that's not officially even a standalone restaurant and whose name requires a colon. Preston's: A Burger Jointis a burgeoning concessionaire chainlet that created a craze with great burgers that separate themselves from the bun-bound pack by using ground beef sourced from Ohio farms. A deeper awareness of ingredients — that's another trend — leads to another diner-style burger shop (spoiler alert: It's vegan) that I've placed in the next category.

Power Plants

Just a few years ago, a long-time vegan pal told me that dining out in town frequently meant being resigned to making do with salads and hummus. Thanks to local, ever-growing “go green” and plant-based-eating movements, his options have dramatically increased.

WithEden Burger, vegans can now enjoy irresistible fast-food-style fare made with care. In addition to scratch-made, diner-style vegan double cheeseburgers with a mushroomy “meatiness” that could please beefheads, Eden makes excellent fries and coconut-milk-based “shakes” that mimic a Wendy's Frosty. Notably friendly counter service is offered in its pleasant little plant-celebrating space, but if you'd like a beer with your meal — hey, booze is vegan — Eden is conveniently attached to the Village Idiot bar near the OSU campus.

Vegans nostalgic for old-school takeout favorites such as General Tso, Singapore rice noodles, Kung Pao and Southeast Asian-style curries can get their spot-hitting fix at three-month-old, strong-performingYe's Asian Vegan Restaurantin Hilliard.

I'm going to includeTwo Dollar Radio Headquarters here, too. The hip, multi-function space — it's as much cafe, bar and vegan restaurant as it is book shop, meeting place and art gallery — officially opened more than a year ago, but I didn't review it until July, after its menu had grown to a reasonable size.

By far the best meatless eatery to open this year is ultra-chic Comune.Because it serves chef-driven refined vegetarian cuisine — Comune isn't wholly vegan — you'll read more about Comune in the last, “creative class” section of this article.

Genre Benders

Tavern sandwiches fashioned with generic deli meat, pseudo-Mexican food designed for incurious Americans and ersatz Indian dishes rarely eaten in India — these all remain understandably popular and prevalent. But a few newcomers are setting the bar higher.

Atlas Tavernstands out among scores of pub-grub peddlers by assembling sandwiches and salads with meats roasted in house. Bonus: This overachiever sells its fare enhanced with Thanksgiving-worthy turkey breast, slabs of warm pork loin and thinly sliced roast beef (accompanied by a robust jus) at prices that are better than most of its nondescript competitors.

The number of super-affordable, good taquerias offering real-deal Mexican food seems to increase daily. But only one I know of offers regional specials called cemitas and memelas:2 Sabores Taqueria and Mexican Grill. Cemitas are inhalable, Puebla-style tortas made with lovely, brioche-like, house-baked, sesame-seeded rolls. Memelas — Oaxacan favorites created with crisp-yet-chewy and addictive griddled oval masa disks — resemble sopes and huaraches. Both of these easy-to-love regional specialties arrive loaded with delicious toppings, plus a selected meat — try the Milanese de pollo (chicken schnitzel) and barbacoa.

Mediterranean eateries have become commonplace in Columbus.Mr. Hummusmakes the classics better than most, but it also prepares several rare but highly accessible and delicious dishes. Check out house-made sausages such as the steaky Lebanese-style makanek and the spicy soujouk. And definitely try the outstanding fattet hummus (aka tessiya), a lusty, hearty and garlicky construction built with toasted pita, chickpeas, yogurt, tahini, lemon and fried nuts.

The flavors of several South American nations are celebrated inAndes Bar & Grill, but rare-around-these-parts Bolivian dishes are the star of the menu. Check out the saltenas — braided, thick and pretty Bolivian empanadas containing a scalding-hot and soupy beef or chicken filling. For a rib-sticking feast, pair the wonderful kidney beans with the falso de conejo. Fantastically translating to “fake rabbit,” falso de conejo is a steak or chicken schnitzel served with rice, plus zesty yellow gravy rife with peas and diced potatoes.

Occupying a small if surprisingly roomy space inside the I-could-shop-here-for-days Saraga International Grocery,Bulgogi Korean Restaurantdoes a superb job with its namesake dish. But the friendly place excels at most other entrees, too, including the best Jjamppong in town (mammoth seafood-and-noodle stew) and the I-could-eat-this-for-days Korean fried chicken.

First-timers walking intoHaveli Bistro are guaranteed to be impressed by its snazzy ambience. Countless menu items also communicate that this Downtown player isn't a by-the-numbers Indian restaurant. These include flashy (and sometimes smoking) cocktails, taste-bud-detonating Indochinese dishes, plus Southern Indian classics such as standout dosas and fiery-but-nuanced curries — some delightfully tweaked by sour gongura leaves.

Worth a Splurge

To afford eating at Jeff Ruby's Steakhouse, you might need to cash in your own rubies — along with some silver and gold. But Ruby's stratospheric cost is the price of admission to a head-turning Downtown establishment with elaborate chandeliers, stained glass, showy mirrors and theatrical floral-patterned carpets and red velvet curtains. Overseeing the action are highly professionalservers clad in crisp white jackets, who are uncommonly adept at anticipating a table's needs. Beef — such as the certified prime, dry-aged, bone-in “Cowboy Steak” ribeye with a dark, expertly seasoned crust and expertly cooked meat with the alluring tang of aging— is the obvious king here. But don't sleep on the cocktails, pork belly appetizer, Caesar salad and outrageously comforting mac-and-cheese.

The High Bank Distillery Grandview is the newest entry on the impressive list of Columbus booze producers that make delicious food. But High Bank isn't just another artisanal-liquored-up face. The expansive place embraces practically every local restaurant trend you could shake a zeitgeist-divining stick at. Here, you'll findadocumented commitment to local sourcing, both vegan and meaty items, an industrial-chic interior filled with sports-tuned TVs, a patio accessible through garage doors, plus a game room where you can play table shuffleboard, foosball and “bubble hockey.” You'll also find refreshing house cocktails, dynamic roasted cauliflower and killer “tomahawk” pork chop entrees, the tastes-as-good-as-it-looks “split pineapple” dessert, plus cheffy riffs on wings, burgers and nachos.

Unlike most deli-inspired operations,Harvey & Ed's— the newest creation from the Cameron Mitchell Restaurants group — is a cushy place with a handsome tavern setting, a solid wine list, interesting cocktails, an excellent happy hour, plus the kind of gracious, knowledgeable service for which this company is known. It's a lively eatery with great lighting, brick walls, butcher-block tables and enough allusions to old-school delis to hint at kitsch without succumbing to it. The serious kitchen pumps out a few none-better-in-town traditional deli dishes, such as matzo ball soup, knishes and the smoked salmon platter. A few less-traditional-deli winners: the decked-out, healthy grain salad (wheat berries, quinoa, fruit, nuts and more in a zippy, semi-sweet dressing) and Zayde's brisket dinner.

Hen Quarter Dublin, the newest branch of a small, upscale chain based in the Washington, D.C. area, has plenty more to offer than the good fried chicken that may or may not be the source of its name. One of these attributes is a fashionable-but-casual space, where bright-but-nice lighting illuminates neutral colors tastefully offset by bolder shades, parquet flooring and graphic murals of chickens — some of which decorate dramatic private dining areas. Hen offers a lengthy wine list, but its wide selection of whiskeys and stylish cocktails are more impressive. The cuisine leans toward dressed-up Southern classics presented with flair, and includes that aforementioned chicken, fried green tomatoes topped with high-grade crabmeat, a mac-and-cheese comfort-bomb and you-deserve-this-treat sweet potato bread pudding.

Putting the “EAT” in crEATive

A few select restaurants from the class of 2018 regularly take diners to someplace new. Such places can't be circumscribed by the boundaries of this turbulent world because they lie in the imagination of inventive chefs.

I violated my self-imposed (and 99 percent observed) “wait a month” and “eat there multiple times” policies to squeeze in this just-opened operation. Why? Because, by offering dishes such as veal Parmesan reimagined with deep-fried sweetbreads and “raspberry marinara” sauce, “liver and onions” presented as a jar of pudding-smooth mousse topped with jam-sweet caramelized onions and beef tendon tartare with Chinese-style flourishes,Ambrose and Eve puts the “fun” in funky with its creative preparations of offal. The chef/owners are Catie Randazzo and Matthew Heaggans, i.e. the same team behind Preston's: A Burger Joint. With Ambrose and Eve, though, the two finally have their own restaurant space, and they've smartly hired remarkably warm and friendly servers. Befitting its cuisine, the quaint eatery, named after Randazzo's grandparents, is rife with homey, old-school touches — such as floral-patterned wallpaper, stout brickwork and a fireplace — given a mod veneer. Not an organ-meat fan? Try the pastrami-sandwich-style roasted carrots.

After ending its reign as the best restaurant ever in Delaware,Veritas reinvented itself in much roomier Downtown Columbus digs offering a stylish, mid-century-modern, lounge-like ambience. In doing so, the daring, year-old restaurant, commandeered by owner, head chef and modernist kitchen wizard Josh Dalton, lost the “Tavern” part of its moniker. Fortunately, it retained — and expanded on — its cliche-shattering selection of wines and fantastic cocktails, as well as its art- and science-celebrating cooking aesthetic. Over the past few months, Veritas has again reinvented itself as a tasting-menu-only eatery with pre-selected six-course and nine-course options. You'll need a good amount of time and money to dine here now, but expect a playful-yet-serious meal you won't soon forget built on a succession of dishes whose adjective-less descriptions — such as confit duck tostada, wagyu short ribs and butternut squash “tart” — do not convey the strikingly presented, flavor-packed plates you'll be served.

Focusing on the flavors of Spain and often showcasing notably fresh seafood,Lupo on Arlingtonis the happy result of one trailblazing veteran chef handing the reins to his protege. These talented players are owner Rick Lopez — aka the owner/chef of terrific La Tavola — and chef Todd Elder, who learned a thing or two about Spanish cooking at Barcelona Restaurant and Bar. From an inviting wine list to alluring seasonal cocktails, and from bold, saucy and often garlicky tapas to head-turning, table-feeding entrees, this inspired collaboration has brought about an uncommonly versatile restaurant. Occupying a handsome ex-bank space revamped with burgundy walls, black booths and small wooden tables (plus a scenic patio, weather permitting), bustling Lupo is big on seasonal dishes and chalkboard specials. Some often-available deliciousness: the piri-piri-and tomato-sauced lamb meatball atop a falafel cake with pickled onions and pea tendrils; octopus a la plancha, a marvelous deconstructed paella tapa; and the fabulous “‘large format” whole roasted chicken and pork shank dinners.

When longtime pals Brook Maikut and Joe Galati decided to openComune — a starkly arty vegetarian restaurant on the South Side — the new restaurant owners chose a chef with a sterling resume that includes both edgy and classic high-end dining destinations.Ben Kanavel isthat chef, and he can count The Worthington Inn, Alana's Food and Wine, The Sycamore, Salt and Pine and The Granville Inn among former employers. At Comune, Kanavel has a smart and spare, largely white space with plenty of windows, plants, natural light and a super-hip soundtrack to use as a vivid backdrop for his lovely creations. Uncommon ingredients such as koji, ras el hanout and “herb jus” dot the compact menu and bring vibrant life to preparations such as silky wide ribbons of handmade pappardelle pasta in a terrific maitake-walnut “Bolognese” sauce, a veggie-heavy riff on spicy dan dan noodles and a yin-and-yang dish integrating a fried rice cake, kimchi and a delicately soft-cooked egg.