Emmett’s Cafe expands to Open Air, continues to excel

Stylish and delicious dishes and beverages that frequently utilize healthful ingredients are prepared in the very welcome second branch of this chic cafe

G.A. Benton
Hudson St. Burger at Emmett's Cafe at Open Air on Neil Ave in the University District. (Photo by Tim Johnson)

Fans of excellent Emmett’s Cafe in the Brewery District have more options now because a second and roomier branch of the casual-yet-sophisticated eatery has opened, and it offers items not available at the original, pocket-sized Emmett’s. 

Bonus: This new Emmett’s resides in the recently restored, buzzy and historic Open Air building in Old North Columbus. (Emmett’s shares ownership with Kelley Companies, the real estate firm overseeing renovation of the multi-purpose Open Air building.)

A thankfully preserved, wonderfully repurposed three-story brick school building with highly stylized details, Open Air was erected in 1927 and designed by Howard Dwight Smith, who’s better known for another of his architectural projects: Ohio Stadium. 

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Exploring refurbished Open Air — Emmett’s occupies a ground-floor room — quickly brought to mind adjectives like hip, chic, trendy and fashionable. But the facility didn't strike me as “too cool for school.” Actually, the mixed-use center inspired a response far more rare for me: It made going to school cool.

Emmett’s 2.0 occupies a bright, modern and pretty space rife with natural light, neutral tones and plants. It's frequently packed, but if none of the (four dozen or so) seats at blond wooden tables are open, customers can eat their to-go food at hard wooden booths opposite school lockers in the hallway (hall pass not required). Patio seating is planned for April. 

Whether eating from a ceramic plate or a cardboard box, expect great-tasting dishes that — like the place that cooked them — enliven a familiar framework with contemporary style.

Schiller Bowl at Emmett's Cafe at Open Air on Neil Ave in the University District. (Photo by Tim Johnson)

The crispy chicken sandwich ($14) and Hudson Street burger ($15) — both exclusive to the Open Air location and served with salt-crusted, oven-crisped fingerling potatoes — are among the best new fast-food makeovers around.

Rather than cheap meat, the burger featured a sizable patty of high-grade wagyu beef. It’s enhanced by loads of American cheese, “special sauce” (fashioned with mayo, ketchup and Worcestershire), a toasted good roll and richness-mitigating shaved onions and sweet-tart pickles.         

While accurately titled, the terrific crispy chicken ($14) could add “spicy” to its description. Its bun-overlapping, panko-crusted cutlet received palate-popping accompaniment from chile-spiked aioli accentuated by vinegar-emboldened slaw. 

The hefty Open Air salad ($14) was no slouch, either. Turmeric-scented roasted cauliflower combined with four fine, cumin-seasoned falafel to create appealing curry notes. Add pickled onions, goat cheese, roasted beets, toasted almonds, fresh greens and a perky “whole lemon dressing,” and you have a dynamic, healthful and delicious lunch. 

Open Air salad at Emmett's Cafe at Open Air on Neil Ave in the University District. (Photo by Tim Johnson)

Top-notch house croutons, intact little romaine leaves and a creamy-yet-lemony dressing merged into a pleasant Caesar salad ($10). Tip: substantially boost its modest size by ordering an add-on of silky, salt-restrained smoked salmon ($5.) 

The Schiller bowl ($13) is an inspired, salad-like approach to breakfast. With a quinoa base fortified by beets, kale, squash, mushrooms and peppers, it might sound like a curious eye-opener. But skillful veggie roasting and seasoning plus on-point poached eggs and Hollandaise translated into a compelling, vibrant and healthful riff on eggs benedict. Plus, it’s more interesting and a dollar less than the more traditional Old North Breakfast ($14) — a perfectly fine spin on ham and eggs assembled with prosciutto, arugula and toasted good bread.

I should note that the toast was semi-soft when I got it. Relatedly, while always super-friendly, Emmett’s service wasn't always quick.

Enticingly crisp textures came at the expense of some roasted fingerlings and the chorizo in my fantastic Meat & Tato breakfast sandwich ($10.50) being cooked to black in spots. And add-ons — bananas, sweet-and-salty butter and serious maple syrup — helped overcome the minor dryness of my huge, hearty, cinnamon-scented and great-tasting hotcakes ($12).  

I mention such nitpicks because my expectations are sky-high here. And with other treats like the enormous choco-tahini crispy ($4.50), the liquified-ice-cream-conjuring draft latte ($6) and healthful-yet-delectable green juice ($8), those stellar expectations were generally met.  

Schiller Bowl, Hudson Street Burger and Open Air Salad at Emmett's Cafe at Open Air on Neil Ave in the University District. (Photo by Tim Johnson)

Emmett's Cafe at Open Air 

Where: 2571 Neil Ave., University District