A critic recalls the glory days of Rigsby's Kitchen

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

Critic John Marshall recalls the glory days of Rigsby's Kitchen, and how this Short North pioneer changed the way our city eats.

July 15, 1994-my first date with a woman who multiple friends had been talking up for months. Nervous, of course, I made reservations at the best restaurant in town. Rigsby's Cuisine Volatile had by then been open for eight years, and I had enjoyed meals there dozens of times. I knew what to expect: forthright, seasonal cooking and honest, full flavors.

Better yet, for a date with a woman I knew little about, a wide range of food choices, from Greek to Middle Eastern to French to Italian, and innovations in between, served me well. The date was a resounding success: I have a marriage and two food-loving children to prove it.

For 29 years, Rigsby's sated the city's wealthy, powerful and cultural leaders, artists and musicians, and even those looking for great food on a first date. Nightly, the place bustled with civic activity and convivial conversation-tables filled with people whom you very well might want to join for dinner, including the late Ray Hanley, then president of the Greater Columbus Arts Council, who could be found dining here six nights out of seven, only because the place was closed Sundays.

I'll miss it. As many now know, Rigsby's quietly closed in October. Chef and former owner Kent Rigsby has moved on to a job with a regular paycheck, as executive chef of the New Albany Country Club. But I've no doubt his restaurant's influence will continue to reverberate in kitchens and dining rooms throughout the city. His significant contributions to the Columbus dining scene, and there have been very many, are worth recalling.

Take the physical space, upscale and modern, with lots of red brick, white walls, sprays of elegant flowers and colorful art. While the dining room layout and decor did occasionally change (the bar was moved from the back to just in front of the open kitchen) the space was always comfortable, yet straightforward and simple, like the food. And while the place was not intended as a celebration of the arts, it often was, as when Richard Lopez sat at the lustrous black grand piano that once separated the bar and dining room and treated guests to lively jazz or perhaps "Rhapsody in Blue." And the art on the walls was marvelous: the best of which-Denny Griffith's stunning portrait of Kent-stood out in pale relief against the red brick in the main dining room.

Rigsby's opened in February 1986 to no small fanfare. For two years prior, the chef had made a name for himself at Lindey's in German Village. A Columbus native, Kent grew up in Upper Arlington before heading to the California Culinary Academy and various cooking jobs elsewhere. When he returned to Columbus, he took the already very good Lindey's to new levels. And so it was not surprising that foodies were abuzz and many of the city's elite (Dan Galbreath and Jack Kessler among them) invested. Rigsby's Cuisine Volatile was born.

The Short North might seem like the obvious place for a daring and serious new restaurant, but it certainly was not in 1986. What is now one of the city's most vibrant neighborhoods was more than a bit grim in those years. But our brave and then very young chef was determined, and he turned out to be right about where the neighborhood was heading. Others would quickly follow his lead.

Glowing reviews and bustling business followed. By July 1992, this magazine awarded Rigsby's a five-star rating-the first in the magazine's history. For the next two decades the restaurant was counted as the best, or certainly among the top five in the city, and drew national accolades as well. It is no mean feat to keep a good restaurant going for five years. It is a stunning accomplishment to be at or near the top of the heap for 29.

It's not surprising that at least a dozen of the city's best chefs cut their culinary teeth here-Bill Glover, Tom Smith and John Dornback to name a few, not to mention my favorite, pastry chef Lonnie Ball, who for years made the most marvelous breads for the Rigsby-owned bakery Eleni-Christina. Even chefs who never worked for him consider Kent a mentor, as Alana Shock of Alana's Food and Wine told me recently.

Reflecting on the restaurants' long and delicious history, I recall onion and garlic soup made of the deepest stock; spicy Spaghetti D'Angelo-simplicity itself-crushed red pepper garlic and sun-dried tomatoes; creamy Cappellini Natasha laced with capers, red onion and smoked salmon; or more recently, butternut squash ravioli in fragrant sage butter, or rich devilled eggs perfumed with white truffle oil.

I remember, too, Gummer Ormachea, the charming maître d, Kent's equally charming wife, Tasi, engaging customers in cheerful and intelligent conversation, and of course, Kent, ambling out of the kitchen to chat uncomfortably with his customers. What Kent lacked in polite conversation he made up for many times over with his talents in the kitchen.

Rigsby's was a place of many Columbus firsts-first open kitchen, first place serving artisanal pizzas, first place with substantial house-made bread, first real cheese course, first place to innovate between the cuisines of the Mediterranean. And while not the very first, surely the place for many years to find perfectly cooked fish and pasta, which for a good long time were hard to find hereabouts.

I got to cook at the restaurant once: not for customers, of course, just friends and family. Many years ago, Kent let us take over the kitchen on a Sunday, with blood oaths sworn to leave it cleaner than we found it. Kent and his wife were invited. I spent 12 hours with two excellent cooks making dinner for 40. The chef said he really liked the food, though I expect some of it was just politeness. But I knew nothing we put out that Sunday night was as good as the food Kent and his team created every night of the week-with less prep time-for 150 or 200. It ain't easy.

In his July 1992 Columbus Monthly 5-star review, the late great gourmet and food writer Ben Vivant (the much missed Benson Wolman) asked, "What makes a great restaurant?" After describing the many elements-exceptional food, creativity, smart service, ambiance, relevant drink selection-Wolman wrote: "In Columbus, no restaurant brings them together as well as Rigsby's." True indeed.

Kent was never good at accepting compliments. I can hear him now, "Oh, I'm working on it," when told that a dish was utterly delicious. So, chef, please accept my sincere compliments for 29 years of utterly delicious food, and for a place many of us loved to spend an evening with friends and family.

John Marshall is a Columbus Monthly dining critic.