2016 Best Restaurants: Alternative Top 10

Columbus Monthly Staff
Brunch at Skillet

Are you eating at The Refectory every week? Probably not. That's why we created this list, because (no offense to The Refectory) we don't either. That's a lot of butter and foie gras (not to mention a lot of dough). This list is an alternative to the higher-end restaurants that make up our 10 Best. These spots are some of our critics' personal favorites. The places we take out-of-towners, the ones we eat at all the time.

Brunch Hero: Skillet

410 E. Whittier St., Merion Village, 614-443-2266

Down-home grub is elevated to uncommon heights inside the rustic yet stylish confines of this unequaled brunch and comfort food specialist. Run by the talented Caskey family, tiny but mighty Skillet isn't just local-focused, it's local-intense. Countless Ohio farm references dot a menu that, although written daily, offers recurring favorites such as flaky "bird's head" biscuits and gravy (house-made andouille sausage in a peppery veloute); enormous cinnamon rolls with bourbon buttermilk caramel; the city's best huevos rancheros with black turtle beans simmered in beer and smoky green chile sofrito; plus soft yet firm blintzes griddled to golden brown, filled with local sheep's milk ricotta cheese, topped with jazzed-up local fruit.

Home Base: The Rossi

895 N. High St., Short North, 614-299-2810

There's no denying it: The Short North is ever changing. But no restaurant provides stability and familiarity better than The Rossi, which first opened with its New York-style pizza in 2005. While chefs have changed (Matthew Heaggans took the helm earlier this year), the atmosphere and fan favorites remain the same. Always at the top of our list are the pedestaled pizzas, the thin-cut fries with lemon aioli and the hipper-than-you-yet totally friendly-staff. The ease of the happy hour-turned-dinner transition is a bonus. Plus, even if you can't grab one of the big see-and-be-seen booths, the narrow bar makes it feel like you know everyone. And you probably do. Because some things in the Short North don't change.

Old Faithful: Lindey's

169 E. Beck St., German Village, 614-228-4343

Open since 1981, owner Sue Doody's take on an Upper East Side New York cafe has become a sentimental favorite and home to many a celebratory meal. Lindey's awning and exterior, lovely and timeless, are probably in countless engagement photos, and now, selfies. It's the place you go before a show at the Ohio Theatre, the patio you look forward to every spring. We love the beef carpaccio, the nut-crusted chicken salad, the classic fish and meat preparations. Maybe most of all, we love the happy hour when the bar menu, beers, martinis and glasses of wine are half off.

Go-To Sushi: Akai Hana

1173 Old Henderson Rd., Northwest Side, 614-451-5411

It's not uncommon at night (or during lunch) to see Akai Hana's elegant blonde wood dining room packed with groups of friends, families and business associates engaged in lively conversation, their chopsticks at work. That's because seven days a week, Akai Hana's kindly and skillful sushi chefs serve the freshest fish available here in the Midwest, making it, perhaps, our best sushi restaurant. But there's much more to 30-year-old Akai Hana than a great sushi bar. The menu is filled with well-prepared Japanese favorites, including little dishes of pickled vegetables, hearty noodle bowls, expertly fried tempura, teriyaki, katsu and all manner of seafood. The bonus? Neighbors Tensuke Market and Belle's Bread mean one-stop shopping for all things Japanese.

Serious Barbecue: Ray Ray's Hog Pit

2619 N. High St., Clintonville, 614-753-1191

We magazines run "Best of Columbus" readers polls every year. And there's usually one surefire injustice when the final results roll in: Ray Ray's Hog Pit never wins for best barbecue. That's just wrong. James Anderson's food truck, parked in the Ace of Cups parking lot, is one of our city's culinary gems. From the grass-fed beef brisket to the dry-rub spare ribs to the jerk chicken thighs, Anderson is a master at coaxing flavor from a cooker. And he doesn't just talk about sourcing the best proteins: He started raising his own heritage hogs and chickens on his Licking County farm.

Smooth Operator: Brassica

680 N. High St., Short North, 614-867-5885

With an eternal (yet quickly moving) line out the door months before it even had a sign, it was clear from day one that Brassica would become a new Columbus favorite. And while the "Chipotle of" concepts are tiring (and possibly not even a standard to aspire to these days) the folks behind Northstar Cafe nailed their Mediterranean version of the fast-casual eatery. We love the fresh fried falafel, the bright and tangy salads-turned-condiments (we're looking at you, spicy carrots and pickled red cabbage) and the quick and smooth front-of-house operations that make your custom meal also a fast one.

Our Very Own Paris: Pistacia Vera

541 S. Third St., German Village, 614-220-9070; North Market, 59 Spruce St., Arena District, 614-221-1001

You will not taste a better croissant in Paris or find a more beautifully crafted torte in Vienna. Master baker Spencer Budros maintains the very highest standards in both quality and execution, with help from his sister, Anne Fletcher, who brilliantly runs the business side of Pistacia Vera. Between macarons, cookies, cakes, tortes, croissants and other delicacies, the business sells not mere hundreds but thousands of goodies every day from its modest German Village cafe and North Market stall. According to Budros, 60,000 macarons head out the door each month, making them Pistacia Vera's biggest seller. The savory side should not be overlooked either-the cafe's quiches and croque monsieurs are world-class. Although we wish the selection would change more often, there's just no arguing with the perfection of a Pistacia Vera croissant, its colorful macarons, sweet-tart apple galette or any of the other jewels offered here.

Pizza, Elevated: Harvest Pizzeria

495 S. Fourth St., German Village, 614-824-1769

Slightly charred and chewy, the pizza crust at Harvest in German Village kicked off a craze when the restaurant opened five years ago. Now owner Chris Crader leads one of the fastest growing restaurant groups in the city. This small, stylish neighborhood restaurant specializing in wood-fired pies and locally sourced ingredients has been a beloved destination ever since Crader added top-notch cocktails next door at Curio. Before (or while) you indulge in Aviations at the bar, we recommend the Almond Pesto pizza, the Spicy Yuma (topped with chorizo, corn and jalapenos) pizza, the Kale Caesar Salad and, for dessert, the luscious Butterscotch Budino.

Hipness Incarnate: Fox in the Snow Cafe

1031 N. Fourth St., Italian Village

Pour-over coffees are the basic cup and the cortados rock in this post-industrial-hip, 2-year-old Italian Village hangout equipped with an outstanding bakery. Fox's food and drink offerings are distinct in Columbus, and plans were recently announced to expand into German Village. Show up for coffee and the best breakfast sandwich in town-crackly bread housing crisp candied bacon, souffled eggs, melted Gruyere cheese and more-plus artful pastries that look as great as they taste. Some favorites: flaky hand-pies; gorgeous galettes; custard-filled donuts; pillowy yet dense cinnamon rolls with lush frosting atop gooey cinnamon swirls.

Reliably Retro: Philco Bar + Diner

747 N. High St., Short North, 614-299-9933

Clever, cheap and consistent. That's Philco, the 3-year-old retro-modern diner from Tina and Randy Corbin. Chef Andrew Smith, who developed the menu while heading up The Rossi, has since passed the torch, but his playful diner dishes thankfully live on. Grab an olive-colored seat at Philco's sleek metal counter and go for a bowl of the addictive turkey, chorizo and white bean chili, paired with a block of ricotta cornbread with maple syrup (only $8 combined). If all-day breakfast is your thing, Philco delivers with excellent breakfast tacos, huevos rancheros, baked grits and more. It's a consistently solid choice, whether you're entertaining younger family members ("See, aren't we hip?") or grabbing a late-night bite to go with your gin and jam cocktail.