Eight Positive Things That Happened in Columbus Dining in 2020

Erin Edwards
The patio at Gemüt Biergarten

Much has been written (including by us) about the pandemic’s awful impact on restaurants, bars and service industry workers. People lost their jobs. Many businesses failed. Restaurant workers were forced to put themselves at risk. Many people stopped dining out. The long ordeal isn’t over, and this winter will likely be harsh on our restaurants as dining shifts indoors. But we don’t want to overlook the positive things that happened in the Columbus dining scene in 2020: stories of entrepreneurial stick-to-itiveness, welcome distractions, a new appreciation for the outdoors, interesting trends. Here are eight good things that happened in 2020. 

Against all odds, grand openings took place amid the pandemic.

Believe it or not, 2020 saw a slew of restaurants make their entrance onto the Columbus food scene. (Insert shameless plug for our Best New Restaurants issue, coming out in February.) Polaris dining got more interesting when The Royce and Nomad opened. Chef Matthew Phelan’s Novella Osteria began serving homemade pastas in Powell. Afra Grill made its debut with fast-casual Somali fare on the North Side. Chef BJ Lieberman continues to make a splash at Chapman’s Eat Market in German Village. Adella’s on Oak brought a much-needed dining option to Franklin Park. A mother-daughter duo opened Café Elena on the Northwest Side. Emmett’s Café introduced us to the idea that a great coffee bar can have delicious food. The list of determined newcomers goes on and on. Cheers to them. 

The Meat + Tato sandwich from Emmett's Café

Coastal Local Seafood did far more than just stay afloat.

We’ve been fans of Coastal Local owner Ian Holmes for some time, naming him a Columbus Monthly Tastemaker—an up-and-coming food professional—in 2017. But unless you were a restaurateur who purchased fresh seafood from the pier-to-plate vendor or a diner who ate in one of those restaurants, you may not have been familiar with Holmes and his seafood. In March, Holmes lost about 95 percent of his business overnight when restaurants were forced to shut because of COVID-19. In only a week, Holmes launched direct-to-consumer seafood deliveries, which he dubbed Seafood Stimulus Packages. (He says his brother-in-law built his website.) Coastal Local had already been set to join the North Market’s new Bridge Park location in 2020. Before that location made its debut this month, North Market’s longtime fishmonger, The Fish Guys, ended its nearly 14-year run in the historic Spruce Street market. Holmes quickly stepped in to fill the fresh seafood void, also adding a fine menu of prepared foods like lobster rolls, chowders, fries and more. 

Owner Ian Holmes at the Coastal Local Seafood location in the North Market on Spruce Street

We embraced the outdoors.

Patios, beer gardens and outdoor dining spaces may have saved many restaurants in 2020. But they also saved our sanity. Breweries like Land-Grant and Gemüt instituted safety protocols and made the most of their outdoor beer gardens, offering space to safely enjoy a brew in public. Several communities, such as Hilliard and Delaware, expanded their DORA districts—outdoor areas where visitors are allowed to stroll and sip a libation. And once the city of Columbus passed the Temporary Outdoor Seating Pilot Program, permitting businesses to expand their patios, restaurants like Wolf’s Ridge Brewing, Marcella’s and Hubbard Grille literally spilled into the streets—it felt downright European. 

Vegan options continued to flourish.

Not one, but two vegan delis launched in Columbus in 2020, opening within a month of each other. In October, Vida’s Plant-Based Butcher opened in Fifth by Northwest; it was quickly followed by a Clintonville deli from the popular food truck Seitan’s Realm. At both, vegan and vegan-curious customers can find plant-based cold cuts, sausages, cheeses and deli sandwiches. In addition, Lifestyle Café filled the former Angry Baker space in Olde Towne East, and the Ethiopian restaurant Nile Vegan added a second location in Grandview. And on Parsons Avenue, Village Taco completed its move from Alexandria, Ohio, filling the old Hal & Al’s space. 

The mushroom combo with beets, lentils, split peas and mushrooms, foreground, and the ful at Nile Vegan

Two Columbus chefs earned James Beard recognition.

When The James Beard Foundation announced its 2020 Restaurant and Chef Award semifinalists in February, two Columbus chefs made the cut. Pit barbecue purist James Anderson, owner of the food truck Ray Ray’s Hog Pit, was named a semifinalist for Best Chef: Great Lakes. (Recently, Anderson announced plans to open a meat-and-three restaurant in Granville.) In addition, longtime pastry chef Spencer Budros, co-owner of Pistacia Vera, was nominated for Outstanding Baker. Though neither chef was named a finalist, the nominations ended an eight-year James Beard drought for Columbus. 

Birria tacos went off.

The birria trend has arrived in Central Ohio in a big way. Hailing from the Mexican state of Jalisco, birria tacos are distinctive for their almost orange hue and—the kicker—an accompanying beef consommé meant for dipping. The buzz is justified—birria tacos are delicious, like a Mexican French dip. The Clintonville taco truck Los Agavez Taqueria is probably most responsible for igniting the trend locally. Other trucks serving the distinctive tacos have joined the fray, including Las Tapias Birria, which plans to open a restaurant on the West Side this winter, as well as AJ’s Birria Tacos, Taquiando and Columbus Birria. 

Craft breweries continued to grow, and some added delivery.

When the pandemic began, the beer kept flowing. Breweries like Wolf’s Ridge Brewing, Seventh Son Brewing Co. and Nocterra Brewing Co. began home delivery for the first time. In addition, COVID-19 hasn’t stopped some breweries from making their debut in Central Ohio. Cleveland’s Saucy Brew Works opened its first Columbus location in Harrison West. Newcomer Edison Brewing launched in Gahanna, boasting a stunning sunset vista on Science Boulevard. Spires Social Brewing Co. came online near Polaris. And Jackie O’s fulfilled a longstanding wish of local beer drinkers, announcing that the Athens-based brewery would open a 15-barrel brewhouse in Columbus. It’s expected to open Downtown next year in the former Elevator Brewing space at 165 N. Fourth St. 

A developer-chef duo continued to bet on Downtown Columbus.

Between COVID-19 and the summer’s protests, Downtown Columbus has taken the brunt of 2020. Si Señor, Plantain Café and Nancy’s Home Cooking all shuttered their Downtown eateries. But recently, some good news for Downtown dining: In November, Veritas chef-owner Josh Dalton told Columbus Monthly that he and developer Jeff Edwards of The Edwards Cos. plan to bring three new ventures to the heart of Downtown. A Parisian-style bistro is set to enliven the former Brioso Coffee space on the northeast corner of Gay and High streets. Across the street, Speck Italian Eatery will fill a street-level restaurant space in Edwards’ luxury apartment building, The Nicholas. And inside The Citizens building, a new wine shop called Accent by Veritas will fill the vacant spot across from Brioso’s new coffee bar.