Bethel Road's Transformation Into Columbus' Hub for International Cuisine
How a rural, two-lane road became a busy corridor for international dining and groceries.
Bethel Road’s story began in 1833, when Hiram Andrews successfully petitioned Franklin County to fell trees for a new road that would run west from what we now call Olentangy River Road to the Scioto River. Township maps from the 1800s show this road and adjacent parcels bearing familiar names of area landowners (Henderson, Tuller, Hard, etc.), an orchard and the Bethel Church, after which the road was officially named in 1935.
Until the 1980s, there was no access from State Route 315 to this road for a simple reason: The freeway hadn’t been built that far north yet. Bethel was a quiet, rural, two-lane road with homes, some offices, a church and roaming deer. There were no apartment complexes or shopping centers. Families who lived there often had owned their property for generations.
In 1976, the restaurant that would become The Refectory opened in the former Bethel Church building. Owner Kamal Boulos recalls that to reach the restaurant from Downtown you had to take 315 to Ackerman Road, then head north on Kenny Road to Bethel. There was only one other restaurant nearby around that time, he says—a Red Lobster, which was later the site of Winking Lizard Tavern (and is currently being redeveloped into a Sheetz).
After access from both I-270 and 315 improved and a tedious four-year project to widen Bethel Road was completed in 1992, people from outlying suburbs helped turn the area into a commercial destination. This was before the allure of Tuttle Mall, Easton Town Center or Polaris Fashion Place, which opened in 1997, 1999 and 2001, respectively.
As pockets of development sprang up in those three shopping areas, once-popular restaurant corridors, including Bethel Road and State Route 161, suffered. Bethel fell out of favor with developers, real estate values fell and retail space there became more affordable. This enabled smaller, independent businesses to gain a foothold, such as Golden Delight Bakery, which opened in 1994 and remains there today.
In 1997, a young Chinese engineer, Jay Yang, opened Columbus Asia Market (better known as CAM) in an 8,000-square-foot space on Bethel. At the time, CAM was the biggest Asian grocery store in Central Ohio, and it arrived in an era when the city’s immigrant population was growing, new housing was being built nearby to appeal to 20-somethings and interest in international cuisine was surging. (CAM has since relocated to Hilliard.)
“I saw the existing markets couldn’t provide the services people wanted,” Yang told Columbus CEO in a 2020 interview. “I thought, why can’t an Asian grocery store do a better job, have a bright, spacious place? I thought I could bring that concept.”
At the turn of the millennium, a variety of international restaurants followed, including Min-Ga in 2001, Buckeye Pho and Los Guachos in 2011, and Jiu Thai in 2013. Today, Bethel Road looks much different than when Boulos looked out in 1976 and saw few restaurant neighbors, save Red Lobster.
“There’s room for everyone on Bethel Road,” he says.
Blasts from Bethel’s Past
Several bygone establishments include: Rocky’s (a boisterous bar with 26 flavors of iced tea), Dalts, Cooker Bar & Grille, David’s San Francisco, Bumpers, Mark Pi’s Ancient Wok, Judy’s Café and Big Bear, among others.
Hunan Lion, named the city’s “first true gourmet Chinese restaurant,” by former Dispatch restaurant reviewer Doral Chenoweth, made its debut on Bethel in 1987.
Correction: The print version of this story and the original online version contained an incorrect opening year for Hunan Lion.
This story is from the May 2022 issue of Columbus Monthly.