Columbus, Ohio —with one of the country’s largest gay populations — is a Midwestern oasis
Columbus is the biggest small town in the world … or is it the smallest big city?” says one longtime booster of Ohio’s capital. It works either way: With its series of quaint, walkable and distinctive neighborhoods, Columbus is — as the same booster called it — a “string of pearls:” inviting, gay-friendly and charming enclaves that make for a surprisingly sophisticated Midwestern oasis of progressivity, good eating and cultural maturity.
Columbus, the 15th largest city in the U.S. (pop: 850,000), is the political, business and social hub of Ohio, and home to the enormous Ohio State University, though it’s much more than a typical “college town.” Politically in a swing state, it boasts an out African-American city councilmember in Shannon Hardin, who was appointed to fill a vacancy and is currently running for re-election to his historic seat (with the help of the HRC).
“Columbus is a progressive city with only 4 percent unemployment,” Hardin told me over breakfast. “We think we’re in our coming out stage, and it’s time to tell our story.”
The story is a good one, developing from urban blight in the 1970s to a more recent renaissance, often led by the pioneering gay gentrifiers. It now boasts clean streets, civic pride and cultural awareness, including a major renovation at the lovely Columbus Museum of Art that will see a doubling of its exhibition space when it reopens on Oct. 25. You might want to visit then to enjoy the interesting collections (from tributes to Marvin Hamlisch to Old Masters to Dale Chihuly and interactive exhibits), but go sooner and enjoy a walking tour of one of the delightful neighborhoods — German Village, Italian Village, Grandview and especially the buzzy Short North district, where all gay adventures to Columbus should begin and end.
The Short North
The primary gay district — and the cultural hub — of Columbus, is certainly The Short North. A social melting pot for all progressives and fun seekers, the neighborhood runs along High Street from approximately Goodale for 20 blocks (though the 10 closest to Downtown are the most heavily trafficked). Its name — a police shorthand for the undefined area north of Downtown but short of OSU — belies a crime-ridden past … pretty much like all areas before the gays renovate them. Now, it is a safe and popular neighborhood that has become a kind of “Castro lite:” Bright and friendly during the day, and well lit (with an adequate police presence) and lots of foot traffic on busy nights.
Its hopping nightlife is largely, but not exclusively, gay: corn-fed college boys, hipster couples and gays walk side-by-side along 300 businesses, from steakhouses to sushi restaurants, cappuccino to cocktail lounges, galleries to go-go-boy discos, comic-book storefronts to boutique hotels, bakeries to ice cream parlors.
The first Saturday of each month is the Gallery Hop, where retailers fling open their doors for late-night shopping and a party atmosphere, but in general, the commerce is as diverse as the population. The Flower Child, a San Francisco-inspired vintage shop that’s been here for about 10 years, looks like a drag queen’s closet, with a sidewalk bubble machine beckoning you to step in and explore that tangle of clothing, knickknacks and tchotchkes. The Candle Lab nearby will help you design and pour your own scented candles with a staff that loves to consult with you on creating a unique fragrance (it’s like a candy store for the nose).
Gay bars are plentiful here. Around the 800 block is Union, a cavernous video bar with an extremely mixed crowd that also serves weekend brunch, while across the street, Axis is a multilevel show bar where drag diva Nina West leads a conceptual, two-hour production that’s damned dazzling.
Wall Street is popular with lesbians, while Exile is the cruisy leather bar option. Local Bar is another popular club, while Level Dining Lounge at the corner of Lincoln and High combines cocktails and meals.
Indeed, dining choices are plentiful in The Short North. Husband-and-wife team John and Trish recently relaunched Basi Italia, with such specialties as lobster ravioli and scallops wrapped in prosciutto. Its patio is a delightfully chummy space during nice weather; go inside, it has old-school Italian-bistro charm where you can entertain drinks like the aviation cocktail, made with gin and violet liqueur.
The Guild House is a brand-new modern restaurant with a warm décor and huge plate glass windows opening up along the excitement of High Street. The food, from great cocktails to a wonderful selection of indulgent desserts, is a draw. It’s attached to The Joseph, a Le Meridien hotel from the Starwood brand. It’s a perfect place to stay for gay travelers — brand new, beautifully decorated with modern art, with a contemporary feel that makes it the perfect home base in the heart of the gayborhood.
It probably comes as no surprise that Germans were a major ethnic subculture in Columbus dating back more than a century — the Midwest is known for its beer-brewing, and both German Village and the adjacent Brewery District are popular and storied neighborhoods.
On the National Historic Registry since 1974, the 233-acre German Village was the first gay neighborhood to emerge in the 1960s, which thrived under the stewardship of its unofficial gay mayors, fondly still remembered simply as “Fred and Howard.” With the opening of the eclectic Hausfrau Haven store, which served everything from unique foodstuffs to clever greeting cards to booze (and is still there for your shopping pleasure), Fred and Howard turned the rundown area into a showplace of preserved 19th century architecture that gives the area a Colonial Williamsburg-ish quality. Homes are now recognized for their colorful windowboxes, which are festooned with flowers, as well as cobblestone alleys and a variety of local businesses that define the area.
Chief among these is surely The Book Loft, a labyrinth of literature where you could get lost for hours, if not days. Originally a gay bookstore, it now occupies 32 rooms in a cobbled-together multistory home along Third Street. It’s across the street from The Meeting Haus, the home of the tourist bureau and a great starting place for walking excursions.
Be sure to hoof it to Club Diversity, an old-style gay piano bar that’s been there almost 15 years. It occupies a charmingly run-down house where upstairs is a performance space while downstairs friendly bartenders make sure you’re happy and will make you any drink you want. It’s the definition of a neighborhood hang.
For more hipsterism, check out still-new Curio, a craft cocktail bar led by mixologist Travis Owens. Retro and steampunky, with a hip vibe (and next door to the excellent Harvest Pizza), Curio is one of only two craft cocktail bars in the city, though “craft breweries are popping up like mushrooms,” Owens told me. It’s an intimate and intense place that makes you feel like you’re in the West Village more than the Midwest.
For Curio’s brunchy equivalent, visit Skillet, a farm-to-table breakfast nook infused with Southern cookin’ influences — biscuits and gravy are among the menu’s list of exceptional and rich foods. A griddled cinnamon roll — a caramelized mouthgasm — is unmissable, while a side of game sausage (wild pheasant, anyone?) or Bolognese grits with micro greens will make the Wednesday-through-Sunday brunch-only spot worth the inevitable wait.
For dinner, gay-owned Barcelona is the only authentic Spanish-style cuisine in town, with paellas, inventive tapas and Spanish wines at reasonable prices. It’s a star on the burgeoning foodie scene in Columbus, where high-end excellence makes it a culinary destination without reliance on bratwurst and hoagies (who knew?).
If you think you might want to cook something yourself, the new experiment called The Kitchen is an ideal place for couples to go to enjoy some bonding over a meal. It’s a great open space where the owners don’t so much teach you how to cook as they do facilitate the cooking experience.
Gay Pride in Columbus is celebrated at German Village’s Goodale Park each Father’s Day weekend, with three days of a festival, parade and a Sunday brunch among the scheduled offerings.
You’ll have to drive to get to Italian Village, an emerging neighborhood that calls to mind Dallas’ Design District or even Deep Ellum. Here, converted garages make way for interesting businesses that, just a few years ago, would never have survived to do to lack of foot traffic. But the growing hipster culture has helped it and other neighborhoods blossom.
You need to know what you’re doing, though. Fox in the Snow Café doesn’t even have any signage, making it a kind of coffee-fueled speakeasy for the in-crowd. Serving artisan rustic American-style pastries — from cream-filled donuts to peach clafoutis — as well as custom-poured drip coffees (the hot new trend in café society), it opened just last November.
Next-door neighbor Seventh Son is one of those “mushroom” craft breweries Owens mentioned, and a damned good one at that, especially for beer-obsessed Dallasites. A wonderfully hip hangout for beer nuts and food truck junkies, the two-year-old biergarten has made more than 60 versions of their product, from the awesome and mild IPA (with 73 IBUs, called The Scientific) two Waffles, a 5 percent ABV saison. More full-bodied porters and stouts (like the coffee-ish Black Sheep) give you a diverse selection of beers to chill with.
If you’re really into the full scope of a city’s culinary scene — and in Columbus, there’s even a local distiller, Watershed, that makes exceptional vodka and other spirits — Columbus Food Adventure Tours can customize your visit, with walking tours of all sorts of neighborhoods. I took the Grandview tour, which included the following stops.
Toast Bar, the new walk-up concept from local pastry king Dan the Baker, has made artisan breads here for several years. The toast trend started in San Francisco, Chicago and New York to serve artsy toasts, like their organic sourdough. After that, head over to famed Stauf’s Roasters. A local legend, and one of the oldest roasters in the country, this café has been around more than 25 years and has enough credibility to put Seattle to shame. (There are several locations around the city, including one in German Village next to The Book Loft, but this is the flagship.)
Chef Hubert Siefert, a cuddly Captain Kangaroo with teddy bear appeal, has been one of the culinary grandmasters of Columbus for 35 years, running a string of restaurants, including the members-only club Aubergine; and Spagio (both a wine lounge and a restaurant), which serves nice foods and unique wines for a discerning clientele. Around the corner is Third and Hollywood, a modern American bistro, which serves interesting cocktails as well as the popular herb cheese biscuits with pimento cheese and bacon and roasted dates.
Stop into Figlio and its attached wine bar Vino Vino for a bite (and sip) of Italy. Owned by an interesting and progressive-thinking couple, you’ll be amazed by the aromatic wood-fired pizzas like the truffle mushroom as well as delicious crab-corn chowder and an engaging wine list.
Central Columbus is just a 10-minute cab ride from its easy, moderately-sized airport. That’s good — you’ll want to spend as little time getting there as you can, so you can enjoy the diverse appeal the city offers.
LITTLE BLACK BOOK
The Joseph Hotel, 491 S. 4th St. LeMeridienColumbus.com.
The Book Loft, 631 S. 3rd St. BookLoft.com. Candle Lab, 751 N. High St. TheCandleLab.com. Columbus Museum of Art, 480 E. Broad St. ColumbusMuseum.org. Flower Child, 989 N. Nigh St. FlowerChildVintage.com. Meeting Haus, 588 S. 3rd St. GermanVillage.com.
Bars & Clubs
Axis, 775 N. High St. AxisOnHigh.com. Club
Diversity, 863 S. High St. ClubDiversity.biz. Exile, 893 N. 4th St. ExileBar.com. Level, 700 N. High St.
LevelColumbus.com. Local, 913 B. High St. Union Cafe, 782 N. High St. Wall Street, 144 N. Wall St. WallStreetNightclub.com.
Barcelona, 263 E. Whittier St. BarcelonaColumbus.com. Basi Italia, 811 Highland St. Basi-Italia.com. Curio, 491 S. 4th St. Dan the Baker and Toast Bar, 1028 Ridge St. Dan-the-Baker.com/toastbar. Figlio/Vino Vino, 1369 Grandview Ave. FiglioPizza.com. The Guild House, 624 N. High St. TheGuildHouseColumbus.com. Fox in the Snow Cafe, 1031 N. 4th St. The Kitchen, 231 E. Livingston Ave. TheKitchenColumbus.com. Seventh Son Brewing Co., 1101 N 4th St. SeventhSonBrewing.com. Skillet, 410 E. Whitter St. Skillet RUF.com. Spagio, 1295 Grandview Ave. Spagio.com. Stauf’s in Grandview, 1277 Grandview Ave. Staufs.com. Third & Hollywood, 1433 W. 3rd Ave. ThirdAndHollywood.com.
Columbus CVB, ExperienceColumbus.com/glbt. ColumbusGayBars.com.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition June 19, 2015.