By Ruth Silverman
The first time I attended the Arnold Classic, back in the ’90s, it was a lot smaller but still very special. Our dining experiences not so much. The highlights included an old-style steak house near the Ohio State Capitol—red banquettes and veteran waiters in tuxes (special in its own way)—and a midnight drive-through at a highway Taco Bell after the finals. The next year we were armed with information—and reservations—and Columbus quickly became one of my favorite places to eat on our industry’s travel circuit.
As the bodybuilding weekend grew into the huge Arnold Sports Festival, the local restaurant scene grew along with it. Nowadays, with Google at your fingertips, you have umpteen best-restaurant lists to aide your search—or confuse it.
To help you cut through the information overload, here are some key favorites and parts of town on which to narrow your search.
Warning: this is not a guide to eating on a diet in Columbus. My philosophy is, if you’re going to cheat, eat something good.
Around the Greater Columbus Convention Center (GCCC)
If you don’t have time to leave the premises, the South Café food court at the GCCC features a good variety of cuisines and is a cut above some of its counterparts you may have experienced in similar event centers. If you have more time, the Market Stand Café in the adjacent Hyatt Regency Hotel gets good marks. It’s open till 2 p.m. for lunch and 5-10 p.m. for dinner: 350 N. High St., 43215; (614) 463-1234.
Once you leave the building, you have excellent options within walking distance, starting with Max & Erma’s, a Columbus-based casual-dining chain with an outpost next to the Crown Plaza Hotel, adjacent to the convention center. The menu runs from tortilla soup to nuts on your all-you-can-eat sundae, including “sharables,” sandwiches, salads, and Max & Erma’s signature “hand-crushed” burgers, plus specialty cocktails and a full bar. A favorite of contest photographers grabbing lunch after the judging, Max & Erma’s is close and reliable—everything’s good—and it’s open till midnight on Friday and Saturday: 55 E. Nationwide Blvd., 43215; (614) 228-5555; www.maxandermas.com.
On the other side of the Convention Center—next to the Hilton Columbus, is Barley’s Brewing Company Ale House #1, a local gastropub good for lunch, dinner, or after the show. Loved by my old colleagues at Iron Man Magazine for its fabulous wings and burgers—as well as its drafts on tap— “Central Ohio’s oldest brewpub” reflects the ethnic European roots that run through the area with a menu featuring pierogi, Bavarian pretzels, and “Mildred’s sauerkraut balls” alongside such staples as nachos, fish and chips, and white truffle mac & cheese. For someone from Pittsburgh, just a few hours away, it’s like a trip to the motherland. Barley’s Brewing Company is open till 1 a.m. on Friday and Saturday: 467 N. High St., 43215; (614) 228-2537; www.barleysbrewing.com.
Just down the block from Barley’s, Martini Modern Italian offers hand-crafted cocktails and new takes on old Italian favorites in a lovely contemporary setting. Everything looks good here, and the piccata, was yummy, always a good sign for me. Check out the menu at www.martinimodernitalian.com. Open for dinner only, Martini serves till 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, but make a reservation. The place gets crazy during the Arnold Sports Festival: 445 N. High Street, 43215; (614) 224-8259.
Within Walking Distance—The Arena District
Located just a couple of blocks from the GCCC and surrounding the Nationwide Arena, this neighborhood has blossomed in recent years. Some 22 eateries and watering holes make it a popular destination for lunch and dinner, including well-rated sit-down chains like Bucco di Beppo, Gordon Biersch Brewery, and Rodizio Grill Brazilian Steakhouse (all my favorites). Find a list of Arena District restaurants at www.arenadistrict.com/food-and-drink.
A short ride up High Street takes you to the Short North Arts District, an eclectic area that’s bursting with restaurants and shopping opportunities. You’ll find sandwich shops, burger bars and casual dining places as well as upscale establishments. Marcella’s Ristorante•Pizzeria•Wine Bar, a sister restaurant to Martini, offers a more-casual take on Italian eating. Start with the antipasti or maybe an appetizer like calamari, braised veal meatball, or Parmesan-crusted onions. Then choose from the pizzas, pastas, and all your favorites. This place is definitely on my radar for 2017. Marcella’s is open till midnight on Friday and Saturday. Reservations are recommended: 615 N. High Street, 43215; (614) 223-2100.
Keep going up High Street, and you come to one of Columbus’s most colorful Historic Districts, German Village, home of the legendary Schmidt’s Sausage Haus und Restaurant. Operating since 1866, Schmidt’s does indeed look like something out of a Bavarian village. German sausages and other hearty fare are the hallmarks of the menu. Standing out in my memory: sauerkraut-bratwurst balls, giant cream puff desserts, and humongous mugs of beer—and the sausages! Open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.—11 on Friday and Saturday, it’s a great place to go after a busy day at the expo: 240 E Kossuth St., 43206; www.schmidthaus.com.
Also legendary are the burgers at The Thurman Café, another family-run German Village landmark. The star attraction here is the Thermanator, a 24-ounce, double-decker burger smothered in three cheeses, two kinds of onions, bacon, ham, sautéed mushrooms, and banana peppers—plus, lettuce, tomato and mayo. I knew a guy who finished one once—and lived to write a positive review. If that’s not your speed, the regular burgers are three-quarter pound, or try the Jumbo Wings, Pizza Thins or Famous Coney Island dogs. The Thurman Café is open from 11 a.m. to 2:30 a.m. daily, serving till 1 a.m. on Friday and Saturday; no reservations: 183 Thurman Ave., 43206; (614) 443-1570; www.thethurmancafe.com.
Steaks ’n’ Stuff
The post-contest scene at the fancy steak houses near the convention center is one of my favorite things about covering the Arnold Sports Festival. They were and are the busiest places in town. As a journalist, I’ve gotten some of my best grab shot photos of competitors and other industry folks meeting and greeting while dining on classic menus of beef, seafood, and luscious sides. Mitchell’s Steak House (45 North Third Street , 43215; (614) 621-2333; www.mitchellssteakhouse.com) and Hyde Park Prime Steakhouse 569 North High St., 43215; (614) 224-2204; www.hydeparkrestaurants.com) are the places to go for food and people watching. Both are open till 11 on Friday and Saturday. My fantasy menu: lump crab cocktail, wedge salad, and a New York strip. Reservations are highly recommended.
In a Class—and Location—All Its Own
M at Miranova would be a memorable restaurant in any city. Tucked into the ground floor of an off-the-beaten-path high-rise just minutes from the convention center, the award-winning M features “eclectic American cuisine, influenced by flavors of Europe and the Pacific Rim.” The menu is more seafood than steak, although they have that too—and a killer wine list. The vibe is the opposite of what you’ll find at the above-mentioned steak houses, and it’s open till 11 on Friday and Saturday. For a quiet celebration or romantic dinner, M is an easy choice. Set your GPS for 2 Miranova Pl., Ste. 100, 43215; (614) 629- 0000; www.matmiranova.com.