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Into The Second Decade: Northstar Cafe

The exterior of the Beechwold location of Northstar Cafe; this mini-chain
has been making its mark in the Columbus dining scene since 2004
One particularly notable detail with any restaurant is their menu prices: is the money that you are paying worth what are you getting in the food, service and atmosphere? Coming from the Bay Area, I became acutely aware of the cost differences between similar restaurant items between the two regions; in general, the lower cost for many products and services here in Central Ohio has become one of the things I have really grown to appreciate.

This is one of the reasons why my first visit to Northstar Cafe stuck in my mind: as I glanced through their menu, I can remember saying to myself, "Wow, these are close to Bay Area-type prices."

If one glances through Northstar Cafe's philosophy on its website, you get a hint of why these price points are high for this area. As co-owner Kevin Malhame himself details in this Columbus Underground interview regarding Northstar's sister restaurant Third and Hollywood, their focus on "values-oriented ingredient purchasing" as well as the sheer number of purveyors they regularly deal with boosts their costs higher than the typical restaurant.

Northstar has signature elements throughout its three locations,
as exampled here in its Beechwold location
Northstar Cafe now sports three locations around the Columbus area, starting with their recently remodeled Short North location in 2004, followed by their Beechwold and Easton Mall locations. Of these three, my spouse and I have dined at the latter two locations.

Certain design and functional elements are commonplace among the three locations: signature-style coffee dispensers to cleanly formatted one-page menus; the racks filled with various magazines, and baked goods near the cash register, typically with their time of baking posted. All locations also offer outdoor seating; Easton adds on a fire pit with their location, while the patio at the Short North location appears to make for an ideal people watching location. Easton also is the largest of the three locations, offering double-decked seating and a nicely-flowing interior space and an opportunity to see their kitchen in action.

Tipping had traditionally never been required at any of the Northstar locations, as the service has always been order-at-the-counter. Technically, it still is not a requirement (the ordering system has not changed) but the option to tip restaurant staff has been opened up to diners. This policy when implemented led to initial confusion and perhaps even a touch of resentment for long-time customers, especially in light of the generally higher menu prices.

Northstar Cafe's Easton location offers double-decked seating
and a much more open view of the kitchen to diners.
Overall, we've found Northstar Cafe has a swath of items that rate between three to four stars on a scale of five. Their flat breads are a favorite of both me and the spouse; I also have been pleased with their Fish Sandwich (a grilled Barramundi filet topped with lettuce, red onion, tomato slices and aioli accompanied by hand-cut fries) and their Chicken and Avocado Sandwich.

We are both somewhat wary of non-authentic takes on ethnic dishes, but my spouse found a winner in their Pad Thai off the dinner menu. And while we are both not a fan of beets, their Northstar Burger (a blend of organic brown rice, black beans and beets, accompanied by white cheddar, kale, pickle and a tomato slice as well as a side salad) is another standard go-to for my spouse.

A collection of Northstar Cafe menu items (clockwise from top left)
The Sweet Potato and Turkey Hash, Pad Thai, Sweet Basil
Burrito, and their Cloud Nine Pancakes.
Breakfast/brunch-wise, their Cloud Nine Pancakes and their Housemade Granola (one of the cheapest options on their menu) are always on my personal consideration list along with their baked goods. But it is their Sweet Potato and Turkey Hash (a blend of Applewood-smoked turkey, red peppers, sweet onions, sunny-side-up eggs) that we agree may be their best dish; it is in fact my spouse's de facto selection for breakfast or brunch nine times out of ten.

With that said, there are a few items that we found just a little lackluster. The lunch/dinner-oriented burritos are not our favorites: their breakfast-oriented Big Burrito with its combo of eggs, sweet potato, black beans and salsa has a zing that I believe their lunchtime Thai and Sweet Basil Burritos could use. Their Square Meal is a healthy mix of black beans over brown rice with sautéed peppers, onions, avocado, cheddar cheese and corn tortillas, but again lacks that zing that the veggie-oriented Northstar Burger gives you.

Beverages are available across the gamut but are targeted to a select few brands for categories such as beer and wine. One notable change has been with the coffee, with the switch from Columbus-based Backroom Roasters to the beans of North Carolina's Coffee Culture a couple years back. Since the change, the coffee has tended toward a subtler-tasting java with more floral and fruity notes.

So that question posed at the beginning of this post still remains: is the money that we are paying at Northstar Cafe worth what we are getting in terms of food, atmosphere and service?

For us, that answer remains yes, though I admit I did a second take on our last visit when I saw certain menu prices had crept toward, if not slightly over that $15 mark. Along with Northstar Cafe's food sourcing philosophy, we appreciate the consistency of their preparations and service: we've never had a dish served to us that was defective (too salty, too cold, etc.) and we've always had friendly service from staff members, including an unexpected comp or two without asking for such.

I can certainly see the other side of the higher-price equation, however, and signs are there that this is becoming an issue for more and more people. Only time will tell whether this particular aspect, a byproduct of Northstar Cafe's food-sourcing philosophies, will prove to be a drag on that formula of success that has fueled this eatery for more than a decade.

Northstar Cafe - Beechwold
4241 North High Street
Columbus, OH 43214
Facebook    Website

Northstar Cafe on Urbanspoon

Northstar Cafe - Easton
4015 Townsfair Way
Columbus, OH 43219
Facebook     Website

Northstar Café on Urbanspoon

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