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Break The Chains of Love: A Look At "Best Of" Lists (Part 1: The Locals)

With a new location in Pittsburgh, the popular Columbus-based Condado
now rates as a small but growing restaurant chain.
Certainly, a few eyebrows were raised when most media outlets reported that Taco Bell was voted as this country's Best Mexican Restaurant for 2018. Discounting the fact that only six restaurant chains were eligible for this voting category, and that the actual designation was "Brand of the Year", the "Best Of" list is pretty a common thing you'll hear in the news, from nationwide media powerhouses down to the small town publications that you might find in the clutter of the local coffee house.

While these lists feature everything from businesses, events and even celebrities, one thing pretty much universal in these lists is a food and drink element. While sometimes it's strictly limited to the opinions of the publishing staffs, most of these "Best Of" lists have a vox populi element, where the public can put in their proverbial two cents into the process.

Unsurprisingly, Columbus is a metro area large enough to have several such "Best Of" lists, and unsurprisingly, these lists have a large food and drink component to them. And in certain cases, the ultimate winners of various poll categories have caused some consternation and head-shaking among certain readers, especially when a chain restaurant is nominated for the top spot.
Jeni's Ice Creams: A home-grown chain worth bragging about
I should specify now that being a chain is not necessarily a bad thing: the above-pictured Jeni's Ice Creams, which now qualifies as a national chain with locations in 8 states and DC, is one that any Columbus native should be proud of.  Numerous regional mini-chains like 101 Beer Kitchen and Hot Chicken Takeover are also worthy of "Best Of" consideration on any local poll. And being a popular local doesn't necessarily translate as being the best in the area, depending how you perceive the winner.

But should P. F. Chang's really earn a "Best Of" honor in a Columbus area that sports some pretty decent Asian fare like Kihachi, NE Chinese Restaurant, Bonifacio, or Min-Ga?  And how does Chipotle earn "Best Burrito" in the home of the most substantial taco truck fleets (not to mention a good number of Mexican restaurant brick-and-mortars) within a couple hundred mile radius of this part of the country?

It also begs the bigger question: are these Columbus "Best Of" selections of chains show that we still have some work to do, or do other cities in the same population range also have their own public guilty chain pleasures (ahh, you'll have to wait until the next blog post for that tidbit.)

Northstar Cafe's Westerville Location. With their new outlet in the 513 area code
(Liberty Center), this Columbus born staple has eked into mini-chain territory
For this examination, we have to start with the locals. I took a look at three major media outlets in Columbus Alive, Columbus Monthly and (614) and looked at all the food and drink-related categories in their latest available public-voted on "Best Of" poll (I did not include the Columbus Underground version because of its slightly different format (a "Top Ten" vs. "Best Of") as well as the stipulation that the 2017 results were a combination of both staff input and popular vote.)

Each summary includes whether the poll included neighborhood-oriented voting (I only counted the general categories for this examination), the number of applicable categories in each poll, something I call a "Total Chain Quotient" (a percentage of categories won by a chain of any sort) and a breakdown of the poll's chain-restaurant winners (for the purposes of this examination, I defined "Regional Mini-Chain" as a restaurant with 3 or more outlets within the metro area.)

Columbus Alive
Most Unique Categories: Hangover Breakfast/Local Treat
Neighborhood Oriented Categories? Yes
Total Categories: 48
Total Chain Quotient: 22.9%
Outsider Chains: 2
State-Based Chains: 0
Homegrown Chains: 6
Regional Mini-Chains: 3

The biggest quibble here might be with the winner of the "Best Fries" category: Yes, I do know Five Guys has good fries, but one would figure that at least one local yokel eatery has better fries, right?  On the other hand, I don't have any experience with Illinois-based Cooper's Hawk, but their selection as best "Wine Selection" seems to be at least plausible based on their history as a award-winning winery/restaurant geared toward food and wine pairings.

The locally-oriented chains that took "Best Of" kudos pop up in often in the other local lists examined here. Roosters Wings, which first opened up is Dayton but now is headquartered in Dublin and earned thumbs up in the Wings category in all three polls. Meanwhile, Jeni's, Northstar Cafe (Best Burrito), City Barbeque, and Condado (both Tacos and Mexican) also earned top honors in the Columbus Alive poll.

In the Regional Mini-Chain category, Mikey's Late Night Slice took the belt in "Traditional Pizza" and (duh) "Late Night" categories, while 101 Beer Kitchen earned kudos as "Best Beer Bar".

Interestingly enough, the Columbus Alive poll offers a "Best Hangover Breakfast" category (earned by Hilliard's excellent Starliner Diner) but not a specific "Best Breakfast" category.

Columbus Monthly
Neighborhood Oriented Categories? No
Most Unique Categories: African, Bakery (New-Fashioned), Kids' Menu
Total Categories: 52
Total Chain Quotient: 36.5%
Outsider Chains: 1
State-Based Chains: 2
Homegrown Chains: 9
Regional Mini-Chains: 7

While the Total Chain Quotient is higher than the Columbus Alive list, I prefer the chain breakdown of this list. The only oddity is Florida-based First Watch earning "Best Breakfast" nods - it's not so much that First Watch is bad (my first breakfast in the Columbus metro came at one of their outlets) but rather there are many more interesting options in the area.

The State-Grown chain grouping is led by Cincinnati-based Graeter's Ice Cream, which edged out Jeni's in the ice cream voting, and Lakewood-based Aladdin's Eatery, which took the Mediterranean/Middle Eastern category.

With Jeni's getting edged out, some new blood in the Homegrown Chain category reigned here: The Rusty Bucket (Kids' Menu), Piada (Fast Casual), Harvest Pizzeria (Gourmet Pizza) and El Vaquero (Mexican) joined repeat winners Northstar Cafe (this time in the Brunch category), Condado, City Barbecue and Roosters (which doubled up with Best Wings and Best Sports Bar.)

Meanwhile, Mikey's (Late Night Eats) and 101 Beer Kitchen (Beer Selection) were joined by a diverse group of regional mini-chains, including Stauf's (Coffee), El Arepazo (Latin American), Tommy's (Best Traditional Pizza), The Daily Growler (Beer Shop), and Cap City Diner (Comfort Food.)

One other thing I like about the Columbus Monthly poll: the category for African Restaurant, won in this case by Wycliff's Kitchen. With Columbus's substantial African restaurant contingent, I believe it is a category that belongs in all local polls.

By the way, I did pick up the new July edition of Columbus Monthly, which includes the 2018 Readers' "Best Of" Poll.  I won't spoil too much in deference to the magazine (i.e. go pick up a copy already) but there are a few subtle and interesting changes of note with certain categories.

(614) ColumBEST
Neighborhood Oriented Categories? Yes
Most Unique Categories: Buffet, Hangover Breakfast, Hidden Gem, Salad
Total Categories: 69
Total Chain Quotient: 46.4%
Outsider Chains: 7
State-Based Chains: 2
Homegrown Chains: 12
Regional Mini-Chains: 11

There's a lot to groan about here, if one chooses.  The most head-scratching results were alluded to above, with the P.F. Chang and Chipotle selections for the "Best Asian" and "Best Burrito" categories, respectively. Cooper's Hawk, First Watch, and Five Guys also make repeat appearances in the Outsider Chain category in the categories mentioned previously. 

Newcomers to this category in this poll include Louisville-based J. Gumbo's (Columbus is not huge in the Cajun restaurant field, so this is probably passable) and Chick Fil-A (understandable being the "Fast Food" category, but it would've been nice to see a local like Wendy's or White Castle take it.)

A lot of familiar names from above repeat in other chain categories in the categories that you might expect (Mikey's Late Night Slice was especially strong, taking the "Food Truck", "Late Night Eats", and "Traditional Pizza" categories.)

Surprisingly, it took the (614) "Best Comfort Food" category for Columbus' Hot Chicken Takeover to finally earn a top spot; similarly, sushi-oriented Fusian makes an appearance here. Meanwhile, Cincinnati-based Jeff Ruby's earned top spot from voters as "Best New Restaurant."

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