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Surprise, Surprise! A City Tries To Shed The "S" Word

If you watched the "Heartland" episode of "Anthony Bourdain's
No Reservations" when it was first broadcast in 2010, you would've
thought Ohio's capital was a desolate wasteland for credible eats
"It's hard to believe we're in Columbus. Columbus, Ohio!"..."This is not the world you know!"..."This is Applebee's country!"

Famously, or perhaps infamously for Columbus natives, these lines were uttered roughly nine years ago in 2009 by food author/entrepreneur/Cleveland native Michael Ruhlman during the filming of the "Heartland" segment of Anthony Bourdain's "No Reservations" show for the Travel Channel. The two men seemed incredulous that the delicious creations of Chef Ryuki "Mike" Kimura of Kihachi could actually be found within what seemed to be portrayed as a culinary desert.

As it turns out, this particular way of thinking, as exemplified by the "S" (as in Surprised) word, where this area actually has quality eats within its borders, has been more or less the prevailing narrative for years, but lately the winds have been trending a different direction.

Tacos from Columbus's Los Guachos, which earned them a spot on
Food Network's "Top Five" segment for the country's Best Tacos
I myself watched the show while still living in California when it was broadcast in 2010; not knowing much about the city at the time, I figured the city's portrayal on Bourdain had some truth to it. And yes, there does exist a kernel of that - Columbus has its fair share of chains, and the city is still considered a perfect test market by said chains. But my post-move explorations uncovered there was a lot more to this area's culinary scene than dozens of chain-filled strip malls.

In print articles, that derisive type of surprise for me seemed to last into the mid-2010s.  A 2014 Thrillist article threw Columbus near the very bottom of the country's food scene for cities with over 500,000 people with really little rhyme or reason (FWIW, I think another Ohio city in Cleveland gets short shrift on the list as well.) Meanwhile, a 2015 Esquire article touting Ray Ray's Hog Pit and their delicious ribs places the find "against all odds" and "in a city considered dull even by some Ohioans." One year later, a freshcup.com piece on the city's Coffee Trail declared to its readers "A specialty coffee scene? Well, who knew?"

Ray Ray's Hog Pit grills up its delicious meats in the Old North
neighborhood despite the overwhelmingly "dull" surroundings
More recent media pieces have changed their tone, however - yes, Columbus is still a surprise, but it's more with the idea of that this area is truly worth your time. From this 2016 Detroit News article to an early 2017 Washington Post article ("Columbus kept me busy and surprised") to Food & Wine Magazine's February 2018 take, which proclaimed "Stick around Columbus for a while...and you’ll hear a surprising number of similar stories—there is a well-worn path from the coasts to Ohio's capital, an evolving city with the verve (and) the boldness of somewhere much less entrenched..."

Need more? In 2018 alone, Marriott Traveler in March proclaimed Columbus as the "Underdog" destination, followed one month later by the Minnesota Star Tribune's declaration that the city "punches above its weight" in regards to food and attractions. Just last month, the blog associated with Rick Steves (a travel show which we both love) declared the city's food scene to be an "Unexpected Foodie Mecca". And maybe the ultimate sign of the city's emergence is exampled by this Forbes Magazine article, which doesn't even hint at that "S" word but rather categorizes the city as a "Place to Visit Now."

The Bahama Mama of Schmidt's Sausage Haus, which has been featured
on a couple of food TV shows, including Adam Richman's "Man v. Food"
On the broadcast side of the equation, the food scene of Columbus is still somewhat ignored. Yes, Columbus eateries have been featured on the airwaves, including but not exclusive to this golden oldie from Westerville's Just PiesHot Chicken Takeover's feature on The Rachel Ray Show; Alton Brown's recent mention of Cosecha Cocina's Tomatillo Salsa for a "Best Thing I Ever Ate: Mexican"; and Comfort Food Tour's feature of the Ajumama Food Truck (also featured in the Canadian import Eat St. in 2014), Brown Bag Deli and the venerable Schmidt's Sausage Haus.

Many may remember Adam Richman's venture into the city with the original "Man v. Food", which combined the previously mentioned Schmidt's with The Thurman Cafe and the (sadly missed) Ohio Deli in 2014.  However, it is this venture that illustrates my point best: outside of this show, Columbus and its food scene hasn't been the sole focus of one of these shows.

You really only need look at Columbus's biggest city neighbors for more perspective. Detroit, Cleveland and Pittsburgh all have received multiple focused features across multiple show concepts, including those of Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern.  Columbus shares more in common with Cincinnati and Indianapolis in terms of lower levels of exposure, but even here shows like Ali Khan's "Cheap Eats" or Casey Webb's new version of "Man V. Food" have been drawn to the latter two cities but not Ohio's capital city.

The Pastrami Reuben and Chicken Noodle Soup from German Village's
Katzinger's Delicatessen earned "Best Thing I Ever Ate" nods from Chef Ted Allen
Recent developments are promising, however: Columbus got a nice exposure boost when food personality Guy Fieri featured six Columbus eateries (including Momo Ghar, Pierogi Mountain, Sweet Carrot, Loops, Ray Ray's Hog Pit, and Ena's Caribbean Kitchen) on his very popular "Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives."

Also, appearances by esteemed local chefs and bakers like Destination Donuts' Heather Morris (Cooking Channel's "Donut Showdown"), Laura Lee (of the Ajumama Food Truck) and pastry chef Aaron Clouse (Guy's Grocery Games), and Watershed Kitchen & Bar's executive chef Jack Moore (due for appearances on Michael Symon's "Burgers, Brew & ’Que" and the food competition "Beat Bobby Flay" in the near future), not to mention coverage or our local culinary royalty like Jeni Britton Bauer and Cameron Mitchell, can only help.

Columbus chefs Laura Lee and Aaron Clouse get their moment in the
spotlight during a recent broadcast of Guy Fieri's "Guy's Grocery Games"
But maybe it's simply getting it inside these personality's minds that we're here and we got a lot going on here that's worth exploring, so here goes my spiel from my small little corner of the Internet.

Mr. Zimmern - We love, love, love your Bizarre Foods shows, and we'd love you to follow in the footsteps of Anthony Bourdain and Alton Brown and visit us.  Trust me, we've got food trucks here worthy of consideration for your new "Big Food Truck Tip" show and plenty of restaurants that will remind you of your travels to Africa (our friends at Columbus Food Adventures would be more than happy to show you around with the latter.)

Mr. Webb - Adam Richman found Columbus to his "Man V. Food" liking, and I'm sure you'll find the eats similarly challenging.  Perhaps you can take on Bexley's Johnson's Real Ice Cream Sundae Challenge or bring a partner to give Joseppi's 28" Mega Meat Challenge a whirl (and there's many many more to be had, trust us.)

Mr. Symon - I loved reading that you've come to give Watershed Kitchen and Bar and Chef Moore a shout out.  Hope this means you'll be sampling Columbus a lot more in the near future (Service Bar and the Ray Ray's/Land Grant Brewing combo to mind immediately.)

Mr. Khan - we've got some great Cheap Eats as well!  We've got a whole host of people who would love to show you where the good stuff is without breaking that $35 budget of yours.

Mr. Lappert -  Pssst, here's a scoop for you - Central Ohio has some GREAT ice cream.

Mr. Andino - I'm sure we can accommodate your night owl ways with some Late Nite Eats.

I'm probably missing a few, so if any other folks who grace the tube want to come by and visit, I'm sure we'd love the surprise (in this particular case.)

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