Think of Columbus, and most likely the words "exciting" or "foodie" do not immediately come to mind. Nowadays, though, this Midwestern city is quietly developing a surprisingly sophisticated foodie scene to rival that of the coastal metropolises – and, this being the Midwest, eating out is far more affordable than on the coasts, and doesn't require putting your name on a waiting list for a table.
Long-established places such as The Refectory and Rigsby's Kitchen are solid choices for classic French and Italian cuisine, but tend to be priced on the higher end ($16 to $35 for an entrée). For dining that is more affordable (and arguably has more character) head out to Bethel Road, which is home to a surprising number of hidden Asian restaurants and businesses. The Korean grocery and cafe, Arirang (1526 Bethel Road) serves an excellent Dolsot Bibimbap (a mixed rice, vegetable, and meat dish served in a hot stone bowl), accompanied by traditional banchan, a selection of small dishes that change every day, and hot barley tea for less than $10.
Strolling around the North Market, Columbus' only public market, in operation since 1876, you are spoiled for choice between pho at Lan Viet Market, barbecue at Holy Smoke, and pizza at Serafina's. About $10 gets you a flavorful and filling meal at most vendors here -- but be sure to leave room for Bavarian-style pretzels at Brezel. For evening drinks with food, you can't go wrong with the cowgirl-themed Surly Girl Saloon ($1 PBRs and $3 well drinks during happy hour, Monday to Friday from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m.) and the Japanese izakaya-style Double Happiness (small plates start at $3).
Prohibition was set in motion by the Anti-Saloon League, which was formed in Oberlin and had its headquarters in Columbus' Westerville neighborhood. So it's perhaps all the sweeter that Columbus is a noteworthy part of the national microdistillery resurgence. Middle West Spirits, founded in 2007 by the grandson of a rum-runner, makes small-batch vodka and whiskey using local Ohio ingredients. Most notable is their OYO Honey Vanilla Bean Vodka, made with fair-trade Ugandan vanilla bean. Middle West's products are available in local stores and bars, and they offer weekly tours of their small Short North district distillery on Friday evenings ($15 including tasting). The other best-known local distillery, Watershed, which makes a gin, vodka, and bourbon, also offers tours by appointment for $10 per person.
In my opinion, this is the category that turns Columbus into a legitimate foodie town. If they hadn't recently opened up shop in New York City, I would make the journey back to Columbus just for a few scoops of Jeni's Ice Cream, made with milk from grass-grazed cows from Snowville Creamery, a farm at the foot of the Appalachian mountains. The surprising flavors on offer change with the seasons, but signatures include goat cheese with red cherries, sweet potato with toasted marshmallow, and the distinctly Ohioan sweet corn and black raspberry. At around $5 for two scoops, and $12 a pint, it's pricey but worth the splurge. Also of note: the macarons of Pistacia Vera; the blondies of Sugardaddy's, and the vegan treats of the socially conscious Pattycake Bakery.
With so much to choose from, and new businesses opening up constantly, you would be wise to entrust the experts in navigating Columbus' culinary landscape. Columbus Food Adventures, in operation since 2010, offers several themed tours, including a dedicated taco truck tour, neighborhood tours, and an "Alt Eats Ethnic Tour" that focuses on Somali, Vietnamese, and South Indian foods. Tickets start at $55 and tours last between one-and-a-half and four hours.