No great rock bands come from Columbus, Ohio, says Cameron Mitchell, the city’s most celebrated restaurateur. Mitchell has built his empire by understanding his hometown’s safe distance from the cutting edge.
“We don’t have any preconceived notions. Maybe if you’re on the coasts you already think you’re cool, you already think you know everything.” Mitchell says. “We don’t want to be so avant-garde or so hot that we alienate people. We have to, by our nature, appeal to the masses.”
As a hub of national restaurant and fashion brands, Columbus has developed a civic specialty in absorbing coastal excesses and distilling them into mass product. For decades, Ohio’s capital has also been known as a test market where restaurant pros audition new products before rolling them out nationwide. The tastebuds of the city’s students and harried families stand in for those of the nation.
Mitchell is the CEO and face of Cameron Mitchell Restaurants (CMR), which operates about a dozen different restaurant “concepts”–brands–including an upscale diner, a gastropub, and Ocean Prime, an expensive seafood and steak chain. His restaurants have a reputation for attractive rooms and friendly, unpretentious service. After mastering Columbus, his ongoing expansion–across the Midwest and into Manhattan–is a triumph for him and his city.
Together, CMR and its sister company Rusty Bucket Restaurant & Tavern have almost 40 restaurants and a catering company. It expects to add about 10 more restaurants in the next year at which point it says annualized sales will reach $230 million. This doesn’t include the 22 restaurants CMR sold to Ruth’s Chris in 2008 for $92 million, months before the crash. Mitchell says he is contemplating an IPO.
Consider The Pearl, Mitchell’s gastropub. Like many new restaurants, it leans on nostalgia. Bartenders in gray vests pour drinks at the handsome dark-wood bar. Archaic trinkets are strewn Brooklynishly on the shelves. With a selection of oysters and a hangar steak entree served with kimchee fried rice, pineapple, and an egg, the food ventures into slightly more daring territory than some of Mitchell’s other menus. There are more familiar options as well. CMR executive corporate chef Brian Hinshaw says he likes to introduce diners to new flavors but doesn’t want to bully them with ingredients they can’t pronounce. The menus I saw listed no goat meat but lots of goat cheese. And absolutely no chevre.
Mitchell’s restaurant’s can be seen as updates on the “continental” restaurants New Yorker writer Calvin Trillin has skewered as “la maison de la casa house.” Back when every midsized downtown had a white tablecloth restaurant for special occasions, Trillin’s insight was that the best places to eat were the shacks and dives serving authentic local food. Today you’d say casa with a Mexican accent and throw in a word in Pan-Asian, but Trillin’s conceit holds: Foodie icons like David Chang and Anthony Bourdain have swallowed this philosophy of dining whole.
Mitchell runs in the opposite direction. His restaurants, whether the mains cost $15 or $45, focus on comforting and indulging patrons, not challenging them. Foodwise this is deeply unfashionable but it seems to work in cities that think of themselves as far more stylish than Columbus.
Mitchell’s most casual concept is The Rusty Bucket Restaurant & Tavern, which now has 17 restaurants in four states. These pubs would seem to be dashing into a brutally competitive field; Buckets serve similar dishes to chains like TGIFriday’s and Appleby’s–the anti-cuisine of our nation’s highway access roads. But the Bucket is a place, I heard repeatedly, where dad can order a craft ale, mom can sip a nice glass of wine or a well-made cocktail, and the kids will be fine.
To encourage moderation, Buckets don’t serve beer in pitchers. And the TVs showing sports don’t have the sound on (except on special occasions). To an outsider, none of this sounds particularly unique, but this kind of atmospheric fine-tuning brings in diners. The trade publication Nation’s Restaurant News anointed the Bucket one of its 10 “Breakout Brands” this year. The tavern likes to think of itself as competing against the best local place–assuming some of them still exist–rather than the national brands.
The Bucket–which is run by one of Mitchell’s mentees and pays CMR a portion of sales for performing certain corporate functions–sees itself fitting into a comfortable niche. “It’s a great place almost by default,” Mitchell says, and very profitable. He sees room for hundreds of them. The bar isn’t seedy, and he says that compared with the franchised megachains much more of the food is made from scratch.
Does fresher food matter? Even at Mitchell’s tonier restaurants the company sometimes wonders if customers know the difference between, say, frozen and hand-cut fries. “Are we getting credit for this?” Chuck Kline, the company’s vice president of operations asked. “Do people even know what good food is?”
For lunch at the Bucket we started with some apps: a queso-spinach dip and a basket of deep-fried pickle spears, with ranch for dipping. I ordered a taco salad, the only misfire in two days of eating with Mitchell’s friendly and fun team. The shell was flat, crumbly, and covered with a mound of shredded iceberg lettuce, and saturated, inevitably, in ranch. The cocktails included a Manhattan made with pecan-infused bourbon and a pink gin fizz topped with a pinot noir float. No complaints there.
Mitchell understands that sophistication is an easier sell in liquid form. The Barn, a new steakhouse with what Mitchell describes as a country-fried Ralph Lauren motif, serves dozens of bourbons, and many types of rye. Each of the three barrels above the bar is aging a Manhattan mixed with a different whiskey, an innovation as decadently American as gator-skin cowboy boots.
Metro Columbus brought this country the Miracle Bra; this city knows something about human nature. But that’s not how people think of Columbus, if they have a picture of it at all. Ohio, the quintessential swing state, embodies Middle America, but Columbus offers a particularly young and successful version of the heartland: The city boasts a diversified economy, general prosperity, and a large student population–The Ohio State University’s flagship campus, with almost 60,000 enrolled, is in Columbus. Columbus is whiter than Ohio’s other large cities, though, like the country, it is not as white as it used to be. The city is one of three finalists, along with Brooklyn and Philadelphia, to host the 2016 Democratic convention.
Many of the star restaurateurs who operate businesses comparable to Mitchell’s emerge from culinary capitals. New York has Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group. Richard Melman, a professional hero of Mitchell’s, started Lettuce Entertain You, in Chicago. Columbus is less known for its chefs than for its customers.
When Starbucks wanted to test-drive a new drink called the Dark Barrel Latte (said to taste like beer) in September, Columbus was one of the locations it chose. This summer, Wendy’s, one of several big restaurant chains based in Columbus, chose the city to experiment with letting customers customize their own burgers. This year the Italian chain Sbarro relocated to Columbus from Long Island to cut costs and to nurture a new fast casual pizza brand.
It’s an uncertain time for restaurants as “fast casual” brands like Chipotle and Panera split the difference between fast food and casual dining chains. In the trade, Chipotle is more than a successful company; it’s seen as a blueprint for what and how millennials want to eat. Mitchell calls it a new idea in an industry that doesn’t have very many new ideas.
To be sure, Columbus has remade an industry before. It is the corporate headquarters of L Brands (formerly Limited Brands), the apparel behemoth founded by local boy Les Wexner and parent company of Victoria’s Secret and Bath & Body Works. The Limited, Abercrombie & Fitch, and Lane Bryant, all of which were previously part of the company, are also based in Columbus. The city’s fortunes are deeply entwined with what might be called mall taste. But there are a lot of malls.
The commercial kitchens of Columbus, a city relatively unburdened by ethnic culinary traditions, are free to translate dishes into food with mass American appeal. CMR headquarters is across the street from North Market, a covered agora of food stalls and merchants. Here Jeni Britton Bauer began her company Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams and she now serves flavors as disparate as Bangkok Peanut, Buttercup Pumpkin with Amaretti Cookies, and Sweet Corn & Black Raspberries.
The company describes its flavors with the kind of language more commonly applied to wine from France than frozen treats from Ohio. Bauer says she adopted this trick from the wine, cheese, and other vendors at the market. (Bauer spoke at Fast Company’s Innovation by Design conference this year.)
The marketing ploy could backfire if the ice cream wasn’t outrageously good. I tried a cup with dark chocolate–“mouth filling and palate gripping with a pleasingly dry finish”–and Riesling poached pear sorbet, as light as fresh country snow. This is dessert worthy of the American experiment. And it was perfected, Bauer says, in years of conversation with her customers, the highly educated, college-football-crazed people of Columbus. My local grocery, in Brooklyn, charges a comical $11.99 for a pint of Jeni’s and it’s almost worth it.
Just as typical of Columbus’s food culture is Piada, a fast-casual restaurant whose CEO previously founded the Bravo Brio Restaurant Group, a sit-down Italian company. Piada is named for piadinas, a street food found in Rimini, Italy, that’s sort of like a quesadilla or crepe. Piada, which now has 21 stores in Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan, no longer imports meats from Italy, and it’s test kitchen serves flavor combinations like fried chicken and pepperjack cheese undreamt of in the old country. Matt Eisenacher, the company’s director of marketing, says they try to steer guests between an authentic Italian experience and the “tendency where people want to add a lot of things.”
Cameron Mitchell was born in Columbus and has been working in restaurants since he was a teenager. By his own account he was a slacker who barely finished high school and had to take extra courses to get into the Culinary Institute of America in New York’s Hudson Valley. (He later established a $500,000 scholarship fund at the school.) After finishing his associates degree, he returned to Columbus, spent a few years learning the business, and opened his first restaurant, Cameron’s American Bistro, in a strip mall adjacent to a Wendy’s in 1993.
Sitting in his modest windowless office, the 51-year-old restaurateur looked ruddy and fit in a white shirt and a blue sports jacket. His manner is serene rather than ingratiating, so comfortable in his own skin that you can’t help but relax around him. I drank a chocolate milkshake as we spoke, his company’s symbol of go-the-extra-distance customer service. He likes taking risks on new restaurant concepts, since it’s more fun than “opening store number 27.” Not every concept needs to become a blockbuster chain, but he expects that some will.
But he’s also always thinking at scale. Mitchell’s restaurants reconfigure foods for different audiences: Both the Rusty Bucket and Ocean Prime serve variations on fish tacos, for example. And Mitchell expects this kind of institutional knowledge to benefit the company as it eyes the fast casual fray. If it decided to compete with “better burger” places like Five Guys and Danny Meyer’s Shake Shack, Mitchell says the $15 burger he serves at one restaurant would inform how to build a great burger for half that price. (Hint: Keep the cheese at room temperature so it melts properly.)
Mitchell expects to open a new flagship, The Guild House, in January. Hinshaw, the chef, described it as the Mitchell restaurant most aligned with current trends in fine dining. The House will serve much less beef, and its small plates will include dishes like a salad made with heirloom purple, yellow, and orange carrots, served with chickpea puree, homemade granola, and cider vinaigrette.
Vegetable small plates will be a departure for Mitchell. His menus don’t waste ink describing ingredients’ paternity or pay much attention to vegetables at all. Will a few Columbusites pay $8 for a plate of carrots? “Columbus is ready for it,” Mitchell’s lieutenant Kline said, which by a certain industry logic, means the country is ready for it.
Ocean Prime, Mitchell’s steak and seafood vehicle, has 11 branches in cities including Atlanta, Dallas, and Philadelphia. It opened on Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills this fall with a special entrance for paparazzi-shy stars. Ocean Prime docks in New York City next year.
The king salmon with gnocchi and lobster that I enjoyed at Mitchell’s Ocean Club (the Ocean Prime in Columbus) was nicely cooked and at $38, one of the bargain entrees. The 10-layer carrot cake was actually 20 layers if you count the icing. The brick-sized tranche arrived standing on end in a pool of pineapple syrup. Like a sundial, it cast a shadow beyond the lip of the plate.
Restaurants are no one’s idea of an easy way to get rich, but steakhouses can benefit from providing a meal that is as much about overpaying for your food, or someone else overpaying for your food, as the food itself. “I don’t think there’s much resistance [to] price increases,” Kline said.
He’ll have the chance to prove it at the corner of Sixth Avenue and W. 52nd St., the heart of corporate Manhattan. When Ocean Prime opens, it will be within blocks of Capital Grille, which Mitchell considers its closest competitor, and several other national steak and seafood chains. It will also vie for customers with gourmet shrines like the four-star French seafood restaurant Le Bernardin, where a meal is not necessarily more expensive than one at Ocean Prime.
Mitchell admits to some nervousness, but coming from Columbus he knows that his customers in the office towers and the convention hotels “just want to go get a nice experience without any fuss.”
“If I can’t get 250 people a day to come to my restaurant in Manhattan then I shouldn’t be in the restaurant business,” he says. “I just need to hang it up.”