Damon’s, The Place For Ribs

Though a former employee at two different locations, I actually didn’t know until researching this piece that the restaurant chain Damon’s (a.k.a. “The Place For Ribs”) was in fact founded in Columbus in 1979. As far as I can determine, the last location remaining in town closed its doors in 2011, although a handful remain in the states and – bizarrely enough – there are a few still over in England.

Somewhere in my archives I have a photo or two of the spot where I once worked, which was attached to the Parke University Hotel on Olentangy River Rd. The company logo at the time kind of resembled the nautical flag for “diver down,” which should have maybe been a bad omen itself – a red rectangle with a white diagonal slash. Apart from the ribs, they were probably most famous for the onion loaf, which reeked to the high heavens and had one of these diver down flags planted at its summit. My personal favorite though was the Steamboat, which was this hollowed out bread loaf filled with a mountain of BBQ pork and topped with shredded cheese. In another nifty creative touch, they also had their dessert menu loaded on one of those red plastic Viewfinder toys, planted at each table.

Even by late 90s standards, though, the exterior décor was shabby, and the interior not much better. With its white plaster walls and hot cocoa carpet both no thicker than a page of the Columbus Dispatch, its matching plywood trim an equally disgusting shade of brown, the dining room where I worked had clearly not seen a remodel since probably the day it opened its doors. The dining room does have one redeeming feature, which is a giant bay window overlooking Olentangy River Rd. Three small, two top tables are situated along the curve, and whenever the weather’s exceptional, I like to sit or stand there, dearth of patrons permitting. Cars hiss down Olentangy, but the gravestones filling this massive cemetery across the way remain unmoving, as I’m sure they always will, the perfect backdrop to stare and dream against. But that’s about it for the dining room.

The clubhouse half of the operation, with its big screen TVs broadcasting sports non-stop all day, fared a little better, although even then, owing to the technology of the era, placing speakers at every table – so patrons could choose which event to tune in to – meant running wiring up through the table stand. Which meant the tables couldn’t be moved, which meant no large parties in the clubhouse. It was an unfortunate setup, as the big tops were either forced into our dreadful dining room, or one of the hotel’s banquet halls.

Our dining room definitely attracted a more elderly crowd, too, ones who’d probably last changed homes fifty years prior and could relate to the antiquated decorating scheme. This makes sense, but little else about the establishment does. Under this broad umbrella you might include its very design. Whichever architect laid out the blueprint for this abomination either fell under the influence of some heavy chemicals, or paid for his degree on the black market. At the very least, he should have been sent packing before the first pickaxe was lifted.

Attached as it is to the Parke University Hotel, our restaurant has a central hallway literally running right down the middle, connecting the lobbies of both. The clubhouse and its kitchen are on one side of the hallway, the dining room and its kitchen on the other. In between, eighty year old grandmas clomp down the carpeted hall with walkers, kids bounce soccer balls, moms and dads swagger back to their rooms drunk. The clubhouse does three times as much business as the dining room, if not more, and yet its kitchen is about as big as the janitor’s broom closet. By logical extension, then, it stands to reason that our inanimate dining room kitchen has enough space to double as a practice field for the Buckeyes football squad. A pair of doors theoretically connect the two, but between these lies the obstacle of that goddamn hallway.

So as all prep work is done in the dining room kitchen – flouring onion loaves, baking bread, and countless other chores – our poor preps carry steaming hot, four by two metal pans from their work stations, creak the one swinging open door very carefully so as not to drill any passing hotel guests, look both ways, cross the hall, mount two steps, open the clubhouse door – it only swings out, not in, another brilliant conception – and then fight their way into the cramped cubicle where, on a good day, as many as half a dozen cooks are jostling about, yelling, cursing, in general paying little mind to some quiet, underpaid foreigner bringing in their next batch of barbecue sauce.

The faded red tee shirts our cooks had to wear were kind of cool in their own way, though. Certainly better than the ghastly uniforms we servers were always forced to break out. We went from hot pink polo monstrosities, to referee type vertical striped company shirts, and then finally to these white, long sleeved dress shirts, purchased at our own expense. March Madness did bring with it a brief series of black and white tee shirts, trumpeting that year’s (1998) event. At least the black dress slacks and non-skid shoes remained the same, and were not too horrific.

George Steinbrenner, he of New York Yankees fame, is in the ownership mix of both hotel and restaurant, although I’m not sure to what extent. I spot him at our breakfast buffet just once, having been alerted to his presence by a number of other coworkers, as we peeked around from the service station corner to gawk at him. At any rate, when the baseball season is in full swing, the Clippers often lodge at the Parke hotel during homestands, particularly the big ticket stars who might only be slumming it on a rehab stint.

Akash normally waits tables with me, in the moribund dining room, but one afternoon in the summer of ’97, he’s scheduled in the clubhouse instead. On this particular shift he has the 120s section, which, on the tri-level, rainbow shaped floor, means the middle cluster, far right, if facing from the front entrance. Word circulates he’s waiting at this moment on what passes as our greatest recurring celebrity, a spectacle I’ve thus far missed. Last season, they tell me, both Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden were constant clubhouse presences, during rehab stints with the Clippers; just my luck that this year we’re accorded instead a Japanese import, pitcher Hideki Irabu. Brought here after the hype machine and an intense bidding war dropped him into Steinbrenner’s back pocket, the history shattering king’s ransom his signing bonus. Irabu polishes his act here before an eventual call to the big show, a possible microcosm of what folks think about this city in general.

I happen across the clubhouse just as Hideki’s finishing lunch. A veritable mountain of dishes cover every square inch of his two top table, as he reclines and lights a cigarette, with his fantastic Buddha mound of a belly nearly reaching the eating surface. I confer with Akash in the clubhouse server station, who beams and whispers, counting off the dishes on his fingers, everything the star twirler has knocked off, and only in baseball, I’m thinking. In the papers George will refer to his golden boy as a “fat, pussy toad,” and yes, to the naked eye, the Asian sensation is disastrously out of shape, but so long as that arm is lively he will justify the millions spent, you can chisel his enshrinement plaque as god.

As a true fanatic of the national pastime, though, I get a kick out of rubbing elbows with any of the players – and Damon’s also has an outpost right inside Cooper Stadium, it’s worth noting, to which a number of our employees are frequently loaned. Although this thrill is mitigated somewhat once I discover to what extent these minor leaguers, ahem, poach the talent from our farm club, i.e. establishing hookups for when they are in town. Whenever they’re around, we sad dudes wearing the clowntastic Damon’s uniform become invisible, and we stand little chance of dating most of these girls. This is a cycle that will repeat every summer.

As the name would imply, ribs are a drawing card, too, although it does continue to amaze me that people willfully choose to eat here when so many other options abound. Attached to a dilapidated hotel of equal shabbiness, the Parke Hotel, our rib joint could be a crown jewel among campus establishments but is in such a sad state of neglect it’s difficult to imagine what kind of lunatic might actually eat here. The food’s great, sure, but there’s a roach motel clipped underneath each table. Our clubhouse has a handful of big screen televisions to entice the gluttonous, beer swilling sports fan, but each time our bartenders are forced to make a mixed drink their archaic blender’s loud enough to drown out all sound. They may as well rev a motorcycle back there. And the stench arising from the busser station along one wall of the clubhouse is enough to turn even the staunchest stomachs, an aroma duplicated by the backed up floor drains across the way in my dining room server station. The cheapskates who own this place give our general manager Mark Stokes twenty dollars a week for incidental repairs or improvements, but he’d get more bang for his buck buying lottery tickets with the money than to try to fix anything on such a shoestring budget.

 

 

 

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