For an enterprise that has been in operation since the 1800s, Columbus’s North Market always manages, somehow, to fly under the radar. Somehow this place always seems packed…and yet it’s still almost like a secret handshake society, in that a good 90% of my friends living in Columbus have never even heard of North Market, much less set foot inside it. And yet, even so, if I had to pick a single place in town where I could randomly visit and count on seeing at least one familiar face, this would probably be it.
I guess part of this phenomenon is attributable to living in one of our nation’s largest cities, in that it’s difficult to establish at any given moment what’s “going on.” If you were to read some broad overview in a history book 50 years from now about our dear C-bus, what it meant to live here in the early 21st century, it’s likely that a great deal of it would seem way off the mark to you, even as the author cited numerous reputable sources. Actually this very blog will one day appear worthless to you, if it doesn’t already.
Built atop North Graveyard, this market was the second of its kind in Columbus and opened in 1876. Judging from the sign atop this page, those three smiling charmers have apparently been willing and available since about 1850, making this operation a spring chicken by comparison. But before we dip into the market’s extensive back history, let’s examine some relatively recent photographic evidence, and see where it’s at right now. This past Saturday brought with in some insane crowds, thanks to the Arnold Fitness Classic, making it the perfect occasion for examining downtown’s crown jewel. Accompanied by fellow undercover investigators Erin, Stephanie, and my brother, Daniel, we drift inside to put our fingers on the market’s hyperactive pulse.
Like many conventional supermarkets, produce is the first category you see if arriving via the main (east) entrance. Little Eater Produce & Provisions is apparently the operation currently filling this niche, although two prominent, full color signs read Vegetable Butcher and I initially assumed this was the name of the business. This unclear bit of branding, while by appearances maybe minor, I think neatly summarizes some problems this vendor faces – while I’m sure they are “locally committed” and that their wares are “meticulously selected,” as their bylines state, the displays here are a shade shy of breathtaking. You want your produce visuals to pop, and in my opinion previous tenants The Greener Grocer accomplished this to a greater degree.
But of course, the nature of the beast here at North Market means that businesses come and go. We don’t much mourn the fate of former vendors, and in fact might not want it any other way – the thrill of discovering something new is part of what draws us here. I don’t intend to dedicate much space rhapsodizing about occupants of yore (well, at least not until the bottom of this page), interesting though these trivia tidbits might be. For example, right now I’m picturing market history buffs choking on their lobster gumbo to learn that Bob The Fish Guy used to keep his cash in the basement freezer every night. Fascinating, fascinating stuff, to be sure. Then again, this could explain why Bob The Fish Guy is no longer around.
Fortunately another operation seized that mantle and ran with it, the slightly modified stall by the name of The Fish Guys who’ve slung seafood in the same space ever since. If I’m not mistaken they even inherited the same case signs that Bob Reany and company once used. One of his employees, the soup wizard Bobby, doesn’t appear to be plying his wares here any longer, but otherwise everything is business as usual. The Fish Guys occupy the largest acreage inside this market, and with good reason, as their reputation as the finest seafood mongers in town remains unchallenged.
I must admit we didn’t purchase anything from these intrepid ocean captains this time around. However, hopefully by piecing together the photographs below, as well as our first hand reviews, a potential shopper might glean what’s happening inside these vaunted corridors. Greeting us directly inside the southeast entrance is this satellite location for the famous local Katzinger’s deli. My wife and I in fact need to see nothing else this particular afternoon, and immediately hop in this line, while the other two members of our party continue exploring. If in need of a little convincing yourself, you might want to check out the giant pickle barrels immediately to the right of their counter – these are free, so take as many as you wish. Speaking from experience I would say if you try nothing else here, do not skip the garlic variety, as it has to be the best pickle I’ve ever eaten in my life.
As for the sandwiches, I like that these are numbered. At both here and the primary spot on South 3rd Street, these are apparently brought in and out of the rotation, or dropped completely over time. Erin orders #78, Seth’s Bella MushReuben, which is pictured below. I have #70, Kahrl’s Killer Club, one of their top 5 most popular offerings. And while my club is this heaping monstrosity of tastiness – even in the quote unquote “Normal” size that I order – the MushReuben is a slightly more compact flavor bomb, jammed with portabellas, Swiss, cole slaw and Russian dressing on rye.
A hunk of gouda at Black Radish Cremery rounds out our meal. One recommendation for Black Radish would be to place some passive demos for a few of their flavors. This worked like a charm for CaJohn’s hot sauce operation next door, where we wound up purchasing one of their bottles:
As for Daniel and Stephanie, they both go for a full Polish lunch from Hubert’s Kitchen. A tireless worker and genuinely nice guy, Hubert is one of the all-time great stories found within these corridors. An employee of many years’ standing for North Market Poultry, he eventually branched out and opened his own thriving enterprise. Daniel and Stephanie agree that the sauerkraut stew is the standout dish this time around, while also recommending the pierogi and kielbasa.
After grabbing a table up on the second floor and devouring our grub, we return to the ground level and begin phase two. This you might roughly term the dessert and random packaged good acquisition stage. If a person is so inclined, The Barrel And Bottle offers cold single beers in their cooler, many of them local, available for sipping whilst strolling these glorious grounds. This writer recommends Columbus Brewing Co.’s Bodhi Double IPA for just such endeavors. He also tried Ohio Common Ale’s Six.One For Good and considers it average yet unexceptional.
Destination Donuts is an intriguing concept in that they only offer a couple flavors at a time, whatever happens to be emerging from the fryers at that moment. Erin opts for a plain old glazed variety that are piping hot and fresh, though as you can see below the buckeyes are also looking pretty durn tasty and I consider her crazy for not picking any up. For good measure, we also grab the last pistachio dacquoise over at Pistachia Vera.
As you can gather, even amid these extremes crowds owing to the nearby fitness extravaganza, this is a mostly positive visit. However, there are a couple of challenges the market might wish to address. One would concern attempting to purchase packaged items from restaurants with long lines for freshly prepared foods. We were thinking about picking up some Asian trinkets from Nida’s Sushi, but thought better of it and put the items down rather than endure this considerable wait. Granted, this visit is a rather extreme example, but it’s a problem worth considering. I’m not sure what the answer is, as space might not permit a second register for packaged goods alone. One all purpose register could work, to ring up these items for all vendors, though again this might prove a bookkeeping nightmare and difficult to police from a shoplifting standpoint.
Parking is also somewhat of an ongoing issue. Perhaps we could dynamite Nationwide Arena and put the space to better use as a garage. At any rate, below is a photo dump for everything I couldn’t figure out how to cram in above. Included with these are also some old pictures from the Greener Grocer, whose presentation I believe Vegetable Butcher would do well to emulate: