The Basketball Tournament is coming to Columbus this weekend, and I for one could not be more excited. Games will be played at the Covelli Center, a 3,700 seat arena on OSU’s campus. It’s not exactly The Palestra when it comes to history, having only been built a couple years back, but it’s a great facility to catch a game in.
Those two links should get you up to speed on the very basics of the The Basketball Tournament. What neither of them will do is give you a breakdown of what the city of Columbus has to offer the fan who spends hard-earned money and valuable time driving up to the city to watch Zip ‘Em Up TBT take on all comers for a chance to pocket a cool million bucks.
That’s where I come in. I’ve called central Ohio home for a decade now and spent much of that time compiling a mental Rolodex of my favorite places to eat, drink, and be merry. Let’s get into it. But first, a quick and important word on navigation.
A quick and important word on navigation
I made that a header so you wouldn’t miss it.
Route 315 and interstates 70, 71, and 670 all come together in a giant quadrilateral in the middle of town. Inside of that, Broad St and High St intersect in what is the de facto center of Columbus, all the street numbers build out from there. The lower the number on the address, the closer to Broad and High you are. High St runs north and south, so numbers rise east and west of it. Broad runs east and west, so numbers rise north and south of it. It’s a handy quick reference to how far out you are.
Additionally, if the numbers in your desired address are odd, the building you’re looking for will be on the south or west side of the street. If they’re even, it will be on the north or east side of the street. Keep the Broad and High and odd/even address numbers things in mind and you’ll be able to limit how lost you can get in Columbus.
This turned out to be a bit longer than I anticipated, so for ease of scrolling, know that the order goes as follows: dining (Mexican, pizza, Mediterranean/Middle Eastern, sandwiches, other good stuff, feeling fancy, coffee), lodging, things to do to kill time, and drinking.
I’m going to assume you already know if you like Rooster’s wings or Red Robin’s burgers and offer you some of my can’t-miss local spots instead. A lot of good workouts were negated in the process of gathering the information that makes this list possible. If something has a website, I’ll try to link it, but a lot of these spots don’t have a dedicated IT guy on the payroll.
Pellizcadas Los Primos - 2235 Sullivant Ave
A borderline legendary taco truck so successful they’re renovating the first floor of the house it sits behind to be a traditional restaurant. You can’t really see the truck itself from Sullivant Ave; turn south on Clarendon, park on the street, and walk up. There aren’t really any bad choices on the menu, but the mixto burrito is always a homerun. This is also maybe the best place in town to throw in a tamale or two, and they’ve been doing birria tacos three for ten bucks on the weekends. This is a family-run place, and their customer service is off the charts.
Los Guachos - 5221 Godown Rd
Los Guachos is a couple of steps ahead in that they began as a taco truck but have now opened multiple brick and mortar locations. The one on Godown Rd is closest to OSU’s campus. Their website boasts the best tacos al pastor in the city, and they’re not wrong. The guacho burrito is - for my money - the best item on the menu, and adding the little habanero/onion mix elevates the flavor even more. If you want the original experience, hit their truck at 461 Commerce Square in the parking lot of La Boom nightclub. That location is cash only.
Hounddog’s Pizza - 2657 N High St
First, I would definitely recommend getting the Smokin’ Joe’s style crust. Second, definitely get the garlic cheesy bread; it’s awesome. As far as the actual pizza goes, the hot mama is excellent and the breakfast pizza works a lot better than it seems like it should. Best of all, they’re open until 1am for carryout on Fridays and Saturdays. Better than even that, it’s within walking distance of where the games will be played.
Gatto’s Pizza - 2928 N High St
This place was founded back in the 1950s and has maintained everything good from what I perceive that decade to have been. There aren’t a lot of frills on the menu, but everything they offer is worth trying. The place is also just overflowing with rustic charm. Walk in, tell the nice person behind the counter what you want, and then sit down and watch them put it together and slide it into the oven. There are submarines with more room to wander around in, but that’s hardly a concern when you can sit there and BS - or enjoy a companionable silence - while waiting for your food at a neighborhood pizza joint. Also, their sausage is excellent.
Flyer’s Pizza - various locations
Flyer’s has several locations around town, though I think all of them are outside of 270, which is obviously not ideal if you’re staying right there in the middle. Their house-made chips are worth the effort though. If you’re hungry for meat or your doctor told you to get your bad cholesterol number up, the meatza is the pie for you. If you’re less into hating yourself and spending a lot of time on the john, I’d recommend their excellent BLT pizza.
You’re spoiled for choice in this category in Columbus, but below you’ll find some of my favorites.
Halal New York - 3464 Sullivant Ave
If I had ten dollars and an empty stomach in Columbus, this is where I’d head. For like seven bucks you can get a rice platter - and definitely get a rice platter - with lettuce, pita bread, gyro meat, chicken, or both, a couple of sauces, and a drink served right out the window to you. At meal times, this parking lot looks like the UN; people of all backgrounds and extractions love Halal New York.
The Olive Tree Cafe - 3185 Hilliard Rome Rd
Should you want authentic Mediterranean food that won’t be served to you while you stand in the parking lot of a gas station, this is your spot. Their appetizers are off the charts; grape leaves, spicy feta, and hummus are the headliners, but there are a lot of good choices before you even settle on a main course. Beef shawarma and spicy chicken are my standbys, but the moussaka is apparently quite good if you’re into that kind of thing.
Lavash Cafe - 2985 N High St
I’m told this is the closest thing you can get to authentic Arabic food in Columbus, but - having only been in two times zones in my entire life - I can’t vouch for that personally. What I can tell you is that this is really good food. They’re not reinventing anything here, just executing the things you would expect at a really high level. Their customer service is also consistently excellent.
The Brown Bag Deli - 898 Mohawk St
Choose from a menu of specialty sandwiches or concoct your own combination and they’ll make it and pack it up like a sack lunch back when you were in school, if you went to school in a Norman Rockwell painting instead of real life. I don’t know who makes the bread here, but that guy or gal is earning his/her paycheck. The Cuban and The Spice of Life are both consistently excellent. Eschew the option to grab a bag of chips and pony up for some macaroni salad instead. It’s extra, but when’s the next time you’re going to even be in Columbus?
Katzinger’s Deli - 375 S 3rd St
Picture a deli. Yep. They have a broad menu of sandwich options, but I’d recommend one of the ten variations on a classic Rueben that they offer. If you like classic deli sides, this is the place for you. I’m not a huge traditional potato salad guy, but their redskin potato salad is pretty tasty. The knish and the latkes are both sensational; it’s a very reasonable option to skip the sandwiches altogether and just eat yourself sick on those two items.
Dirty Frank’s - 248 S 4th St
If you don’t think a hot dog is a sandwich, just mentally shuffle this farther down the page. I don’t want to argue with you. They’ve got a big menu of topping options for your hot dogs - which you should definitely order ripped - but the West Virginia slaw dog and the totcho dog are the best in my opinion. They can also do a lot of their items vegan, vegetarian, and/or gluten free if that’s relevant to you. A fun place to hang out and people watch.
Other good stuff
Hot Chicken Takeover - 4203 N High St
The first place to start doing Nashville style hot chicken in Columbus and about the best option. Go boneless and hot and ask for extra pickles. The sweet tea is authentically southern, so cut it with some of the unsweetened if you care at all about your pancreas. Sides are about what you’d expect, but the banana pudding is worth it if you feel like treating yourself (and like banana pudding). Also, they favor employing people with felony convictions who have paid their debt to society, which is cool if you’re into human decency and second chances and what not.
Ray Ray’s Hog Pit - 2619 N High St
Basic but really good barbecue. The beef options are a little pricy right now, owing to something to do with the pandemic, but the pork hasn’t seen the same purportedly temporary increase and makes for a heck of a sandwich. The sides are top-notch, with their baked beans being my favorite of the bunch. The jalapeño sauce cuts a nice middle ground between the sweeter options and the habanero, which can be a little much depending on your tolerance level.
Hoyo’s Kitchen - 59 Spruce St
Do you like Somali food? Most people probably don’t have a framework within which to answer that question, but this place is a good start to changing that. Located inside North Market, it is for Somali cuisine what Chipotle and a million copycats are for their various styles of food. Pick a base and a protein and go to town with a variety of toppings. It’s about as unthreatening an entrance to an unfamiliar cuisine as you can imagine. Plus they have this mango-habanero sauce that’s just amazing.
Milestone 229 - 229 S Civic Center Dr
This restaurant has a lot going for it, not least of which is that it’s right on the Scioto Mile (more on that in a bit). It’s a really nice spot to go and enjoy dinner with a view of downtown and the river. Their pizzas are really good and the shrimp and grits is worth getting stabbed by an epipen and rushed to the hospital if you have a seafood allergy. Fair word of warning, the sidewalk in front of this location has turned into something of a magnet for kids on electric scooters acting a fool, so if you have a low tolerance for chicanery, be advised.
Fado Pub and Kitchen - 6652 Riverside Dr (Dublin, OH)
This one’s a little bit of a hike, but it’s a great spot if you’re somehow turning basketball-for-cash into the first overture of date night. Brick roasted half chicken is a sensational dish if you want to make yourself feel like a member of the monied classes, but the lamb burger is the best thing on the menu. Ask for it on sourdough toast; it’s too juicy for the bun to handle. Treat yourself to a cold brew while you’re there; the coffee is provided by the top local roaster in the game.
Speaking of which...
Jennings Java Artisan Coffee Roasters - 1193 S Front St
The bee’s knees. Started by one Muskingum College student who was passionate about coffee and business and one who was passionate about business and coffee, this place has grown into an excellent source for great beans and drinks. They’re only open from 7a to 1p so they can use their limited staff to fulfill orders, but if you’re spending the night or coming up really early in the day, swing by and grab a bag or a growler of their cold brew. These guys are going places because of how good their product is. Also, they seem like great dudes and they love talking to people. They’re always experimenting with news drinks and approaches, so there’s a non-zero chance they’ll just want you to try a cup of something they’re bringing to market in the near future.
Stauf’s Coffee - 1334 Neil Ave
If you just need a cup of coffee and you don’t want to buy it from Starbucks or a gas station, this is the place to go. It kind of has a hipster vibe to it that some people find off-putting, but if you value good coffee over just getting caffeine into your system, you probably won’t be that concerned with it. They also do some food options, but there are better places to go for anything they offer (in my opinion, which is all this post is anyway).
Crimson Cup - 4541 N High St
Kind of halfway between hipster joint and full-on Starbucks is Crimson Cup, a local brand with an established national presence. The coffee is well-prepared and reliable, and the staff has been consistently praiseworthy in my interactions with them. Like Jennings Java, they offer an excellent cold brew.
I live in central Ohio, so very rarely am I looking for places to stay in Columbus. With that said, I will offer a couple of pieces of advice. First, the TBT-approved hotels are all good choices. When the women’s NCAA tournament was in town a few years back, they stayed mostly at these hotels. While the TBT packages are past their booking dates, you can’t go wrong with these spots.
The other obvious answer is the AirBnB/VRBO style of overnight rentals. A quick scan of the map seems fairly reasonable. I’d caution the traveler against staying in the places labeled on Google Maps as Hilltop, Franklinton, North Linden, and South Linden. You don’t need to set up your last will and testament if you’re staying the night in those areas, but they are places where it behooves one to keep his or her head on a swivel. Mostly it’s a delightful town and you’re going to be fine wherever you decide to stay.
Things to do to kill time
Say Zip ‘Em Up wins and keeps winning and you want to figure something out between triumphs. Columbus has you covered in spades.
These are all over town. There are about 90-100 miles of paved trails around the city that are a delight to run or walk down. They connect a lot of the city’s metro parks, my very favorite of which is Antrim Park. If you like just wandering down a path or sitting on a bench watching other people wander down a path, Franklin County has you spoiled for choice.
Columbus has done a really, really good job at taking advantage of the rivers running through the city, and the Scioto Mile is the jewel in that crown. Consisting of 8 parks totaling 175 acres and connected by beautiful walking paths, this is an excellent place to spend a summer evening. It’s pretty and fun and it has a variety of things to do within easy walking distance of the parks themselves. My favorite portion is what I’ve just learned is called The Promenade, but the whole setup is top-notch.
North Market - 59 Spruce St
This is one of my favorite places in town to kill an hour or two. Park, walk in, get some snacks, and wander around perusing the booths. There are a lot of good dining options if you’re there for lunch and there’s plenty of seating upstairs. Mostly I just enjoy wandering through and checking out what’s on offer, both for putting into my face immediately and inspiration for things I can eat later.
Columbus Park of Roses - 3901 N High St
The roses are the headliner, but the whole place is a 13-acre accredited arboretum (I’m not sure what the accreditation process entails, but they apparently passed it) with over a mile of walking trails. It sounds on paper like something old folks or the cast of Downton Abbey would enjoy, but the landscaping and horticulture on display here are really interesting to walk through.
Okay, full disclosure: I don’t drink that much at all, and when I do, I do it alone in my own home like the Good Lord intended. With that said, there are a lot of breweries in Columbus. I’ve heard good things about Land Grant, Hoof Hearted, and Wolf’s Ridge and bad things about Brew Dog.
If you’re looking for a bar, you’re on your own. Unless you like watching fights in parking lots, in which case definitely hit up Pour Boys Pub and Patio at 3882 Sullivant Ave. As 50 Cent warned us, after the fistfights comes gunfire, so if you’re into following the natural order of things, make your next stop the Patio Bar at 945 Sullivant Ave. Columbus is a college town though, so you can probably find plenty of places to tie one on if you ask around.
The bottom line
If all goes well, Zip ‘Em Up will play Saturday, Sunday, and Tuesday. While there’s probably enough information above to keep you busy for three days, the reality is that it barely scratches the surface of what Columbus has to offer. Most importantly, the city - and especially the area in which the games are being played - is filled with decent folks who will be happy to point you in the direction of their favorite little hidden gems if you’ll either look super lost or summon the social courage to just approach a stranger. It’s a great town and if you visit, I hope you enjoy it as much as I have, even if you came over to watch the frickin’ UD team.