When I moved to Columbus in 2000, I had a hard time acclimating. I lived in the suburbs and was oblivious to a lot of what Columbus had to offer. All I saw were the strip malls and chain restaurants that litter the suburban landscape. And being a bit of a hermit, I didn’t make the effort to get out and explore. I eventually moved to the Short North where I began to come out of my shell and try several of the local bars/restaurants. I was impressed by one in particular: Betty’s Fine Food and Spirits. This was not the kind of bar I had been dragged to in the suburbs; it was unique, intimate, and fun. It had a beer list the likes of which I had never seen as well as some really good food. There was Kitsch on the walls, but it definitely wasn’t the contrived kind you often find in chain bars. Betty’s was my introduction to what Columbus could be and I liked it.
Not long afterward, Betty’s sister restaurant, Surly Girl Saloon, opened and I found myself there weekly. Whereas Betty’s decor was Bettie Paige-oriented with pin-ups and sass, Surly Girl was cloaked in a Southwestern, bordello theme. Cowgirls, scorpions, skulls, and chandeliers graced the dark red and black interior of the saloon. It was rock and roll and attitude and bad-ass women. Surly Girl became the location of several important events in my life: my post-tattoo watering hole of choice, my first celebrity sighting in Columbus (I stood at the bar, doe-eyed and stuttering, asking Jolie Holland for her autograph before her show at Little Brother’s), and it was a meet-up with friends at Surly Girl where I would meet my wife. I had found my new favorite place in Columbus.
With a menu that plays on the Southwestern theme, Surly Girl offers interesting and delicious takes on pizza (Surly Girl Pizza w/ Gorgonzola, dried cranberries, and pecans drizzled in a balsamic vinaigrette), pasta (Gorgonzola and bacon rotini), and sandwiches (The Devil’s Egg Salad, made with Dijon mustard and cayenne). Lara Ranallo is the creative mind behind many of Surly Girl’s creations and keeps their menu fresh and relevant. A trained chef, Lara introduces a level of culinary flair not often associated with food from a bar, including her pulled pork tacos covered in a cilantro-citrus slaw, and her posole stew, a rich Southwestern broth with hominy, tomatoes, and your choice of pulled pork, chicken, or tofu.
But there’s more to Surly Girl than a cool bar and good food. There’s a sense of community that welcomes you and radiates throughout the operation. As I learn more about the Surly Girl operators (Carmen Owens, Owner/Operator; Keith Thompson, Bar Manager; Lara Ranallo, kitchen manager) and owners (Elizabeth Lessner, Carmen Owens, Marcy Mays), I realize how special a place it actually is. Surly Girl Saloon, like all of Elizabeth Lessner’s enterprises, is more than a business; it’s a lesson in community-building. From her employees and customers to the environment and the business community at large, Lessner’s business model takes personal and corporate responsibility for all the strata of a successful operation, not just the bottom line. And with one of the highest retention rates in Columbus restaurants, and the opening of three more restaurants (Tip Top Kitchen and Cocktails, Dirty Franks Hot Dog Palace, and most recently, The Jury Room), the Columbus Food League is doing something right.
As I branch out and try new restaurants cropping up in Columbus, I always find myself measuring them against the standard that Elizabeth Lessner has set. It’s a solid and sustainable model and I hope to see more businesses and restaurants taking her lead.