4241 North High St.
Columbus, OH 43214
Open 9:00 a.m. to 10 p.m. everyday
Accepts cash and credit cards
Date of Visit: Maaaaaaaaaany times, but for this review, Sunday, January 13, 2008 at 1 p.m.
IMPRESSIONS: [Spoiler alert!] I love Northstar Cafe.
It’s time. It’s time for me to finally review one of the places that has solidified my absolute love for breakfast. This will be incredibly easy. And yet, rather hard. What do I say? How do I review one of my ideals for breakfast? I don’t want to just heap glowing praise… but, I’m not going to make up complaints. (I had a similar problem with my Real Food Cafe review.)
Northstar Cafe is a local breakfast/lunch/dinner/coffee/dessert/ snack joint that focuses on using fresh, local, well-treated foods. They try to be socially conscious of the way they treat food and use resources. While I’ll focus on the breakfast here, Northstar’s lunch and dinner offerings are also excellent. Their Flatbreads are delicious, the Buddha bowls transcendent, and the Northstar Burger is not only the best veggie burger I’ve ever had, it’s probably the best burger I’ve ever had. You won’t believe it until you try it.
Northstar started down in the Short North Arts District, although the restaurant on which this review is focused is the second store, in the Clintonville/Beechwold neighborhood. Our friends Jack and Christina introduced us to the original Northstar a couple years ago. They had raved and raved about it, and on our first visit, Beth and I were certainly impressed, but not overwhelmed. However, we went back another time for breakfast, and then things clicked. Northstar became one of our favorites. It was dangerous that we lived so close, and that we could take Maeby and sit out on the patio on nice days.
Walking into the restaurant for this review, I was already sold. I almost didn’t know what to write down. It’s good for breakfast, lunch, dinner, or just a coffee with friends. Whenever we need someplace for a quick bite to eat, or want to impress out-of-town visitors, Northstar is always at the top of our list. Now, on to the review…
ATMOSPHERE: Northstar’s atmosphere is the perfect (oh, gosh, I said perfect already) blend of busy/casual. There’s always a flurry of activity, but customers are never rushed like a fast food joint. As you’re waiting in line, I encourage you to just stand and watch the kitchen. You get a good view of the hustle and bustle – another case of restaurant’s being honest and letting you see what they’re doing. I always find that reassuring. It’s amazing how many people are back there working for a place that’s no bigger than your average restaurant. You’ll see people chopping and prepping food, folks shoving flatbread in and out of wood-fired ovens, cooks hovering over grills, and servers moving deftly in and out of the kitchen to deliver the delectable fare (or is it fair?).
Northstar always has great music playing. A server once told us that the music is selected by the employees. Everyone gets a chance, he said, to bring in a mix CD of appropriate tunes for the place. How cool is that? How many jobs let you listen to your own music… publicly?
The layout of the restaurant lends itself to every type and speed of customer, although on busy days expect to feel a little rushed. There are booths for 2-6 lining the walls. Long tables in the middle of the space – great for large groups, although it there’s just 2 of you, you may end up sharing one of those with other customers. Small tables for studiers. Tall tables with stools, so you can sit and gaze out the window. A small “lounge” with a couch and some plush chairs, facing a huge rack of magazines: you’re allowed to grab one and read while you eat. There’s also a brick patio out front with covered seating.
FOOD: Northstar Cafe shines with its food. The menu features a small number of specialties. The breakfast menu has about six regular items, as well as delicious muffins and scones. And the cookies…? Oh my goodness, try the chocolate cookie. We think it’s laced with crack.
One cool thing about the baked goods: they’re put out front on the counter and labeled with time they were baked that morning. Always. So you can know specifically how many HOURS old your pastry is. That’s the way things should be.
A note about drinks: if you order a soda, wine, or beer, they’ll give it to you up front. They also have incredible fruit smoothies and fresh-squeezed orange juice (oh, so thick). Those you order at the counter, and then they make it, call it out, and have you retrieve it yourself. If you order the hot tea, they’ll bring it to you. The coffee, water, and seasonal iced tea (a red currant in winter, a green tea in summer) is self-served. Coffee is always top-notch. Typically four blends are available: decaf, light-, medium-, or dark-roast.
The first couple food items up for review are not strictly breakfast items, but Beth ordered them while I got breakfast (we went during the Sunday brunch hour), and I think it’s worth mentioning them, if only to show Northstar’s flexibility. The first item is a new soup, which we hope becomes a menu regular (and we’ve heard they might!).
It’s a hearty tomato soup with Tuscan bread and an olive tapenade, and boy was it perfect for a cold winter’s day. The tomatoes were fresh and chunky. The bitter oily flavors of the olives balanced out the chunky, fruity tomato in fine style. Beth said it was one of the best tomato soups she’s ever had.
The soup came with Northstar’s side salad, which is a crisp blend of mixed greens. It’s fresh as all get-out (which is very fresh, as you know). It’s lightly coated with a peppery vinaigrette dressing, and makes a fine complement to the soup.
There’s a scene in the Pixar film Ratatouille where the main character, Remy, a rat with exquisite culinary senses, explains how he came to love food and cooking. He describes the notes he gets when he tastes a piece of fruit, and the filmmakers realize his impressions with swirling colors and light jazz music. He then tastes a piece of cheese, and another colorful display blossoms on the screen. Remy then tastes both at once, and suddenly he’s got a full orchestra playing to a cornucopia of lights and colors. This is how Remy shows us what happens with different food combinations.
And this is how the Northstar Big Burrito is for me. On their own, each of the ingredients is great, but just a single note: thick-sliced, seasoned bacon (you can add this or sausage, and I always add the bacon), a fried egg, white cheddar cheese, soft but not mushy sweet potatoes, black beans, crisp red peppers and onions, the soft burrito shell with authentic grill lines (oh, the grill taste), and a sweet, chilled salsa served on the side. Each of these is good in its own way, but blended together: remarkable.
If I had to choose one breakfast item to eat for the rest of my life, it would be the Northstar Cafe Big Burrito (with bacon). I’ve never met a more exquisite breakfast item. Whenever I go someplace else for breakfast, and I see a breakfast burrito on their menu, I scoff. I could never order another breakfast burrito (and really, most of them are sketch), because I’ve been spoiled by the best.
SERVICE: Northstar’s service is always good, and they have a policy of never taking tips. From what I’ve read/heard/observed, everyone does just about everything at Northstar, so the employees are fully invested in the restaurant’s operation. And they are paid accordingly. When you enter the door, you grab yourself a menu and wait in line to place your order. The friendly folks at the counter give you a number, you find a table, and they bring you the food. Once or twice, Beth and I have bemoaned the long lines (a necessary evil for any good restaurant!), but we’ve noticed that the lines are calculated to keep people from standing around for too long. You see, once you place your order, you are left on your own to find a table. (So if you’re coming with a large group, prepare to split up.) If the counter folks just blazed through the orders, you might get a crowd of people with coffee or juice in hand with no table. Uncomfortable all around: I don’t like people staring at me while I eat. But the counters seem timed to let folks through at the same rate people are eating and leaving, so they can always find a table.
Service is usually fast, even when it’s busy. Once or twice, our food has taken a little too long to come out, and on those rare occasions, we’ve been given coupons for free meals. So kudos to the Northstar folks for being aware of the situation, and for trying to taking care of their customers.
OVERALL: Northstar has very quickly – and rightfully – established themselves as a Columbus favorite. It seemed like they had barely opened their first store when the second was announced. Both restaurants are always busy, but never overwhelmingly so. We’ve never walked away because it looked busy.
So, in case you couldn’t tell from the review, I love Northstar Cafe. If you haven’t been, go there. Now. Enjoy the food. Encourage them for their business practices. Support a local gem.
One final note: I owe special thanks to Northstar owner Darren Malhame for permission to take pictures.