Restaurant review: Burgers, chicken, salads are stellar at new Emmett's Cafe location

G.A. Benton
Special to The Columbus Dispatch
Schiller Bowl at Emmett's Cafe at Open Air in the University District.

Fans of excellent Emmett’s Cafe in the Brewery District have more options now because a second and roomier branch of the casual-yet-sophisticated eatery has opened, and it offers items not available at the original, pocket-sized Emmett’s Cafe. 

Bonus: This new Emmett’s resides in the recently restored, buzzy and historic Open Air building at Neil Avenue and West Hudson Street in Old North Columbus. 

Notable: Emmett’s shares ownership with Kelley Co. real estate, the firm overseeing renovation of the multi-purpose Open Air building. 

A chic old-schoolhouse setting

A thankfully preserved, wonderfully repurposed three-story brick school building with highly stylized details, Open Air was erected in 1927 and designed by Howard Dwight Smith, who’s better known for another of his architectural projects: Ohio Stadium

Exploring refurbished Open Air — Emmett’s occupies a ground-floor room — quickly brought adjectives such as hip, chic, trendy and fashionable to mind. But the facility didn't strike me as “too cool for school.” Actually, the mixed-use center inspired a response far more rare for me: It made going to school cool.

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Emmett’s 2.0 occupies a bright, modern and pretty space rife with natural light, neutral tones and plants. It's frequently packed, but if space at the (four dozen or so) seats at blond wooden tables isn't available, customers can eat their to-go food at hard wooden booths opposite school lockers in the hallway (hall pass not required). Patio seating is planned for April. 

Hudson Street burger at Emmett's Cafe at Open Air in the University District.

Whether eating from a ceramic plate or cardboard box, expect great-tasting dishes that — like the place that cooked them — enliven a familiar framework with contemporary style.

The crispy chicken sandwich ($14) and Hudson Street burger ($15) — both are exclusive to the Open Air location and come with salt-crusted, oven-crisped fingerling potatoes — are among the best new fast-food makeovers around.

Rather than cheap meat, the burger featured a sizable patty of high-grade wagyu beef. It’s enhanced by loads of American cheese, “special sauce” (fashioned with mayo, ketchup and Worcestershire), a toasted good roll and richness-mitigating shaved onions and sweet-tart pickles.         

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While accurately titled, the terrific crispy chicken ($14) could add “spicy” to its description. Its bun-overlapping, panko-crusted cutlet received palate-popping accompaniment from chile-spiked aioli accentuated by vinegar-emboldened slaw. 

Salads are noteworthy as well

The hefty Open Air salad ($14) was no slouch, either. Turmeric-scented roasted cauliflower combined with four fine, cumin-seasoned falafel to create appealing curry notes. Add pickled onions, goat cheese, roasted beets, toasted almonds, fresh greens and a perky “whole lemon dressing,” and you have a dynamic, healthful and delicious lunch. 

Open Air salad at Emmett's Cafe at Open Air on Neil Ave in the University District. (Photo by Tim Johnson)

Top-notch house croutons, intact little romaine leaves and a creamy-yet-lemony dressing merged into a pleasant Caesar salad ($10). Tip: To substantially boost its modest size, order an add-on of silky, salt-restrained smoked salmon ($5.) 

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Breakfast has healthful options

The Schiller bowl ($13) is an inspired salad-like approach to breakfast. With a quinoa base fortified by beets, kale, squash, mushrooms and peppers, it might sound like a curious eye-opener. But skillful veggie roasting and seasoning plus on-point poached eggs and hollandaise translated into a compelling, vibrant and healthful riff on eggs Benedict. Plus, it’s more interesting and a dollar less than the more traditional Old North Breakfast ($14) — a perfectly fine spin on ham and eggs assembled with prosciutto, arugula and toasted good bread.

I should note that the toast was semi-soft when I got it. Relatedly, while always super-friendly, Emmett’s service wasn't always quick.

Emmett's Cafe at Open Air n the University District.

And enticingly crisp textures came at the expense of some roasted fingerlings and the chorizo in my fantastic Meat & Tato breakfast sandwich ($10.50) being cooked to black in spots. And add-ons — bananas, sweet-and-salty butter and serious maple syrup — helped overcome the minor dryness of my huge, hearty, cinnamon-scented and great-tasting hotcakes ($12).  

I mention such nitpicks because my expectations are sky-high here. And with other treats such as the enormous choco-tahini crispy ($4.50), the liquified-ice-cream-conjuring draft latte ($6) and healthful-yet-delectable green juice ($8), those stellar expectations were generally met.  


Emmett's Cafe at Open Air 

Where: 2571 Neil Ave., University District

Contact: 614-670-7702, www.emmettscafe.com

Hours: 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily

Price range: $6.50 to $15

Ambience: Located in a wonderfully restored and historic old brick school building, this upbeat, frequently busy and attractive modern cafe has abundant natural light and plants plus super-friendly, if not always quick, service; patio seating is slated for April.

Children's menu: no

Reservations: no

Accessible: yes

Liquor license: no

Quick click: Stylish and delicious dishes and beverages that often utilize healthful ingredients are prepared in this very welcome second branch of a chic cafe.