Step Into Charming German Village

Laura Johnston Cleveland Plain Dealer 09/16/07 — Article   

Columbus — Picking my path down Beck Street, my feet thumping the bricks and my iPod pumping a Jock Jams anthem into my ears, I stop.

There, behind that wrought-iron fence is a storybook garden with a wooden trellis, deck chairs, curtains and lamps. And there, that next house, lush pink and greenery surrounding a glittering pool. And there, across the street, a forest of flowers in Frank Fetch Park. Like charms on a silver bracelet, they beckon.

“Aren’t I darling?” “Look at me!” “No, no, look at me!”

I look. And I marvel at the narrow brick road and wavy brick sidewalks, the magazine-spread gardens and stunningly restored brick homes.

I’m not in Ohio anymore. This must be Charleston, S.C. Or Back Bay Boston. Or some hidden corner of Brooklyn.

It feels too cosmopolitan, too old and too stylish to be Columbus. But I look up. The skyline’s still there, towering over the peaked roofs and chimneys.

Welcome to German Village, 233 acres of homes, stores and restaurants listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Once a working-class neighborhood full of brewery workers and their families, German Village was settled like much of Columbus’ south side by Germans who immigrated after 1830. By 1865, Columbus was one-third German, and German-language businesses, schools and newspapers thrived.

That ended with anti-German sentiment during World War I. And when Prohibition passed, the beer makers and taverns fell on hard times. In the 1950s, the northern third of the neighborhood was razed.

It wasn’t until 1960, when a local activist pushed for preservation, that the neighborhood was recognized as something worth saving.

Now, homes here can go for more than $1 million, and folks come from all over to visit the village’s famed boutiques and restaurants. The annual Oktoberfest, a fund- raiser for the volunteer German Village Society, draws thousands for beer, pretzels, polka and, this year, the band Saving Jane. I came. I shopped. I drank and ate — a lot. And I plan to return.

Thursday, 11 a.m.

First stop: the German Village Society Meeting Haus (that’s the German spelling of house, of course) to get my bearings — and lots of information. Stocked with maps, pamphlets, souvenirs, a snappy movie and wall panels tracking the timeline of the neighborhood, the visitors center is a must-see stop. It’s open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays.

“Walking around here is the best part,” says P. Susan Sharrock, the chatty office manager. “Looking at people’s gardens costs nothing.”

Getting the goods on what to do and where to eat is also free from Sharrock, who dishes that the Olde Mohawk Restaurant was once a “house of ill repute” and that the best burgers in town are at Thurman Cafe. I mark that on my to-do list.

But first it’s lunch at Katzinger’s Delicatessen on the edge of German Village, which runs from East Livingston Avenue to Nursery Lane, bounded by Pearl and Lathrop streets. At 12:30 p.m. on a Thursday, frat boys, businessmen and a quartet of senior citizens pack the casual corner. It’s also jammed with cheese and fish cases and shelves of pasta, salsa, pickles and crackers. Bright hand-lettered signs line the walls, and two barrels of pickles (garlic and dill, help yourself) stand amid the chaos. The sandwiches are huge, and my Reuben totally breaks my diet. But dripping with dressing and oozing cheese, it’s worth the calories.

Thursday, 1:30 p.m.

Refreshed and stuffed, I mean to simply wander. But a few blocks down Third Street, I can’t resist Caterina Ltd., a collection of European house wares, art and gifts.

The sunny store bursts with blue-and-yellow aprons and vases and pretty pieces, including a set of monogrammed dinnerware custom-ordered from Italy. I want the pink-and-green “Rosetta” pattern, but at $144 for a dinner plate, I manage to put it back without breaking it.

But I do find an affordable Christmas present for my mom.

Down a few more blocks is The Book Loft, the only full-service independent bookstore left in Columbus, says co-owner Carl Jacobsma. “This is no Borders.”

Nope. It’s way more confusing, a maze of stairs and 32 rooms, with arrows pointing out specific sections. But it’s way more fun, never knowing what you’ll walk into. And every book is at least 5 percent off.

I ask about “Eat, Pray, Love” by Elizabeth Gilbert, get directions to the autobiography section and am, frankly, proud when I follow them, up the stairs, then down the stairs, to find it.

Books in hand, I’m off to St. Mary Roman Catholic Church, finished in 1868. I peek into the cool dimness and check out the stained glass and ceiling paintings, which incorporate German phrases.

That’s not to say German Village is very, well, German.

There’s Schmidt’s Sausage Haus, of course (more on that in a minute), but no one walks around speaking Deutsch. The locals don’t wear dirndls or juggle pretzels.

The neighborhood is more antique than ethnic, more hip urban enclave than living-history museum.

Thursday, 4 p.m.

Nothing is more hip than the German Village Guesthouse and its annex, Whittier Suites, considered a boutique hotel.

Really, my suite is its own apartment — living room, bedroom, fully stocked kitchen and a bath room with a shower big enough to do cartwheels. In grays and neutrals, it’s Zen and modern, and the kitchen is chock-full of yummy food, from banana bread to fresh blueberries.

At more than $200 a night, though, the price is a little steep. So, as many of the glowing guestbook comments from celebrating couples indicate, this place is best for special occasions. Another, more affordable option is the Best Western Clarmont Inn & Suites on High Street.

After checking in, I walk the block to SchillerPark, 23.5 acres of grass, paths, playground and gardens.

The park is fat with flowers lining paths to the statues of poet Friedrich von Schiller and the “Umbrella Girl” (which is, no kidding, a girl holding an umbrella). It’s also planted with people — painting, running, playing tennis, gardening, reading and walking dogs.

This is where German Village hangs out.

I, however, am in the mood to eat, tourist style.

As a warm-up, I stop at the first Max & Erma’s. Although it shares a menu with the suburban franchises, this original is tucked into a corner storefront and gives the “neighborhood gathering place” slogan some meaning.

I then walk to Schmidt’s Sausage Haus, which is as cheesy as it is meaty. With an oompah band playing the “Simpsons” theme song in the background, I load my buffet plate with bratwurst, sausage stew, mashed potatoes, potato salad, sauerkraut and mild Bahama Mamas. (I kept thinking the talked-about Bahama Mama was a drink. It’s not. It’s a sausage.) It’s comfort food at its best. And yes, my diet is completely gone. I refuse to think about it.

Because, for dessert (only $2 with the Autobahn Buffet), I treat myself to a jumbo cream puff, a half-pound of filling in a pastry shell.

Good thing I plan to run in the morning.

Now, though, I sit and drink wine in SchillerPark while watching a performance of “The Taming of the Shrew.” It’s one of the last Shakespeare-in-the-park plays of the season, which runs May through Labor Day weekend.

Other events — from a party to watch the Columbus Marathon to a Halloween bash and pet parade — fill SchillerPark in the fall.

Friday, 8 a.m.

Tucking the duvet under my chin, I spend my last sleepy moments in a squishy king-size bed before talking myself up and into my running shoes.

I do a loop of SchillerPark, then up Third Street, over to High — where German Village meets the Brewery District — then anywhere my feet want to carry me, down Beck Street, past Frank Fetch Park, around and through and in and out of alleys.

After a luxurious shower, I hit the sidewalks again to check out Starbucks and Cup o’ Joe, across from each other on Third Street.

Unlike most people in their 20s, I abhor coffee, so I order a smoothie at Cup o’ Joe and settle in to people watch. The place is chill, with folks studying and talking and clicking away on their laptops, but I hear from locals it’s the place to be seen.

From there, I’m off to the Helen Winnemore Craft shop, by most accounts the oldest retailer of American crafts.

In 1938, Winnemore began offering afternoon tea as shoppers perused her dressers and cabinets for goodies made by fellow Quakers. Now saleswomen offer iced tea and water when you enter the store.

Sun streams through colorful glassware, and chimes tinkle as I open drawers brimming with jewelry and sift through greeting cards.

Afterward, I make a quick stop at Schmidt’s Fudge Haus and Gifts, where I pick up some chocolate-and-peanut-butter buckeyes to take home.

Friday, 1:30 p.m.

And then, lunch at the Thurman Cafe, where the burger is every bit as big and scrumptious as promised.

A small, well-worn pub, it — like the neighboring Easy Street Cafe — is a busy hot spot on weekend nights. But for a late lunch, I get a table by a window, surrounded by Budweiser labels on the ceiling and autographed dollar bills on the walls.

I order a Macedonian burger, three-quarters of a pound of beef on toast, with roasted red peppers. Plus steak fries. Mmm.

After lunch, I head to Studio Fovero, a salon and spa set in a comfortable brick carriage house. Haircuts start at $38, and mine was definitely worth it.

Then I stop by Franklin Art Glass Studios, which sells sheets of stained glass and gorgeous wall hangings and lamps. It also makes custom pieces. I resist a sudden urge to buy a stained glass lamp for my living room.

My husband, Craig, would kill me.

When he joins me that evening, he does like the black-and- white photograph of Cleveland I found at Metroscap, a store that sells only marvelous, framed black-and-white cityscapes. They’re small and square, little snippets of detail that can make any city feel as glamorous as New York.

Friday, 6:30 p.m.

I feel movie-star fancy as I sashay through Lindey’s signature lighted portico.

Craig and I arrive at the Columbus institution after dropping by Barcelona, a Spanish restaurant with what’s said to be the best patio in town. Secluded behind a wooden fence, it’s romantic and lush with greenery.

Lindey’s, a more traditional bistro, also features a fabulous patio, with a fountain and view of the darling Beck streetscape. But we sit inside to enjoy French onion soup, crab cakes and warm chocolate cake (for me) and gazpacho, margherita pizza and apple torte (for him). The service is great, as is the food. And we leave stuffed again, as we search for some nightlife.

Friday, 10 p.m.

Figuring we should try beer in the Brewery District, where southside Germans made beer as early as 1836, we land at the Columbus Brewery Co., a restaurant on the banks of the Scioto River.

While the CBC makes beer, there are no real breweries left in the 300-acre Brewery District, because Prohibition devastated the industry. There are few original buildings either, according to the German Village Society. But there are brand-new condos and plenty of casual bars, though most of the club scene has migrated to the Arena District and Short North, locals informed me.
Settling in on the patio with friends, we taste a pale ale and an apricot ale, both fuller than my typical Bud Light. Unfortunately, the place closes at 11 p.m.

So we move to High Beck Tavern, a bar on the corner of Beck and High streets.

A band plays (I feel really old when I ask my husband why it has to be so loud), and the bar feels like college — low-key, cool and a little grimy.

Saturday, 8 a.m.

One more time, we walk to SchillerPark, where my husband and I bat tennis balls and watch dog walkers talk before bidding goodbye to our sweet suite.

But once I hit the highway, I call my mom, convincing her that we must come back for the June Haus und Garten tour.

Or, maybe, Oktoberfest.