PRIZM News / March 1, 2018 / By Bob Vitale
Why are LGBTQ people drawn to the restaurant business?
Scott Heimlich, the owner of Barcelona, pondered the question for a bit as we spoke at his Columbus restaurant one afternoon. He hadn’t really thought about it much, even though from his first summer job waiting tables, “I absolutely fell in love with the business.”
“It was when I was working in restaurants that I finally came out,” he told me. “I met my first boyfriend in the restaurant business. I was out to coworkers even before my family.”
Maybe it’s the atmosphere in a restaurant, Heimlich said. “When you walk in the door of a restaurant you just kind of drop all that because we’re there to take care of our guests.”
It could be the entertainment factor, too, he says. “There’s a show to it, to a certain extent.”
In this month’s Prizm, we profile five openly gay and lesbian restaurant owners who love their jobs and do them well. They thrive in a field that has a welcoming reputation for LGBTQ people.
Scott Heimlich, owner
For Scott Heimlich, the grass is definitely greenest on his own side of the fence.
“It can be a lot of hours, long days. It can be very stressful,” says the owner of Barcelona, a Columbus restaurant that regularly makes both customer- and critic- generated lists of the city’s top dining destinations.
“But I look at what other people do for careers and say there’s no way I could do what they’re doing,” he says. “You have to do what you enjoy. That’s first and foremost.”
The native of Waldo, a Marion County village of 338 whose culinary claim to fame is the fried bologna sandwich at G&R Tavern, thought he’d spend his life on a farm but changed his mind after his first year at Ohio State University and a summer job waiting tables.
“Waiting tables to assistant manager to fulltime manager. I spent years bartending, running a couple organizations, and then I had the opportunity to take this place on,” he says of the German Village restaurant he has owned since 2002.
“And here we are.”
The 110-year-old building at the corner of Whittier and Jaeger streets has always housed a dining establishment. It’s been Barcelona’s home since the restaurant opened in 1996.
In a business where customers crave what’s new and a first bite comes second to posting a photo of one’s meal on social media, Barcelona has incredible staying power. It’s fine dining without airs, a place where couples on date night and big groups of friends dressed up for the theater dine next to neighborhood regulars in jeans and polo shirts, and neither group feels uncomfortable.
“There are restaurants opening left, right and center right now, which is great for our city.” Heimlich says. “We’ve got to stay relevant, stay in the forefront of everybody’s mind.”
The Barcelona menu has popular mainstays such as paella, cured meats, cheeses and basic tapas, but much of it changes regularly. There are 45 different items on the dinner menu, but a five-course, $60 tasting menu guarantees dishes you’ve not had there before.
“It was really built on chef knows best,” Heimlich says. “I enjoy cooking. I understand it and appreciate it and know when I need to stay out of the way. I learned that a long time ago.”
Paella Barcelona is the most traditional of five versions of the Spanish rice dish on the menu. It comes with chicken, chorizo, shrimp, squid, clams, mussels, piquillo peppers and peas.
What Caught Our Eye
Mejillones en Cidre is sparkling cider-steamed mussels, garlic, dry-cured chorizo and leeks; Filete y Langosta on the current chef’s tasting menu is grilled Ohio beef filet and lobster tail, with mushroom risotto and red wine shallot herb butter. (View Barcelona’s menus.)
Liz Valenti, chef/owner
Wheat Penny Oven and Bar
Liz Valenti’s first real restaurant job was in San Francisco, about four doors from the corner of 18th and Castro streets, at a little place that the gay owners insisted wasn’t a gay restaurant.
“But what else would you call a place that only closed one day a year: the night of the Academy Awards?” Valenti says.
“Tourist buses would come through the Castro all the time so the straight tourists could gawk at all the gays. When we would see one coming we would all run outside—customers too—and wave and start kissing each other and undress just to give them a show. Everybody on the sidewalks would do it. So fun!”
Valenti had moved to San Francisco with college friend and now-business partner Elizabeth Wiley. She’s from a big Italian family and feels she honors her parents and aunts when she cooks. She honed her skills at the California Culinary Academy and working for chefs Joyce Goldstein and Judy Rodgers, who helped define contemporary American cooking.
Wheat Penny reflects Valenti’s roots with a pizza menu that’s traditional and creative. The Tarte Flambée has bechamel sauce, bacon and long-cooked onions; the White Margherita is a version of the classic without tomato sauce. (View Wheat Penny’s menu.)
What Caught Our Eye
The Cauliflower T-Bone, poached in broth, seared and served with a relish of olives, citrus and herbs; Crispy Brick Chicken Thighs, perfectly seasoned, juicy and crispy.
Tim McCune, owner
My House Diner
Tim McCune had us at: “We use real butter.”
At My House Diner and McCune’s Other Side Bistro, the side-by-side establishments he owns on Lewis Road in West Toledo, the burgers are never frozen, the desserts are homemade and the plates are piled high.
McCune opened My House in January 2009 and the Other Side a few years later.
My House has one of those menus that makes you want to order twice. If you go with the three-egg omelet—breakfast is served all day—you’ll miss the Patty Melt or any of the other great things about a diner lunch.
At the Other Side, your money goes far. The Blade newspaper recently recommended the Monday night $2.50 build-your-own nachos bar and $1 margaritas as great place to go for cheap eats.
It seems the place to go on Tuesday nights for unlimited wings and on Friday nights for male dancers, too. The Other Side, if you haven’t figured out by that list, is also a gay bar.
The Reuben at My House is griddled with butter and served with extra
Thousand Island. (View My House Diner’s menu.)
What Caught Our Eye
McCune claims to have the best Coney sauce in Toledo, which is no idle boast given the competition includes hometown legends Rudy’s and Tony Packo’s; the meatloaf sandwich is grilled and topped as you wish.
Joan Rosenthal, owner/founder
At the same time she talks about efficient operations and executing at the highest level, Joan Rosenthal talks about food like works of art.
But if you’re catering events at the Cleveland Museum of Art, Severance Hall, the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Akron Art Museum, you better create something beautiful as well as tasty. Her goal: creating a “fairy-tale-like experience” that people talk about for a long, long time.
“We are telling the story of our client,” says Rosenthal, who left a corporate career with places like Hyatt Hotels and Kraft to start her business in 1997.
The Cleveland native grew up in a food-loving family and got her start in the food business at age 12—”illegally!”—as a delicatessen busgirl.
What keeps her excited after 37 years in the field? “I am surrounded by creativity, art and wonderful clients.”
Marigold Catering’s slow-cooked, beer-braised short ribs with truffle mashed potatoes and fresh garden asparagus are part of the current trend of home-style comfort food. (View Marigold’s menus.)
What Caught Our Eye
The Kibbeh Burger, featuring house-made kibbeh and spiced tahini sauce on a pate au choux bun; Lake Erie Walleye Ceviche with mango and lime.
Jeff Thomas, president/owner
Jeff Thomas Catering
Don’t put Jeff Thomas in that category of food people who hate to cook at home.
“I love to throw dinner parties,” he says. “So my job is actually my hobby. It just doesn’t get any better than that.”
It was the other way around—hobby became job— when Thomas started Jeff Thomas Catering in 1985. He did the cooking himself for the first six years, which fueled a desire to find new and fresh ideas by traveling the world.
“You never stop learning,” Thomas says. “There’s always something new, whether it’s a new product or way to display the product.”
It’s a blast from the past, though, that reminds Thoms of how far he’s come. He still has a menu from Johnny Bench’s Homestretch, where he got his first restaurant job in 1978.
“The pricing is quite different from today!” He says.
As a custom caterer, Thomas says, “we prefer to find out what the event is about and learn more about the vision and expectations of our clients. A customer favorite, though is this constructed salad, an architectural dish that gives a much better first impression than the typical banquet salad. (View Jeff Thomas Catering’s menus.)
What Caught Our Eye
Lobster Corndogs, with a lemon-caper beurre blanc; Goetta Sliders, featuring the only-in-Cincinnati patty of meat, oats and spices.
(Are you an LGBTQ restaurant owner in Ohio? We’d love to feature you and your food in a future issue of Prizm. Email editor Bob Vitale at the address above.)