Hamburger Columbus: Johnnie’s Tavern with George Motz
Posted by cmh gourmand on May 2, 2010
In 2007, I joined filmmaker/writer George Motz for the Columbus leg of research for Hamburger America. The book was a success so the publishers have asked him for a second edition, this time with an additional fifty famous hamburger (well, 53 since three of the original 100 from Hamburger America have closed) places. There is an interesting backstory to the book. George did not set out to write a hamburger book or any book for that matter. In 2004, he created a documentary called Hamburger America about eight unique and historic family owned hamburger cookeries. The publishers saw the book and asked the filmmaker to add author to his business card. This is the rare instance of a film leading to a book.
The rules for places picked for Hamburger America (2) are as follows: the hamburger must be good, it must have been served by the same place for twenty years or more and it must be made with fresh, ground beef. The two Columbus picks for the first edition were Thurman Cafe and Gahanna Grill. While there are several good candidates in Columbus, the site selected on this reconnaissance mission was Johnnies Tavern in San Margherita.
Johnnies meets the criteria set forth and then some. The site of the tavern has been owned by the Lombardi family since the early twentieth century. It started as a grocery store but it 1948, the family knocked down a wall, added some space and turned to the tavern trade. John Lombardi is the forth generation to run a family business at this site. He is the manager and the head hamburger maker, often slinging hamburgers solo in the backroom kitchen.
The menu is simple: cheeseburgers, roast beef sandwiches, fried bolonga sandwiches, fries and onion rings. There is another staple on the menu, beer. Johnnie’s won an award for the coldest beer in Columbus. In the photo below, you can see a poster of Dominic Lombardi (John’s grandfather) with one of their famous cold beers. The beer is still cold although we did not take a thermometer to test it we could see that the frost on the mug was thick and frosty. San Margherita was the former home of Italian immigrants to Columbus, many of them coming to work in the quarry at Marble Cliff. There are only a few landmarks left of that immigrant era, ancient grape vines in a few yards and Johnnie’s Tavern.
The burger is a handmade patty that starts off as about one pound of ground beef. You have your choice of five types of cheese (pepperjack is the crowd favorite) plus lettuce, tomato, onion, pickles and a dill pickle on the side. The bun is toasted (big points there) and slightly steamed with sesame seeds. The service is friendly, well at least based on my interactions with Britney. There is a pool table, a few TV’s and the sounds of trains passing by on the railroad tracks about 100 feet from the front door for entertainment.
I hope that Johnnie’s makes it into the new Hamburger America. There are some other places from Columbus I would like to see as well, in particular, the pepperburger from O’Reilly’s. We will have to wait until the book comes out in 2011 or 2012. In the meantime, you can follow George’s adventures on twitter. On his latest run, he hit at least six hamburger places (including Johnnie’s) in three states over two days. He consumed over one dozen hamburgers, three Pattycake Bakery cookies, one Steak and Shake milkshake and Bigbee Malt at Spudnuts in Cleveland. Go George!
And Go Johnnies!
3503 Trabue Road
San Margherita (an unincorporated section of Columbus near Hilliard)