1271 Grandview Ave. Columbus OH 43212 (614) 481-8200
Happy hour is a particularly American paradigm. First of all, it is yet another way for us to define our lives by our work. The hour, ostensibly, is happy because the workday has ended, but if happiness were the prevailing emotion, the primary activity would probably not be getting liquored. Plus, happy hour is never an hour. What are these people trying to pull? Do they think that just because we have a few Pomegranate Mojitos and a couple of Jaeger Bombs, we are actually going to think that 4-7 is an hour?
Fortunately for us Columbus, we have Vino Vino. They actually have a happy hour that is an hour. And very, very happy. Every weekday from 5-6 in the long, comfortable dining room and at the uniquely-shaped bar, Vino Vino presents an extensive menu of inspired and outstandingly well-prepared items for three and four dollars each. These aren’t mini tacos and fried mushrooms, nor are they plastic baskets full of extra-salty roasted peanuts or otherworldly-yellow popcorn. The three-dollar items include a creamy corn and crab chowder that is thronged with sweet and tender shrimp and crabmeat. Other triple-dollar dishes include a Romaine salad with Parmesan and peppercorn, a bibb lettuce and blue cheese salad with honey-glazed bacon and satisfyingly-large pizzas. Those can have traditional toppings like pepperoni or margherita, or they can get all new-wavy with goat cheese or a delicious and creative blackened tuna with sesame.
At the same price point are a wide selection of cocktails and wines. Three bucks gets you a classic martini, Cosmo or a three ounce pour of a house white or red wine. Ordinarily, one should be very leery of ‘house wines’, but at Vino Vino they have a Cruvinet. For those who know what that means, there’s no more to say. For laypeople, let’s just say that anyone who cares enough about wine to invest in a system like the Cruvinet to manage their wine-by-the-glass program, cares enough about wine that they would never in a zillion years serve crap as ‘house wine’. Even at three bucks a glass. Vino Vino’s house wines can be counted on to be very interesting. Sometimes they will be a varietal that no one has ever heard of before. Other times it will be a unique treatment of a familiar grape, perhaps produced in an unusual region. Still others will be outstanding examples of well-known grapes and styles that are amazingly affordable for their quality.
Speaking of amazingly affordable for the quality, the four-dollar menu has the best fish taco that any of us at C have had while not sitting on a beach. It is done just like beach tacos. The tortilla is covered in crispy shredded cabbage then topped with grilled white fish, creamy cilantro sauce and salsa. Vino Vino’s salsa is made mostly from pineapples, which adds an even island-ier feel to an already island-y feeling dish. In fact, this fish taco alone gives Vino Vino all the cred they need to call their hour “happy.” And, it really is an hour. That’s freaking awesome!
Given that happy hour at Vino Vino actually is both happy and only an hour, it is easy to miss it every now and again. Never fear, the regular menu is just as terrific as the happy hour one, and it isn’t much more expensive either. The high-dollar items are no more than fifteen dollars. For the most part, those are the entrees, like pistachio crusted chicken and beef tenderloin, and a couple of the pastas, like the ocean-tastic Linguine Diablo, which is crammed full of shrimp, scallops and salmon in a spicy cream sauce.
Vino Vino’s sister restaurant, Figlio, has been serving top-notch pastas and wood-fired pizzas in the space next door for seventeen years. There’s a symbiosis between the two places that makes either experience truly enjoyable. Figlio does have a more casual vibe to it, right down to the look of the menu—but is no less classy. The wine selections on Figlio’s list are all exemplars of very familiar styles, like California Chardonnay or Tuscan Chianti. The Figlio side has more of a grab-a-bite feel than Vino Vino, but the casualness doesn’t belie the high quality of the food, atmosphere and service, which all excel. In fact, having Figlio so close to Vino Vino might present collective action problems to people dining in larger groups, since some people will invariably want to sit on the Figlio side and some will prefer the Vino side. The only viable solution is to compromise and come back often enough that everyone is happy with the quantity of times they got to sit on their favorite side.
A selling point for those pulling for the Vino Vino side is the wine flight program that they have available. It is a way to simultaneously get one’s drink on and learn a thing or two. The constituent elements of the flights change on a regular basis, but, like most of the wines at Vino Vino, they are carefully selected to showcase interesting varietals, styles, terriors, etc. Each three-glass flight comes with an informational flyer that explains the essentials of the wines without slipping into that pretentious wine-enthusiast vernacular that sitcom writers use to make their characters sound snobbish. If the varietal in the wine is less familiar to American wine drinkers, like Torrontes for example, then the text clearly and plainly says something like “If you used to drink Pinot Grigio, give it up. Try this grape that is practically the only thing they drink in Argentina.” It may have a night-blooming floral aroma and a stone fruit and flint expression that gives away its origin, but that means far less to Pinot Grigio drinkers than Vino’s more direct approach.
There are so many different ways diners can experience dinner at Vino Vino and Figlio, it is possible that a single set of diners eating there every single day for a week would never have the same experience twice. The days, meals and company may change, but the fun will always be reliably fantastic.