In just one year, Galley Group co-founders Tyler Benson and Benjamin Mantica transformed the former Massimo Da Milano Italian restaurant into the Ohio City Galley, a food hall/restaurant accelerator that sticks to the same playbook as similar Galley ventures in Pittsburgh, Detroit and soon Chicago.
For a turn-of-the-century building on the National Register of Historic Places, you'd expect more architectural interest. But the space, apart from the bar ceiling, is a surprisingly bland tapestry of drywall. A lack of texture also creates a deafeningly loud roar when busy.
What the Ohio City Galley lacks in quantity, it makes up for in originality. While countless food halls are popping up across the nation, most are populated by existing brands looking to plant another flag in this or that neighborhood. The four diverse eateries here — Tinman, Sauce the City, Poca and Rice Shop, which secured their spots after beating out 50 other hopefuls — exist no place else on Earth and serve five to 10 dishes each. The options make it a fine spot to satisfy just about any group.
After a handful of visits to OCG, I was pleasantly surprised by how smoothly things operate. On a busy Saturday night, when nearly every seat in the 7,500-square-foot space was occupied, we received food from three different vendors after only 10, 12 and 14 minutes. Runners, often the chefs themselves, deliver the food to guests wherever they happen to be sitting in the hall, identified by numbered table flags. A massive four-sided bar is well tended and the source of excellent cocktails, wines by the glass and stellar craft drafts.
Big little things like pitchers of cold water and glasses placed on every table; service stations furnished with ceramic plates, additional glassware, real silverware and thick paper napkins; and staffers on hand to do the dirty work of bussing tables elevate the dining experience above the usual fend-for-yourself food court. In return, guests pay prices for beer, wine, cocktails and food that seem higher than for comparable items elsewhere.
Menus above each stall clearly broadcast available items, but it's easier to peruse the OCG website before you arrive to see the entire lineup. Thanks to four diverse concepts, each offering between five and 10 dishes, there's bound to be something to satisfy everybody in the group.
Tinman, from brothers Michael and Tom Schoen, plays it right down the middle, dishing up excellent versions of classic American diner fare. Their already legendary burger ($13.50) — twin patties dripping with melted cheese and special sauce on a buttery brioche bun — is reason enough to return. The duo also dishes up a killer fried bologna sandwich ($13), the thick-sliced meat griddled, popped into bread with American cheese, and griddled again. Both sandwiches come with a choice of sides, like the addictive fried onion straws with horseradish sauce.
We should probably get used to seeing Anthony Zappalo around. The chef's eastside sensation Lox, Stock and Brisket continues to kill it in the fast-casual deli arena. Here at the Rice Shop, bowls of perfectly steamed rice are topped with attractive, flavorful and texturally appealing compositions that mesh Southern foodways with Asian classics. That curious juxtaposition nets a diner dishes like the Kentucky Fried Fish ($15), ridiculously crispy fried cod set against cool-crisp slaw, sided by soft rice, and showered with peppy hot sauce aioli. The chef's takes on kung pao chicken and steak fried rice blow away the neighborhood carryout.
Nashville hot chicken fans have Victor Searcy to thank for a crunchy, meaty, spicy sandwich ($14.95) version of that Southern staple. The kitchen can crank up the heat if that's how you like it, but they also sell one without the flames. Most plates include Searcy's "dressed" street corn, skewered cobs garnished with crema, cojita cheese and spice. My corn was too mushy to finish.
For more than six years, chef Mike Nowak has been lording over his lardy empire at the Black Pig. But over time, his fondness for all things Oaxacan proved too intense to ignore. The Galley provided the perfect low-barrier opportunity to test out his south-of-the-border concept. At Poca, smart, elegant and compelling dishes like braised pork shoulder with green mole, chicken thighs with black mole, and a variety of tacos with brilliant salsas proves this is not your average Tex-Mex. Memelas ($11) are comforting and savory masa pancakes layered with beans, melted cheese, chile-rich chorizo and salsa verde.
In a year or so, some or all of those tenants will move out and, perhaps, up to brick-and-mortar spots, freeing up space for a new class of culinary startups. The Rice Shop concept will likely spread its wings and fly before any of its roomies. But if you ask us, Poca's menu shows the most promise to be expanded into a full-fledged, stand-alone restaurant.
A final note: Parking can be a challenge when the small lot fills up, but a valet is happy to grab the keys, and there's always public transit.