History Lesson: Celebrating the history of the Jai Lai restaurant
Columbus was recently “noticed” by Forbes Travel guides as being a secret food city and the coffee lovers website Sprudge.com just proclaimed our fair metropolitan as an underrated coffee city. So it should really come as no surprise that we have been a terrific restaurant city for years.
One of our fabled restaurants, Marzetti’s, was so highly visited for its salad dressing during its’ run from 1896 until 1972, that after founder Teresa Marzetti’s death, it closed its doors in 1972 to focus exclusively on the dressings. Another fabled restaurant, is the Maramor Restaurant (1920 until 1970). It was so well-known locally for its’ confections, that the company closed the restaurant aspect in 1970 to focus fully on creating the delicious candy it still creates today – nearly 100 years after opening.
Our town has dozens of other terrific “lost” restaurants that live on in legend and recipes. But the one that was the largest in our town (seating over one thousand diners at a time) and was the home-away-from-home for OSU football coaches from Woody Hayes to Earle Bruce, is the subject of this history lesson.
Founded in the Short North in February of 1933, this local legend began as a small hole-in-the-wall saloon. Located at the corner of Poplar and North High, where the Western side of the I-670 Cap currently sits, this early Columbus eatery was more focused on selling whiskey than baking delicious salt rolls. With an innocuous sign outside advertising “Genuine Turtle Soup,” the real purpose was to capitalize on local thirst since Prohibition ended just a few days after it opened.
Of course, I am writing about the Jai Lai Café which will be re-imagined for one night only by the incredible restaurateur Alana Shock on Tuesday January 21st at her fabulous restaurant Alana’s.
South Sider Jasper Wottring allegedly borrowed $1500.00 in 1933 to open the Jai Lai Café and named it after the Jai Lai Club of New Orleans. Ben Hayes, columnist for the old Columbus Citizen Journal and relative of Woody Hayes, was a frequent diner there. His daughter Christine Hayes reflects on the High Street place:
Opposite the bar, with its stools, the café had a few tables and chairs. A strip of new linoleum ran down the floor like a highway of refinement.
That’s saying quite a lot, since in its’ early days, the joint was a well-known haunt of the brawlers going at it nightly, just behind the place at Haft’s Acres in Flytown. Eventually, the Jai Lai grew to take up space in not just the 581 N High address, but also the two adjacent spaces next door. One of them at 589 was another restaurant called the Old Vienna Café.
With the growth of the restaurant, also came a broadening of the menu and a change of décor. In a Columbus Dispatch ad dated May 23, 1948, they were touting their “perfectly appointed and gloriously beautiful new interiors.” It goes on to read:
Always celebrated for the excellence of its food and beverages, for the warmth of its welcome and the exacting insistence on good service for all who enter its doors, the Jai Lai Café now provides the most beautiful and inviting interiors in its entire fifteen year history.
The new interiors weren’t around very long, for in 1955, the owners decided to move the Jai Lai. There are conflicting stories concerning the move and I would bet that both contributed. One account comes from an April 20, 1933 Columbus Dispatch article: “When the freeway pushed its was through his original location near Goodale Street, Wotring moved to Olentangy River Road and expanded his café.”
The second account comes from the Jai Lai’s final owner, Dave Girves. He recollects that the two landlords of the three spaces occupied by the Jai Lai in 1955 were in disagreement over the rent. The Landlord of the 581 and 589 North High spaces kept the rents reasonable while the landlord of the middle space raised the rent exponentially forcing the move.
The Jai Lai moved to a more than 9,000 square-foot replica of a Spanish style castle set just across the street from the Olentangy River between Fifth and King Avenues. The building included turrets on the North and South ends. The parking was not only on the side of the building, but patrons could drive their cars up onto the second floor roof of the Jai Lai! The interiors displayed what was called “old-world” décor that was heavy on deep rich woods, tapestries, and cozy high-backed booths.
The Girves clan came to the Jai Lai from Akron. Dave Girves’ grandfather immigrated to the United States from Greece and opened a small bistro in Akron. That small place grew to a chain of 6 restaurants that many may remember as “Girves Brown Derby.”
“My first job was at the family business and I washed glasses at a small bar station,” says Girves.
While Dave was in college in 1962, his father sold his share of the business and moved the family to Columbus. Upon his graduation from Cornell in 1965 with a degree in Restaurant Management, Dave came to work at the restaurant. As a part of a restaurant family who worked seemingly seven days a week fifty two weeks a year, he couldn’t believe stories he heard from his classmates that people only worked 5 days a week.
He also saw the change in staffing the restaurant with career male waiters to the hiring of the Jai Lai’s first female wait staff in 1965. The change was completed four years later when the staffing was nearly equally split between men and women servers. One of Dave’s most memorable moments of his Jai Lai days involved veteran Jai Lai server Jeannie Darst.
“She was the smallest woman I ever met, but she could out carry all the men,” he says. “Most men could carry only eight to ten trays and I recall that Jeannie could carry as many as twenty!”
He reflected to me that he really wanted to understand this giant building and spent hours pouring over the building heating plans and layouts. His first ten years there were spent in the kitchen and he moved to the front of the house in 1975. It was during this time that OSU football coach Woody Hayes began having weekly press conference at the Jai Lai – a tradition preserved by his predecessor Earle Bruce.
Coach Hayes loved to eat there and was always up for chatting with people and sharing stories. Once, while Dave was working the cash register, Coach Hayes came in to pick up a meal he had ordered. He was taking a popular meal of “Shrimp Fiesta” to his Aunt who was in the hospital and Dave offered to give it to him for free. Woody looked him square in the eye and in his most serious voice told him that if he didn’t let him pay for it, he would never step foot in the Jai Lai again. Needless to say, Coach Hayes was charged for his meal and continued to visit the Jai Lai quite frequently.
The Jai Lai was known as the largest restaurant in Columbus and had the ability to serve over one thousand people off the menu when utilizing the basement “Sazarac” and “New Orleans “ rooms. At its height, the Jai Lai had a staff of well over 150 waiters, chefs, busboys, housekeepers, and valets. It was especially renowned for its Prime Rib and amazing Salt Rolls with Herb Butter. The recipes are still revered today.
Doral Chenoweth a.k.a. the Grumpy Gourmet said this about the Salt Sticks in a November 18, 1993 Columbus Dispatch article:
There are many reasons for the long life of Dave Girves’ Jai Lai – the beef stew; the prime rib for certain. But I suspect that hundreds of locals have bitten into one of those house salt breads and become addicted.
Of the many stories I had heard about the Jai Lai, I was most anxious to confirm the tale of the helicopter that would shuttle Jai Lai guests from the restaurant to OSU football games. Dave said that it was actually inspired by Jasper Wotrings dream to have a flotilla of Jai Lai boats that would sail up the Olentangy River to whisk patrons to the “Shoe.” The Jai Lai advertising firm came up with the idea and they made arrangements with Ohio State to land a helicopter just outside Ohio Stadium. With these plans in place, they did in fact shuttle passengers to the game during the 1974 season!
In the mid 1980s, interior decorator Coburn Morgan oversaw the final redecoration of the Jai Lai establishing forever a tie between the Jai Lai and its landmark competitor to the East – the Kahiki. Coburn was now the interior designer of both spaces and certainly knew what he was doing. It was also during this time that David bought his father’s interest in the restaurant and became the sole owner in 1986.
In the mid 1990s, freeway construction along 315 caused the re-routing of traffic and the largest restaurant in town ended up shuttering its’ doors in 1996.
The building was briefly re-born as the Buckeye Hall of Fame Café in 1997 but with pressure for more hotel rooms in and around OSU, the space closed in 2010 and is now the site of a Spring Hill Suites.
Just like Woody Hayes, the epitaph for the beloved Jai Lai would certainly be their time-tested slogan “In All The World, There’s Only One.”
When writing on the death of OSU Coach Woody Hayes for the Chicago Tribune in March,1987, Bob Greene shared the following:
The last time I saw Woody Hayes was just before he got sick. I was in Columbus, and I asked him where he’d like to eat, but I knew the answer already. “The Jai Lai,” Woody said. The Jai Lai, just a few blocks from Ohio Stadium, was where he always ate when dining out. Even though he was no longer football coach at The Ohio State University, the Jai Lai displayed a portrait of Woody in his coaching clothes, along with a sign saying “In All the World, There’s Only One.”
The Historical Dinner Club will feature the Jai Lai re-imagined for one night only by Chef Alana Shock of Alana’s Food & Wine. Enjoy an evening filled with history and memories as the Columbus Historical Society with special guest Dave Girves paying tribute to the Jai Lai, one of the most beloved “lost” restaurants of Columbus.
The evening opens with cocktails and appetizers with artifacts from the Jai Lai on view. There will be a talk about the restaurant and Chef Alana Shock will talk about her inspiration for the menu. The Jai-Lai dinner will be Tuesday, January 21st, starting at 6pm, at Alana’s Food & Wine, located at 2333 North High Street, Columbus, Ohio 43202. Reservations are $125 per person and are limited to 40, with proceeds benefiting the Columbus Historical Society.