The Refectory Restaurant & Bistro Celebrates 35 Years
The Columbus dining scene has grown by leaps and bounds over the past decade with dozens of great new restaurants opening every year. Foodies have a wide variety of options today, but they didn’t always have it quite so good, and The Refectory Restaurant & Bistro has the history to prove it.
When their doors first opened back in 1976, fine dining in Columbus was mostly a steak-and-potatoes ordeal and the idea of high-end French cuisine was a foreign concept. The Refectory proved to be a trailblazer in the local dining scene and went on to win numerous awards and receive plenty of ongoing recognition as one of the best restaurants in all of Columbus.
We recently spoke to Kamal Boulos, Owner of The Refectory, to find out more about where the last three and a half decades have taken the restaurant.
Q: Can you tell us a little bit about the grand opening of the restaurant 35 years ago?
A: I worked 2-3 times during the first year and only for a few days at a time to help cook in the kitchen – when they were short-handed. From what I know, it was one of the very first places to go beyond standard meat and potatoes and standard American fare. The menu had a European bent to it, with things like Steak au Poivre and Veal Sweetbreads and many other veal presentations. It began as a small 60-seat restaurant named The Olde Church-Restaurant as the first phase of the project, with the idea of developing the rest of the facility at a later date.
Q: Just to put things into perspective, what did the culinary/dining scene look like in Columbus back in 1976?
A: At that time steak houses seemed to be the “fine dining” offering and not much else – of course the two destination places were theme places – The Kahiki and The Wine Cellar – which featured steaks. Other places that were popular were the Jai Lai, The Top and the Cork and Cleaver – again where steaks were emphasized.
Q: So how did your personal involvement mature at The Refectory over the years from part time cook to owner?
A: I met the original owners at a ranch resort in upstate NY where I was the working as the maître d’ in a 500 seat dining room. I stopped by to visit them on my way to relocate to Las Vegas and ended up working in their securities company for one year. In 1977, they took over from the opening partner and I was hired as an assistant manager with the idea of running the food and service side of the next phase – which would become a Disco in the west wing of the building, which was still undeveloped. In early spring of 1978, the Disco was no longer a possibility as the place was losing thousands each month. I became the GM, with the task of simply keeping the doors open. We were able to break even within the first month and I ran it for this partnership for three years. They sold it in 1981, when the new owners, Rich Corna and Benny Ciotola developed the entire facility and renamed it The Refectory. I managed it for them for 10 years and they agreed to sell it to me in 1991.
Q: How much would you say that the restaurant has changed over the past 35 years?
A: We have changed immensely during our journey. We went from being a 60 seat restaurant to a 170 seat restaurant plus 2 banquet rooms that seat a total of 70. We have always evolved on some level in every area. With respect to the cuisine – the only Top Ten restaurant listed every year since 1982, receiving 5 stars in 1994, the wine program – the only Ohio restaurant to receive the Wine Spectator Grand Award, and the service, the top-rated for service in Zagat 1990 – the top 50 in the US – 2010. In 1994, the total package was acknowledged with the first of 17 consecutive AAA Four Diamond Award. The one constant has been a team of key people that have been here for many years relentlessly pursuing excellence together. The business manager, Sandra Losco and the GM, Jeff Elasky, have each been here for over 30 years and the Chef has been with us for 18 years. It is this continuity of staff which has been the key to any of our accomplishments and continued service to our community for 35 years.
Q: I’m sure you’ve seen many industry trends come and go. Have any trends stuck out to you as being significant, or are there trends that you’re happy to have seen pass quickly?
A: The positives have been the level of interest in food, the sources, cooking, and simply being more knowledgeable and interested in food in general. The passing fads we were happy to see come and go; all things needed to be deep-fried, the high protein diets and on the beverage side; Chablis house wines and wine coolers.
Q: How has The Refectory managed to weather the national economic recession over the past five years, during a time when fine dining establishments have been hit hard?
A: We made a conscious effort to support our community as much as humanly possible at a time when we felt they needed it most. We have also expanded our mid – week Bistro Menu to be served as an early menu on Fridays and Saturdays. We also expanded our bar hours by opening early and began a happy hour with reduced prices for beverages and appetizers. Lastly, we expanded by offering off-premise catering to your home or office. From a sit-down dinner for 8 to an hors d’oeuvre reception for 300 or more, each menu is created special for that event.
Q: What sort of new offers or specials has The Refectory rolled out this year?
A: We host a large number of wine events and special dinners throughout the year. We promote these almost exclusively through our Preferred Email Guest List. This year we expanded on our Jazz Dinner Club series which is usually the last Saturday of each month. This is such a unique, intimate event limited to 30 guests. The menu and music changes each month.
Q: What are you doing to celebrate the 35th Anniversary?
A: We have brought back the popular menu classics from 1976 and are featuring a different presentation each week. We are also offering all of our champagnes by the bottle and glass at state minimum prices throughout the month. In addition, we are also holding a weekly drawing for dinner for two. Throughout the year, we are also giving back to the community with a continuous food drive. All guests that bring in a non-perishable food item are given a Gift Certificate towards there next visit.
Q: Is there anything else we should know about The Refectory?
A: If you have not dined with us before, go to our website and sign up for our email newsletter and we will send you a Gift Certificate towards your first visit. We will be featuring other specials to highlight our 35 years in the coming months.
We exist to serve our guests and without their support and encouragement, this would not be possible. We are deeply grateful for the privilege of serving central Ohio for the last 35 years and look forward to many more!
More information can be found online at www.therefectoryrestaurant.com.