This is a guest post by Jason Crowe. Jason was born and raised in Boston, Massachusetts; a city rich in history and even richer in taverns and public houses. With first generation European parents, one of Irish and one of Polish descent, an early education in the daily consumption of beer, wine, whiskey, and vodka lent him a great appreciation for the finer beverages in life. Jason has managed several bars, cafes, and restaurants first in Boston and then here in Columbus. During that time he has conducted many tastings of wine, beer, tea, and coffee.
Just five minutes from downtown. Five bleak, scary, nail-biting minutes down Parson’s Avenue with the last signs of civilization—Black Creek Bistro and Carabar– left twenty-five blocks far behind to the north. The good people of Merion Village have become frontier homesteaders, tough-skinned, wise, and ready for anything here on the border of their hard-working, charming, and character-filled neighborhood. But if you are city-folk be sure to travel in groups and be on your guard, and maybe even hire a local to guide you on the trail and watch your back….Okay, it’s not really that bad, and I promise you that your bravery will be rewarded. El Dorado, the Treasures of the Sierra Madre, the Fountain of Youth, or in this case, Hal & Al’s will be well worth the adventure.
Owner Jay Cheplowitz won’t be recognized from any other bars and restaurants that he owns in town, but I guarantee most of you will have a significant connection with him—he’s the fellow that founded and owns the website that you probably found your first great apartment on—metro-rentals.com. He bought the bar two years ago, once called the Fastcar Cafe, and renamed it after his two daughters, Alana and Halle. Starting off as a solid blue-collar neighborhood bar, the gradual addition of live music and events, an overwhelming variety of top-notch beers, and a broad all-vegan bar menu have turned Hal & Al’s into a truly unique Columbus destination.
Let’s start with the beer. About twenty beers on draft, the list constantly changing and evolving with “mystery keg” contests and a keg tapping party for a new rare beer about once a month. You won’t find Bud Light on tap here—Belhaven’s Scottish Ale, Brooklyn Brewery Pilsner, Smuttynose IPA, Bell’s Two Hearted Ale, Leinenkugel’s 1888 Bock, and Abita Amber are among the list, along with local favorite Elevator Dark Horse and the very powerful (11.75% ABV) Harpoon Leviathan Quad. At the bartender’s suggestion, I tried the just-in Brooklyn Brewery Main Engine Start Brewmaster’s Reserve and I was very impressed. It’s a Belgian style pale ale loaded with flavors of fruit, herbs, and spices and that just-tapped-today freshness definitely won a fan. Next I tried the much-lighter Goose Island Summertime which I’d call a more flavorful and better tasting alternative to Blue Moon. There are two ciders on draft as well, Strongbow which I have long known and loved, and another locally brewed cider that I know and love now: The Neil House Brewery Cranberry Cider. This cider is produced right here in town within spitting distance of Port Columbus by a former OSU chemistry student, Patrick Kelleher, who founded the brewery with some friends last year. I took one sip, then another, then started passing it around for everyone to try, anxiously waiting to get it back. Clearly made from real cranberries and totally lacking in the harsh tartness that an extract or flavoring would add, I could seriously drink ten of these without a second thought (until I got up anyhow). All the drafts are reasonably priced, and half-price during happy hour which runs seven days a week from four to eight. Where else can you hit happy hour on the weekend?
Although the draft beers are impressive, the bottled selection may be even more so—over one hundred and twenty options jam the behind-the-bar cooler. Here you can find your old standby alongside scores of hard-to-find microbrews and small lot craft beers. Hal & Al’s has a significant list of local and regional offerings from Columbus Brewing, Elevator and others but also offers imports and rare domestics from just about everywhere. I was impressed by the number of 22oz bottles and can-packaged beers as well. Delirium Tremens, Gulden Draak, Paulaner Hefeweizen, Bard’s Gluten-free, Rogue XS Old Crustacean Barleywine, and Widner Brothers Barrel-Aged Brrrbon are highlights from the long, long list of options.
Hal & Al’s is clearly a beer bar but the spirits offering is extensive and interesting enough to keep a liquor drinker satisfied. In addition to the standards you should be able to find at any decent place, they offer several rarer selections: Jim Beam Red Stag, Bulliet Bourbon, Van Gogh Espresso Vodka, Wild Turkey American Honey, and Cutty Sark Whiskey. An even rarer find are three liquors from Rogue: Dead Guy Whiskey, Hazelnut Spice Rum, and Spruce Gin. I tried a house recipe cocktail termed a vegan white Russian made with the Van Gogh Espresso, Stoli Vanilla, and soy milk that would hold it’s own against any creamy martini in town.
For the not-so-beer-and-liqour folks there are a modicum of choices as well. A cabernet and a chardonnay in nifty single-serve “glasses” by Copa di Vino are the only wine options, but the Hana Lychee and Raspberry Sakes are a rare find. Also available is the ever-popular Martini & Rossi Asti Spumante if you’re craving bubbly by the bottle. In addition to the two on-draft options there are close to a dozen bottled ciders to choose from, and if you’re straight-edge for the night you can get a bottle of IBC rootbeer or Orangina, just so you have something cool-looking in your hand.
Don’t be frightened by the all-vegan label on the menu. Hal & Al’s food is standard bar fare that just happens to be vegan, and a whole lot better (not to mention healthier) than any number of greasy slop-plates I’ve happily gorged myself on after midnight at several not-to-be named local dives. The kitchen is open ’til an hour before close, midnight Sunday through Thursday and 2:30 on Friday and Saturday, and you can get late-night standards like nachos, fresh-cut fries, tacos, burritos, burgers, and hot dogs—but all with the vegan twist. The chili and nachos are really not great by any standard (just bland). The fries and other fried stuff are greasy but okay (they do fried mushrooms, avocado, pickles, and sauerkraut balls). The burgers are locally made Luna Burgers, which are black-bean based, and if you get the BBQ burger on the menu you won’t be disappointed. The burgers are served on fantastic pretzel buns made by Brezel Pretzels in the short north (they also make the pretzel bites). The hot dogs are Tofurky Franks, which sounds weird but I assure you they are a whole lot less weird than actual hot dogs (which after Upton Sinclair I won’t touch with a ten-foot-pole, but these I actually have begun to crave). On Mondays they have $2 corn dogs and $1 baskets of fresh-cuts, and if you like corn dogs and fries you’ll be happy. Thursday is Sushi night: fresh made to order sushi on site, $10 will get you four rolls and either a Sake or Tiger Beer to go with. A good portion of the food is purchased wholesale from the Clintonville Co-op, so you’ll be supporting the Co-op if you eat here.
Special events and features abound at Hal & Al’s, and are surely part of the draw. In addition to the seven-day happy hour and frequent keg-tapping parties, there’s live music every Friday and Saturday. I’ve heard Metric, Edward Sharpe, Ben Gibbard, and Cold War Kids playing there if that’s any indication of the style of the performers, though I know they go from country to folk to indie rock depending on the night. There are gallery shows monthly when local art is unveiled and then on display for sale for the month. The Skin A Cat songwriter showcase is the last Sunday of every month. They have Apple TV installed on their flatscreens, so you can bring in your iPhone or iPod and watch your videos with friends on a big screen (this past Monday a women’s rugby team was having drinks and watching the video of their game earlier that day). There is a fenced-in patio for drinking and smoking during warmer months. Lastly, you can always take the Parsons Challenge. Thirty beers in thirty days gets you a t-shirt, a photo on the wall, and a picture on Hal & Al’s website and Facebook.
The clientèle at Hal & Al’s is hip without being trendy, and blue-collar without being trashy. I have yet to see any guys with a skin-tight plaid shirt wearing his girlfriend’s jeans and some Chuck Taylors. When they had the Merion Village Chili Cook-Off, the bar was packed with forty, fifty, and sixty-somethings, all of them happy mingling and eating the vegan food and contest chili without pause. Come for the incredible beer selection here without expecting anything but friendly folks and decent conversations. Despite the draw from all around town, Hal & Al’s is a true neighborhood bar, expect to see the same faces whenever you’re there. There are three bartenders. Not at once, just three that work there: Rob, Jamie, and Michelle. All are extremely friendly and professional and very knowledgeable about both the beer and food offered at Hal & Al’s. And best of all, after just a few trips in, everyone will know your name and order. You can find their full beer selection and menu on their website at halandals.com