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.
On a nightly basis, a storm of obnoxious barely twenty-one year-olds descends upon the Arena District and Park Street. Novak’s On High offers a welcoming shelter from that storm. It’s easy to walk by the nondescript front door of this upstairs tavern, located just across the street from the Columbus Convention Center above the Japanese Steak House. It’s also possible to not notice the rooftop patio that overlooks the North Market parking lot. But once you’ve discovered this bar, you will find an honest, relaxed bar with a fantastic staff, a good crowd, a great jukebox, and one of the very best spirit selections in the city.
Novak’s was named for Billy Novak who opened the bar in the early 90s. The tavern has since changed hands but retained the name. The bar was once the site of a jazz lounge in the late 80s and 90s, but billiard tables now occupy the former stage area, and a more casual atmosphere dominates. The rooftop patio was added about five years ago by the current owners, bringing much welcomed additional seating and an added attraction. One of the the current owners of Novak’s is also the owner of Gordy’s restaurant and bar in Westerville.
Novak’s is a long, narrow place, seating about twenty at the bar and another twenty or so along the walls surrounding the two pool tables. Hardwood floors, exposed brick interior walls and big open windows give it a classier feel than you’d expect. Lighting is very dim throughout. Weekends it’s standing-room only, but at the beginning of a weekday happy hour (which starts at 3pm) it’s easy to find a seat and quietly chat it up with buddies or the extremely personable staff. Off of the main space, there’s a little side room with a table and a few seats, a cigarette machine and a staircase leading up to the patio on the roof. The rooftop patio seats about thirty with standing room for another thirty people milling about. Like the bar, the patio becomes standing room only on a decent-weather weekend. The patio offers a nice view of the North Market parking lot and surrounding streets (and an even closer view of a pair of overflowing smelly dumpsters right beneath it, but what can you do?). The front windows of the bar overlook High Street and the Convention Center. It has a real old-fashioned public house feel—just an old cash register and paper receipts, not a touch screen or computer in sight.
If you are a bourbon or whiskey drinker and haven’t been, you need to go to Novak’s right now. Immediately. Novak’s has the feel of a drink-every-day-after-work dive bar, and sells lots of beer buckets, which may be misleading. Then the bartender will ask for your order and, like I did, you’ll look up at the wall behind the bar and think to yourself, “They have Bulliet, that’s cool…oh, and Russell’s Reserve, and Russell’s Rye, Bakers, Jim Beam Black, Jim Beam Devil’s Cut, Woodford Reserve, Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve, Makers 46, Wild Turkey Rare Breed, Red Stag, Elijah Craig, and….Basil Hayden, Buffalo Trace? Those are a surprise…and what’s that bottle…Eagle Rare?…and Corner Creek? Four Roses? and that one….” And once you get over the fact that there are half a dozen bourbons that you’ve never even seen before, let alone tried, you’ll see a very solid Scotch selection as well. The offerings include all three varieties of Glennfiddich (splurge and get the 18 year, honey and heather on the nose and so, so smooth), Oban, Dalwhinnie, and Macallan, plus the very rare and excellent Tallisker, Dalmore, Pebble Beach, and Aberlour (another I hadn’t known before this visit). Who knew there was an assuming bar in town that has a whiskey selection rivaling Barrel 44’s and at significantly lower prices? The Glennfiddich 18 year was $10, Oban and a few others were $9, and most of the other good stuff at $7 or $8. And did I mention that during happy hour all the liquors, even the good stuff, is $1 off?
The selection of other spirits at Novak’s is also very good. Every vodka you’d commonly look for was available (with tons of flavors of course), plus a few harder-to-find options like Effen (regular and cucumber) and Ultimat (a new and excellent Polish Vodka owned by the Patron Brand). Gin and tequila selections were pretty standard, as were the flavored liquor options, save one great find. Novak’s carries a spirit from Spain that I’d never seen before called Licor 43, named such for its 43 ingredients. When my friends and I were considering a what shot to get, the bartender suggested a “little beer” which is made with this amber colored-liquor and half and half floating on top. It did indeed look like a little beer, and, although skeptical, we gave it a try and were totally blown away. It tastes like the best French vanilla ice cream you’ve ever had melted down into a glass with some caramel, cinnamon, and other spices. It was really fantastic and maybe the best shot I’ve ever had. If you go in any time soon I can’t guarantee it will be available though. After everyone heard our reaction to the shot, myself and some other folks around the bar polished off almost all the Licor 43 they had on hand.
The beer selection at Novak’s is pretty standard. There are five beers on tap: Blue Moon, Guinness, Bass Ale, Bud Light, and a seasonal Leinenkugel (currently Summer Shandy). There are also about 35 beers in the bottle, but nothing terribly interesting or unusual. Most of the bottled beer is priced at $3 or $4. They always offer one canned beer for a dollar all day, every day (currently Busch Lite but I’m told PBR will be back in the rotation at some point as well). There is, surprisingly, a wine selection as well: the reds are Yellowtail Shiraz and Merlot, and Red Creek Cabernet. The white wine choices are Chateau Ste Michelle Riesling, Clos du Bois Chardonnay, Ecco Domani Pinot Grigio, and Mondavi White Zinfandel.
The only food offerings are free popcorn from a machine in the corner, plus free pizza from Papa Joe’s starting at 5pm on Fridays until it runs out. Other specials include 5 for $10 domestic buckets from Sunday through Thursday, and $3 grape and cherry bombs all day every day. Happy hour runs from 3-9pm on weekdays, and features $1.50 bottles of Bud, Bud Lite, Miller Lite, and Coors Light, plus $1 off all other drinks. Entertainment at Novak’s includes a really great jukebox (huge variety of all kinds of music), two pool tables ($1 a game), and a few bar-top games that are 3 plays for $1, not to mention the roof-top patio and the cigarette machine (entertainment by themselves for some folks).
The most entertaining thing about Novak’s however, is without doubt the staff. There are five employees there: Jenny, Rebecca, Sara, Annie, and the manager, Jason. That’s it, so when you return after your first visit you’ll be almost guaranteed a familiar friendly face. The whole staff seems very competent, friendly, and laid-back, and they really make Novak’s a pleasurable place to hang out and have a drink. So just for the friendly people and one of the only douche bag-free crowds in the area alone, Novak’s is worth a try. Add in the fantastic bourbon, Scotch, and drink selections, the rooftop patio, and the pool tables and you’ll have even more reasons to go. Plus, unlike many of the bars in this area, your drink will be served in a real glass by a smiling bartender whoknows their job well.