Gem on the Columbus outskirts.
Every story about the Dolphin Lounge starts with the phrase “I’ve always driven past that place.” That kind of phrasing is usually a positive signal of the quality of an overlooked dive bar and the Dolphin Lounge, just outside Columbus, is no exception. Like some other Columbus dive bar gems, notably the Ruckmoor Lounge, the Dolphin Lounge sits on the perimeter of the city, just outside of the highway loop that encircles Columbus. Its location hides an absolute dive bar escape, and an unexpected one at that.
The sign does play spoiler a bit, bold red lettering over a nondescript brick façade, a dolphin carrying a guitar (of course) centered over the doorway. Take away the parking lot and the building looks like grandma’s house in a forgotten Midwestern downtown neighborhood, a low building with a handful of windows built with not red brick, but that pale brown brick that almost blends into the ground beneath.
But perhaps not like grandma’s house, the space unfolds into one of Columbus’ dive bar hidden gems, an open space that features immediate visual appeal within its many nooks and crannies. The bar itself is of the sunken variety, low seating peering over the edge to bartenders standing a few feet below sea level, as it were. The bar runs the length of one of the bar’s short walls, winding to the point that it wraps behind bartenders, offering 360 degree views of Miller High Life distribution.
Lava lamps are perched strategically along the bar, accentuating both the universally low lighting and the illuminated dolphin (of course) perched above a shake mixing machine. This reviewer’s most recent trip didn’t involve any kind of blended frozen concoction, but there may be no better indicator to their availability than a glittery blue dolphin perched upon the appropriate machine. Not to be outshone by the frozen drink selection, bags of Jello shots, that’s right, bags, were on special during a recent visit at 12 for $10 (a steal).
A handful of tables surround the bar before giving way to a barrier of sorts, a collection of wooden pillars that resemble the spokes in your grandmother’s (this is her house remember) staircase banister. Lines of chairs make for a window-like experience, useful for those that want at least a mental barrier between their drinking and the real-life reality show that is dive bar karaoke.
And it is in this room where much of Dolphin Lounge’s magic originates, the Columbus dive bar’s small stage playing host to a Blues Jam every Monday since 1984 as well as open mic and karaoke nights. The long running nature of Dolphin Lounge’s commitment to live music proved compelling enough to draw in none other than Eric Clapton according to Nancy Ebright, mother of current owner and operator Lori Ebright.
This musical space features a collection of low tables facing the only renovated portion of the bar to this reviewer’s estimation, the stage. A slightly out of place, modern farmhouse-style wall provides the backdrop for both karaoke and bands that roll through the Dolphin Lounge. Vertical wood paneling quickly takes over, lining the rest of the larger room and providing a different kind of backdrop, this time to the arcade bowling and dart machines of the world.
In total, there’s something a little bit magical about entering some kind of grandma-tinged karaoke portal ringed in wooden pillars and paneling that sits about 5 minutes off of the highway exit. Karaoke night or not, the space is an expansive tribute to everything that makes Midwestern dive bars amazing, from the relentless commitment to a theme (I didn’t name every dolphin to be found within) to pricing so aggressive that even the most ardent anti-jello shot enthusiast might be tempted to partake. Inside and out, grandma would be proud of the Dolphin Lounge, one of the great and criminally overlooked Columbus dive bars.