The burger is the move for a first visit, but find a Wednesday for a coney soon after.
Great dive bars hide in plain sight, that squat little building on a busy road you’ve passed about 100 times and maybe assumed was abandoned. Johnnie’s Tavern is one of Columbus’ great dive bars and fits that description perfectly, a flat, white building along a stretch of road known more for connecting parts of town than serving as a destination itself. That the only light comes in through opaque glass block windows only accentuates Johnnie’s dive bar status.
Johnnie’s Tavern sits in San Margherita, a little known part of Columbus between suburbs Upper Arlington and Hilliard. Nestled along a set of train tracks, the area was settled between 1880 and 1920 by Italian immigrants attracted by jobs at the nearby quarry. Today, development has claimed a number of original homes in the area, leaving Johnnie’s Tavern as one of the few landmarks left. A handful of vines can still be seen in the backyards of the few homes here, all planted by San Margherita’s founding families.
Johnnie’s Tavern came along in 1948, first opened as a grocery store before a wall was knocked out and the business pivoted to the bar and diner format seen today. The Columbus dive bar was founded by Dominic Lombardi, son to one of the founding San Margherita families. Ownership has stayed in the Lombardi family ever since, grandson Joe the current owner and operator. A poster of Dominic pouring what was once named the coldest beer in Columbus can be seen inside the bar.
Without going too much further, a bit of disambiguation is in order related to the Columbus dive bar scene. Two amazing establishments share the name Johnnie’s, one named Johnnie’s Glenn Avenue Grill in the Grandview neighborhood of Columbus, the other Johnnie’s Tavern, subject of this review. The Glenn Avenue Grill may be the best dive bar in the city, but Johnnie’s Tavern sits close behind. If calamity ensues and you end up at one meaning to visit the other, you’re well taken care of either way.
The space can look a little uninviting for a first-time visitor, a brick front wall giving way to painted white cinderblock that features only a side door with no markings as entry. But inside, the space makes it clear that this is a gathering point for anyone interested in a reasonably priced beer and a burger, booths ringing the outside of the space, tables in the center, the look of a diner with a low roof more than a dusty dive bar shut off from the world.
This Johnnie’s is well known for its burgers, a well-earned distinction spanning a good chunk of the decades the dive bar has been in business. The menu has expanded over the years beyond three items that made up the totality of the Johnnie’s Tavern menu for many years (fried bologna, a roast beef sandwich and the one-pound “superburger” still referred to on a sign out front), but the burger is still the heart of the Johnnie’s Tavern kitchen.
On this reviewer’s recent visit, an afternoon burger stop, children were part of a couple of the groups grabbing food at one of the low tables, which might sometimes be a bit of a turn off for a dive bar experience but here feels perfectly in tune with the local, neighborhood, grab a beer and watch the game vibe at Johnnie’s Tavern. The ceiling definitely feels a bit low, as mentioned, another element of the presentation that only heightens that feeling that we’re all huddled in here together, away from the world for a bit, particularly on a cold Ohio day.
Word of advice to first-timers, make sure the door closes behind you. This reviewer learned quickly that Johnnie’s is locked in a timeless battle with a cold draft that bursts through any gap in the aging door, meaning if you don’t close it, a local is going to have to get up and do it for you. The bar itself stretches one long wall of the space, surrounded by the previously mentioned booths and tables, a doorway to the kitchen in back just next to the bar. Behind, one of the more epic Schlitz beer lights this reviewer has ever seen hovers over the tap selection that expands beyond domestic dive bar favorites into a handful of Ohio-based craft selections.
The food menu does extend beyond burgers, though new visitors are encouraged to at least give a nod to what has gained Johnnie’s its food reputation over the years. Fried appetizers, a fried bologna sandwich that was pretty difficult to resist and coney’s served on Wednesdays only make up a few of the other menu highlights. It’s the kind of menu that instantly makes a place feel comfortable. If this is the kind of place that specializes in burgers, fries and fried bologna, it’s an easy mental leap to see it as an inviting place for a beer or five as well.
The walls aren’t necessarily thick with faded photographs and ancient decorations, but a handful of classic dive bar decoration elements can be seen along the wood paneling behind the bar. A black & white photo here, an interesting mural there, a beer can airplane suspended from the ceiling caps it off. And that really encapsulates Johnnie’s Tavern, a local spot built for locals, a welcoming dive bar experience hidden in plain sight along the side of a busy road that just happens to have some of the finest burgers in Columbus paired with an equally inviting environment.