$6 gets you a chicken salad sandwich and a High Life, after all.
Cheap drinks, long history, bathroom graffiti, these are all signs of a great dive bar, but there may be no better signal than a vintage sign. Lisska Bar & Grill in Columbus features what amounts to the Bat Signal of dive bar signs, as retro a contraption as possible mounted to a building that looks like it could have been built as part of FDR’s New Deal. In a part of town that most residents of Columbus might only know as “kind of near the airport,” Lisska is equal parts dive bar and diner, a throwback in every possible way that can trace its roots back to the 1930s.
The sign is a masterpiece, “Lisska” and “BAR” prominently displayed in neon, a row of light bulbs weaving through the display and a (sadly not functioning) clock on top to cap the presentation. The fact that the sign is attached to a building with the most basic possible color palette only accentuates the draw. Lisska sits on a fairly busy road, but does so in a bit of a dead zone between a nearby highway and sprawling, old Columbus residential neighborhoods.
Inside, through a small foyer that includes a pay phone, of all things, the space looks at first glance like a convenience store cubbyhole, a place to grab a lotto ticket and run. But a few extra steps and the space unfolds into a faded, lime green dive bar paradise across bar, diner counter, low tables and what looks to be a very “miscellaneous” back room. The bar just inside the front door runs for only a handful of stools, supported by what looks to be a very old wooden, mirrored cabinet displaying a limited liquor selection. While there are no tap beers at Lisska, the can & bottle selection runs the gamut of usual suspects, always paired with the suggestion of a cold glass as accompaniment.
Beyond the bar, a long, low diner counter dominates the rest of Lisska’s footprint, the kind of counter you’re envisioning by that description alone, the quintessential location where a tuna salad sandwich or a grilled cheese might be served (Lisska offers both). Accentuating the diner feel is the lighted pie cabinet just next to the bar featuring a rotating dessert selection. It is easy to feel the weight of Lisska’s 1930’s-era history through the look and feel of the diner area alone.
A flattop sits under an old school plastic-lettered menu board with prices so low it is a fair question whether the sign is an active menu or a vintage homage to the past. When numbers are thrown around like “Meatloaf $3.15” and “Egg Sandwich $2.20,” the question is certainly a fair one. Happily, this is an active diner and though it’s sometimes unclear where all of these ingredients are even stored in the limited space available, orders spring to life as they trickle in.
Small wood and laminate booths line the wall opposite the diner counter, and though they’re certainly clean, they also look like they could be building original. Supporting that conjecture is the coat rocks interspersed among the booths, the kinds of hooks it’s easy to envision supporting a trench coat or two back in the day. The rest of the first interior room is a bit of a hodge podge, a collection of low tables and chairs for active drinkers ringed by all manner of randomness, from an old tube television set to abandoned office equipment.
A secondary space sits in back, more a staging area for the diner counter than anything else, piles of cleaning supplies, used egg cartons and densely packed, nondescript equipment strewn about. The bathroom resembles not a dive bar but a high school from the 1960s, an industrial feel that I half expected to result in a powdered soap dispenser and a lecture from a gym teacher.
All told, Lisska has an argument for Columbus’ most authentic dive bar, a 1930’s dive / diner hybrid that looks and feels exactly as it must have almost a century ago. From the impeccable sign to the affordable, down-to-earth beer & menu offerings, Lisska Bar & Grill offers not just a dive bar experience, but a vintage American experience true to its Midwestern roots.