Might be open. Might not be. Hard to tell.
Trendy neighborhoods inevitably wrestle with area originals, the bars and restaurants that took a chance before an area was cleaned up perpetually straddling the line between staying put and erasure by rampant redevelopment. St. James Tavern is one such Italian Village anchor just north of downtown Columbus, its doors opened when the area was still actually divey, a far cry from the collection of breweries and food halls that today makes up one of the more upscale city destinations.
Owner Michelle Hill opened the St. James Tavern doors in 1996, put in charge of the business by her family while she was still in college at Ohio State. The building, purchased by her father reportedly from a retired postman, at that time housed Lee’s Ten-O-Two dive bar. When Hill graduated in 1999, she purchased a majority share in the business and has remained at its helm ever since.
Hill’s immediate priority was creating a space that served as a counterpoint to sports bars caked with televisions with digital jukeboxes blaring from every angle. At one time, St. James Tavern featured a pair of televisions but as they broke, they weren’t replaced and the space sits today television-free. The jukebox is digital in the sense that a 1995 sedan is still a car, the company that built it no longer officially servicing the model. All songs were hand-picked by Hill and exist on a hard drive connected to the device (a lone backup serves as the only failsafe).
Italian Village has transformed significantly during the reign of St. James Tavern as the area’s signature dive bar, nearby brewery Seventh Son building a large complex that spurred significant nearby investment and serves as one of the area’s anchors today. Recently opened Budd Dairy Hall across the street from Seventh Son adds to Columbus’ stable of trendy multi-vendor food halls and Fox in the Snow down the street is one of the more hipster-friendly cafes in the city. But these are all new developments, the area significantly rougher in 1996, a testament to St. James Tavern’s no-frills, neighborhood vibe and its ability to endure.
The road has not come without challenges, of course, a fire putting the bar out of commission for two months in 2017 and then the COVID pandemic that prompted the closure of St. James Tavern for over two years. While dark during the pandemic, Hill used the time to her advantage, resurfacing the bar counter, wood floors and pool table and adding a new awning and paint job to the St. James Tavern exterior. The result is a refreshed look that preserves the space’s classic layout and friendly atmosphere.
At a passing glance, the space might feel like a boarded-up, hollowed-out used-to-be-something structure, the freshly painted walls still largely bare, a short set of steps leading to the bar’s front door flanked by a stark metal railing. But the interior provides stark contrast to the simple exterior, the welcoming aura of dive bar wood paneling pervasive throughout the space. A long bar lines the north end of St. James Tavern, a row of bar chairs supported by another handful of high-top tables distributed throughout this main room. The decorations here are minimalist by dive bar standards, a few mirrored beer signs here, a Spuds Mackenzie sighting there.
Notable is the On Tap menu scrawled on a black dry erase board, a rotating set of specialties in line with the bar’s motto of “No Crap on Tap.” That craft-friendly decree dates back to the bar’s 1996 opening, putting St. James Tavern well ahead of the craft beer renaissance as a bit of a trailblazer in that sense. Domestic favorites are all available, of course, but a set of 13 taps provides microbrew variety. The connection between St. James Tavern and its supplying breweries so strong that immediately after the bar’s 2017 fire, two dozen local breweries held a benefit to support the St. James Tavern staff while the business was closed for repairs.
Owner Michelle Hill executed her vision of a neighborhood bar built for conversation expertly in the way St. James Tavern came together at a time when a craft beer-friendly, anti-television dive bar was certainly not a proposition for guaranteed success. And yet St. James Tavern qualifies as an Italian Village original, an anchor to what has become one of Columbus’ most diverse and beer-friendly districts.