The scenic region just outside of Columbus is more than memorable hikes and Instagram-ready waterfalls
Just a half hour or so from Columbus, Ohio's Hocking Hills region, noted for its dramatic caves, miniature gorges, scenic waterfalls, and miles of fine hiking trails, is one of the most beautiful natural areas in the Midwest—beautiful enough to attract more than four million visitors each year, it is said, mostly during the warmer months.
The first time I encountered the region, on one of those perfect summer afternoons, I wasn’t much concerned with anything other than the natural beauty, ending the day with dinner in Columbus; the second and third visits, same thing—part of the region’s appeal is just how little of the manmade there is to see, both in and around the incredible Hocking Hills State Park.
The fourth visit, however, I planned to stay awhile, and even the most committed nature lover can’t dine out on the scenery forever. Eventually, I’d need to eat, something good hopefully, which meant that eventually, I was going to run into Matt Rapposelli—that, or at least one of his menus.
Since the early 1980’s, Rapposelli has been an advocate for Southeast Ohio, and one of the star chefs in a region he refers to as the “northern line of biscuit fanaticism.” He has embraced life on the doorstep of Appalachia, celebrating the ramps and the morels of the springtime, cornmeal-dusted catfish and lush fruit cobblers; in recent years, he opened one of the better casual restaurants in the Hocking Hills, Lake Hope Lodge; today, he’s Executive Chef at the Inn & Spa at Cedar Falls.
In more than thirty years, Rapposelli says he has seen dramatic changes to the restaurant scene—unfortunately, he says, he seen too many of the region’s classic restaurants fall by the wayside. Still, he says, there’s cause for optimism—with the proximity to Columbus, increasingly notable for its dining scene, and being bookended by two very different, rather sizable towns that have more and more to offer—Athens and Lancaster—things are starting to pick up, particularly in the smaller, but also quite busy town of Logan, roughly twenty minutes by car from the region’s most iconic trails. With Rapposelli’s expert guidance, I’ve compiled a list of the best (and most interesting) places to eat and drink, once you’ve worn yourself out hiking on the trails—something you should seriously consider doing this summer. Or fall. Or anytime, really.
The Inn & Spa at Cedar Falls
You could drive past the region’s best hotel one hundred times without even blinking—the real magic is in the well-crafted cottage and yurt accommodations, expertly distributed in the surrounding field and forest, all within walking distance of Kindred Spirits, the region’s best restaurant, where Rapposelli has been in charge of the kitchen for about a year now. Originally, you dined in the 1840’s log cabin that is now the entrance and bar area—the diminutive, adjacent kitchen remains, well, the kitchen, but they’re managing to turn out straightforward, quite memorable dinners, using local ingredients where possible. A perfectly-cooked bistro steak comes out topped quite liberally with a gorgonzola and thyme cream sauce, while an absolutely massive (and delicious) recent special of blackened prime rib really ought to find a permanent home on the menu. If there's cobbler for dessert, order the cobbler. Breakfast is served here, as well—in high season, they do lunch, too.
Lake Hope Lodge
Besides a dinner at the Inn, this casual lakeside spot (with a great deck) ought to be your next stop; it was here that Rapposelli previously worked overtime to raise the bar for local dining, sourcing as much as he could from the surrounding area, and the menu still reflects that extra effort. Steaks from Ohio State’s own ranch, all-natural chicken from the Amish-operated Gerber Poultry, smoked Ohio Turkey and the like form the backbone of the offering; look for fried catfish, a delicious salad of romaine lettuce, hickory-smoked brisket and blue cheese, try the very good housemade chili, and order a side of the hand-cut French fries. They’re open for both lunch and dinner, and there’s a Sunday brunch buffet.
Grandma Faye’s Grocery
From thin-crust pizzas made to order to peanut butter fudge, toasted subs to all the ice cream you could ever want, this rambling roadside oasis just west of Old Man’s Cave has been something of Hocking Hills destination—for generations now—for a reason. “It’s not even really about the food,” says Rapposelli, who says that whatever you’re looking for, it’s somewhere in there—even if the people who work there sometime need some time to find it. “It’s the Vermont Country Store of Appalachia,” he says.
Down in Logan, the Olde Dutch Restaurant remains one of the more popular places to eat for visitors to the region, serving simple Amish-style cooking both off the menu and on the buffet, but Rapposelli suggests trying this modest market next door, which is actually Amish-owned, he says. Like most markets in Amish country, you’ll find an array of cold salads, and a deli that can make pretty much anything in the store into a sandwich.
The historic downtown area of Logan is just starting to come alive, says Rapposelli, but there are some real gems here, already—this classic donut shop is one of his favorites.
While their hours tend to be limited more to the weekends, this biker bar in the rustic hamlet of Upper Bloomingville, less than ten minutes from some of the most popular waterfalls in the area, is a great find for made-from-scratch pizzas.