Joshua Dalton works. The chef and proprietor of two, soon to be three, central Ohio restaurants, he’s the kind of business owner who looks forward to Thanksgiving, because it’ll afford him the opportunity to deep clean an empty restaurant by himself. Starting with 1808 American Bistro in Delaware, Ohio—about twenty miles north of Columbus—Dalton then opened Veritas Tavern a few doors down in 2012. Veritas Tavern very quickly became one of the highest-rated restaurants in Ohio, topping yearly local Best Of lists and garnering lots of glowing reviews.
Dalton and his team transplanted Veritas (sans the Tavern bit) from its Delaware county home to downtown Columbus in late 2017 and dropped the “Tavern” bit. It opened right around Christmas with relatively little fanfare. The new restaurant occupies two levels in the circa 1917 Citizens Building at the corner of Gay and High Streets. The upstairs bar is situated in the lobby of the former bank that once occupied the site, with dramatic vaulted ceilings and beautifully restored hand-painted friezes. The restaurant is just below street level and seats just shy of 75 people in a modern and comfortable den-like environment. The kitchen, designed by Dalton and custom-built to his fantasies, is encased in glass and occupies the rear third of the restaurant; there’s a fantastic counterpoise at play between the quiet bustle of the dining room and the frenetic, deliberate work going on in the kitchen just beyond the glass.
Dalton and I sat down recently over a brace of Italian ales and lagers, tasting various possibilities for the beer menu at the forthcoming Speck, an Italian restaurant that will soon occupy the former Veritas Tavern space. We talked about beer, food, being overlooked in Ohio and stepping up your game.
How are things going in the new space?
There’s a lot we need to work on down here, a lot of detail we need to tighten up. The training overall, the knowledge, getting the kitchen into an easy flow—it’s a lot. I need to determine how I spend my time, between here, 1808, Speck, the office. It’s hard to give anything my full attention. A lot of our success is going to come from me figuring out how to run my shit, manage my time. The success of the restaurant can kind of flow from that.
How do you split your time these days?
I’m about five days [in] downtown [Columbus], two days in Delaware. 1808 is pretty self-sufficient, but the things you notice when you’re not around is the little shit, the fucking crumbs in the corner. [My team] does all the big stuff, but no one pays attention to the details you do yourself. Whenever I walk in, all I see is everything that’s been overlooked.
If I listened to every single fucking person who had something to say about how I should run my business, what I should serve or what I should cook, it would be a big jumble of bullshit.”
What’s your favorite thing about the new Veritas?
The kitchen. The design takes a lot of inspiration from Grace in Chicago. The first time I saw that kitchen I said, ‘Holy fuck, I didn’t know a kitchen could be this pretty.’ I designed this kitchen with a lot of what I saw there in mind. Our stove is different—we use a Hestan, they’re out of Anaheim, maybe two-or-three-years-old as a company. I spent years designing this kitchen, and if I could I’d do it all over again, I’d change a lot. It’s supposed to be very functional, but there are always possible improvements you see after the fact.
What’s the reaction to the new Veritas been so far?
People are either criticizing or boosting your ego more than they should be. I feel like in this game you have to stay true to what you do, and not take in any outside noise. Because, ultimately, you have to keep the business open. If I listened to every single fucking person who had something to say about how I should run my business, what I should serve or what I should cook, it would be a big jumble of bullshit. You gotta eliminate as much outside noise as you can and be self-critical, and that’s all you can do. I don’t read any shit about us.
So you’re not reading your Yelp reviews?
Criticism from somebody who knows the business from working the business means a lot more to me. If a chef of any caliber—from Waffle House to a three Michelin star restaurant—were to critique me, I’m way more okay with it. They wake up, work in a hot kitchen all day long, if they wanna critique me, so be it. But what the fuck does a lawyer know about being in a kitchen, or what it takes to make it work?
Where do you see Columbus fitting into the larger national conversation about food?
There are amazing things about Columbus, but people need to be realistic about the food scene. There are some great restaurants here, but, as a whole, we’re not on the level of some other cities that are much smaller than us: Louisville, Nashville, Charleston, Savannah, Birmingham. We’re the fifteenth largest city in the nation, but I don’t think our food is in the Top 20 nationwide. There’s two ways to change that: We have to educate the diners and we have to step up our quality as a whole. People need to self-evaluate and think realistically about where we’re at and what we need to do to change it.
What do you think needs to change?
I think we need a bigger emphasis on education for culinary professionals. My guys travel a lot with me, so they see a lot more, and when you see a lot more it puts everything in perspective: We’re not that great. Last year I went to Manresa, Noma, Gavin Kaysen’s place—you go to places like that and it’s very humbling. You walk away realizing you have some shit to work on, you need to go home and read, better yourself.
Why do you think Columbus food is third in line behind Ohio’s two other major cities?
I don’t know if it’s a demographic thing, or maybe it’s their geographic proximity to other cities feeding them inspiration—Cincinnati isn’t too far from Louisville and Nashville, Cleveland feeds off Detroit and the rest of Michigan. But, ultimately, I don’t know why Columbus is further down the list. Columbus is surrounded by pretty heavily rural areas without necessarily distinct culinary traditions—we seem to really like meat and potatoes here, and that dominates a lot of what’s going on in Columbus food. So you get a lot of people like me who play it safe but try to edge things ahead gradually.
Why do you think Ohio is so consistently left out of the James Beard awards and recognition of that kind generally?
We’re in the Great Lakes region for the James Beard awards: That includes Ohio, Indiana, Michigan and Illinois—so Chicago dominates the list every year. Chicago should be a separate region just like New York is. They have enough restaurants to be their own world and the rest of the region gets overlooked—rightfully so, we’re being put up against some of the best food in the country out in Chicago.
But I also think the James Beard Awards are pretty political. Like, it was amazing for Ohio a few years ago when [Jonathan] Sawyer won, but that was also the same year Curtis Duffy got his third Michelin star. You’re telling me that someone getting their third Michelin star isn’t going to objectively beat out any restaurant in Cleveland? It was Sawyer’s time. I dunno exactly what you have to do to get recognized or how you get on the map for those people. We’re a flyover city; it’s really hard to get on the map with any national publications. Cincy does sometimes, Cleveland does sometimes, but it’s never Columbus. A lot of it’s networking too, and I don’t fuckin’ know anybody.
Where does beer fit into your approach to food?
At 1808, beer is obviously a much bigger part of it. 1808 opened in 2008 with 24 draught lines and went to 48 after a couple years. The only other Columbus spot with a beer list like that at the time was Bodega, [an influential and long-lived craft beer bar in the city’s Short North neighborhood], and there was nothing like that up north—it was an easy way to separate what we were doing from everybody else. Now today, I wouldn’t put 48 draught lines in anywhere, ever—there’s just too much beer, too many draught lines everywhere, and you’ll never make an impression with just quantity.
At Veritas, we knew we were never going to do draught and that the beer would be overshadowed to a certain extent by the wine and spirits programs, but we still wanted to have beers we could stand behind—food-friendly beers, without a big focus on IPAs or overly hopped ales. I love a sour IPA or an hoppy beer with Brett, like this one [ the Del Ducato Vielle Ville saison]. Having a little acidity helps the balance for me, especially in the context of food.
Drink quality, not locality—just because something’s local, doesn’t mean it’s good.”
What’s your favorite beer?
[Bosteels] Tripel Karmeliet. Easy.
Favorite shitty beer?
The Champagne of Beers, ice cold—to the point of being nearly frozen.
What do you think of the Columbus beer scene?
I don’t make it outside of this building very often, so I don’t know that I’m all that connected to it. I still have a lot of respect for some of the more established breweries who make good beer consistently. Locally I’d love to see more of a focus on quality and consistency. Drink quality, not locality—just because something’s local, doesn’t mean it’s good. I fuckin love Jackie O’s, but I feel like they’re on a different level from most of what’s going on around here. Columbus Brewing Company, too, when they stick to their guns are one of the best here.
Do you think beer has a long term place in fine dining?
I think so, but it’s hard to allocate resources to a beer program unless you want to make it a specific and major focus to a particular restaurant. If you have a big curated wine list, how do you pay for a somm and pay for a beer professional to run your beer program separately? I’d love to see people offering consulting services on beer programs, as long as it’s affordable. It’s impossible for most people to have a wine expert, a beer expert, a coffee expert. For most people, like me, I think they’d like to have a great beer program even if they’re not able to allocate a lot of money or share of mind to it.
I know, for my part, I’m glad things have kind of moved beyond the super-bitter, super-aggressive IPAs. Those are not food-friendly beers, for the most part, and when you have IPAs called things like ‘Palate Wrecker,’ that’s not something I’m interested in bringing into combination with my food. An amazing stout or Belgian or a sour has a lot more room to do interesting things with.