Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Jai Lai Restaurant

The Jai Lai Restaurant began as a small café at 581 North High Street, corner of Poplar, just a few days before Prohibition ended in 1933. The restaurant moved to 1421 Olentangy River Road in 1955, which, in 1997, became the Buckeye Hall of Fame Café. In the beginning it was a saloon to sell whiskey and beer, legally, by the drink in front of its atmospheric bar brought northward from an old southside saloon. The beautiful wooden bar went to Little Brothers after the second Jai Lai closed. The High Street entrance was a recessed doorway. “Genuine Turtle Soup” was a sign that stood by the doorway, but it was just a come-on. Everyone was so excited by the repeal of Prohibition that no one cared about soup. Opposite the bar, with its stools, the café had a few tables and chairs. A strip of new linoleum ran down the floor like a highway of refinement. Jasper E. “Jap” Wottring had pulled off the opening of the new saloon by borrowing $1500. Previously, Wottring had a small saloon at 45 West Spruce Street, his partner in that endeavor was Fritz Wentzel, Flytown’s bare-knuckle fighter. The saloon was called “The Old Vienna Café.” Later, the Jai Lai became known for its beef stew for lunch, and its prime rib for dinner. Fancy décor ran to shawls, gourds, black ironwork, moose heads, aquariums, and stucco Spanish arches. The city’s arena for boxing, Haft’s Acre, was right behind the Jai Lai, so famous boxers of the day were known to frequent the Jai Lai’s booths, as well as visiting actors. Woody Hayes and Ben Hayes had certain nights at their special tables, never to overlap. Hired as a host was “Chappie” Geygan; he grew up in Sacred Heart Parish and played baseball for the major leagues. August Hefner, one of the professional waiters, would lecture in the parking lot on international politics. It was named the Jai Lai after the Jai Lai Club of New Orleans. Anyone who was anyone in Columbus wanted to be seen there. At one time Tom Scully was the inspector for the Columbus Police, and he was prone to say, “If I want a detective in the afternoon, all I have to do is dial that phone at the back end of the Jai Lai Bar.” Christine Hayes

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