The Refectory Restaurant & Bistro: A Pursuit of Excellence
Writer: Shawnie Kelley
Photography: James Henthorn
Refectory /rəˈfekt(ə)rē/ A room used for communal meals, especially in a religious or academic institution.
The Refectory is fittingly named. The Columbus food institution is housed in a mid-19th Century church building, with a circa 1918 schoolhouse addition. In 2016, The Refectory celebrated 40 years of dazzling Columbus with exceptional contemporary American and classic French fare. Owner and CEO, Kamal Boulos has been involved for all but one of those years, building the restaurant, wine cellar and its reputation from the ground up. His story is one of hard work, gut instincts, earnest relationships - and a little bit of luck.
While working at Mohonk Mountain House in upstate New York at the tender age of 14, Boulos knew that he was meant to be in the hospitality industry. Serving as an incubator for his work ethic, the job laid the cornerstone for an attention to detail that has carried through his life. By the time Boulos purchased The Refectory in 1991, he had already served as its Assistant Manager and General Manager; helped to renovate the former church space into another dining room; expanded the kitchen to accommodate the additional seating; and started to build a wine cellar. In each case, Boulos committed himself - and his team, to excellence.
Boulos attributes much of the restaurant’s success to the aligned values and longevity of its key players. The current Business Manager and General Manager have been on board since 1979, while several of the wait staff and bartenders have decades under their belts. By surrounding himself with people who share his philosophies, and approaching his work as more marathon than sprint, Boulos has orchestrated a consistently brilliant, accomplished dining experience.
Only a decade into his position at The Refectory, Boulos dreamed of building a world-class wine cellar. Studying the highly-acclaimed (now defunct) Maisonette in Cincinnati, he set out to transform a humble metal locker containing only a dozen wines into a superbly-chosen collection of 1,500. His efforts were realized in 1991 when The Refectory was awarded Wine Spectator’s most coveted Grand Award. The significance of this accolade must be underscored by noting that only 93 restaurants in the world have been given this honor, which Boulos maintained for a subsequent 13 years. Wine Spectator’s new review and rating system bestows the Best of Award of Excellence to Boulos’s slightly smaller, but equally impressive cellar, for its breadth and depth of offerings. It remains the only Columbus restaurant to hold this award.
Once Boulos achieved his dream cellar, he determined the food must match the caliber of his wines. He made the acquaintance of a French chef; eventually luring him away from Colorado’s top rated French restaurant in Vail. Once again, Boulos’s gut instincts would combine with a determined, focused approach to seal a successful destiny for The Refectory. Boulos wanted exquisite food and he got it.
Chef Richard Blondin, a native of Lyon, France has been the Refectory’s Executive Chef since 1992. His classical training shines through in meticulously crafted, seasonal creations, masterful sauces, and artful plating. Not only does Chef Blondin have the ability to turn ordinary ingredients into an extraordinary meal, he is also a genius pastry chef. Blondin earned his pastry stripes at Paul Bocuse’s Michelin three-star restaurant in Lyon, so it’s no wonder his Bocuse-inspired crème brûlée is otherworldly.
From the dinner menu, classic cold and hot hors d’oeuvres are brilliantly interpreted and offered alongside creative small plates, soups, and salads with ingredients sourced from local farmers or harvested from the Chef’s on-site kitchen garden. The Refectory’s escargot layered with mushrooms and garlic parsley butter, veal sweetbread lasagna, terrines, mousselines and tians make for tough dinner decisions. The mussel soupe with white wine, shallots, and leeks in a saffron cream is impossibly delicious. The well-rounded dinner options span the spectrum of meat, game, poultry, seafood, and shellfish, including a sublime roasted duck, bouillabaisse-style monkfish and shrimp, and unexpected entrées featuring antelope and quail.
Anyone in search of a lighter meal or looking for an introduction to French food will appreciate the popular Bistro Menu. The $25 three-course selection changes every few weeks and is served nightly in the lounge. In the summer, enjoy dinner al-fresco on the patio with live music. The Refectory also hosts a variety of special events and intimate evenings with music, such as Jazz Dinner Nights, ProMusica Chamber Music Series, and Opera Columbus. Themed wine and food pairings like “A Night in Lyon” showcases Chef Blondin’s home region and every July 14, the restaurant celebrates France’s independence with a Bastille Day menu.
Although the restaurant has received a laundry list of local awards: Best Fine Dining, Best Romantic Restaurant, and Best Wine Cellar, do not wait for a special occasion to have dinner here. Refectory from the Latin, refectorium, means “a place one goes to be restored.” The food, wine, atmosphere, and hospitality come together at The Refectory to embody one of Columbus’s most divine and restorative dining adventures.
This article ran in the Jan/Feb 2016 issue of Sophisticated Living Columbus. Check out The Refectory recipe for Warm Apple Tarte with Rosemary that ran in a special section of the May/Jun 2021 issue here: https://www.sophisticatedlivingcolumbus.com/post/bestofdiningrecipes