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Randy and Tina Corbin: The couple behind some of the city’s best casual concepts

By
From the Winter 2013 edition

Randy and Tina Corbin have been running restaurants in Columbus for more than a decade and recently opened two in one year. Each of their five restaurants is distinctly different from the others and draws just as diverse of a crowd. And the dynamic duo doesn’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon.

Randy Corbin was all in, but Tina Corbin wasn’t so sure. As they walked through the 46-year-old neighborhood bar and restaurant, Randy got more excited about the prospect of owning Club 185. The place was perfect. Nestled in German Village, Club 185 had everything he wanted in a restaurant: the history, the location, the regulars. It was even on a corner. Sure, it needed some cleaning up and a new paint job. But they could do that themselves.

“This is a big step,” Tina said hesitantly, looking around at the dark, closed-down space. “I don’t want to buy a business. What if it doesn’t go well?”

“This will be great,” Randy replied. “We’ve got to do this.”

Three local investors had purchased the building housing Club 185 and approached the newlyweds about running it in 2000. The Corbins both had plenty of restaurant experience—Randy as a bartender and manager and Tina as a server. After some convincing, Tina agreed to take the reins of Club 185, which they reopened later that year.

“I trusted [Randy’s] judgment,” Tina says. “He’s an incredibly hard worker, so I’m like, ‘All right, I’m on board. Let’s try it.’ And it was the best decision that we ever made—or one of them.”

More than a decade later, the Corbins are still running Club 185 (they bought the building from the investors last year and are now the sole proprietors) as well as four other Central Columbus restaurants—The Rossi Bar & Kitchen, Little Palace, El Camino and Philco. The serial restaurateurs have been on a roll lately, opening Philco in June just a year after they introduced El Camino to Downtown. But it’s taken a few failures and successes for them to realize they have a niche.

“It seems like we do well with a casual atmosphere, high-quality food and a place that’s kind of somewhere between a restaurant and a bar but you can’t categorize it,” Tina says. “I don’t want anyone to ever walk in our restaurant and be like, ‘Oh, I’m not dressed appropriately to be in here.’ ”

Randy and Tina met at a restaurant. A native of Buffalo, Ohio, Tina moved to Columbus to study fine arts at CCAD and worked as a cocktail waitress at One Nation restaurant on top of the Nationwide building Downtown in 1992. Randy and his friends would come to the rooftop bar for the buffet and happy hour, and Tina would kick them out after last call.

Randy is from Marion, Ohio, and came to Columbus to try his luck at Ohio State. But after three years of not knowing what he wanted to study, he decided to focus on what he was good at: bartending.

“The passion was there to start my own place,” he says. “Everyone would constantly be like, ‘You need to think about that next step. You’ve already got this down.’ ”

After revamping Club 185 in 2000, the Corbins soon started opening restaurants in the Short North. They bought another neighborhood bar, the Press Grill, in 2002 and in 2004 opened The Rossi Bar & Kitchen in a corner building previously home to Roadhouse Annie’s.

They worked well together. Tina used her artistic background to contribute to the creative side of the business, while Randy handled the numbers. Together, they created the concepts for each new venture.

But they started feeling stretched, working days at Club 185 and The Rossi and late nights at the Press Grill. Plus, they had their eye on Granville Pizza in Granville. So when they received an offer for the Press Grill in 2007, they jumped on the chance to sell the bar and soon after bought Granville Pizza and renamed it the Del Mar Restaurant and Lounge.

The Del Mar was a new experience for the Corbins. It was outside of Columbus, at the foot of a hill in a small college town 23 minutes away. But when they were making their rounds to each of their restaurants every day, 23 minutes started to feel like a world away.

“I think we conveniently forget about [the Del Mar],” Randy says. “It was outside 270. That’s what we always say: ‘We’re better inside 270; don’t go outside.’ ”

“You don’t get the same eclectic mix of lifestyles that you do Downtown,” Tina says.

The Corbins sold The Del Mar in 2010 and bought and revamped Little Palace later that year. They then opened El Camino in June 2012 and reincarnated Phillip’s Coney Island as Philco last June.

Although all five of their restaurants follow their good-food, casual-atmosphere philosophy, each has a distinctly different personality—from The Rossi’s classic big-city bar feel to the hole-in-the-wall, dive-bar atmosphere at El Camino—and each draws old-timers, 20-somethings and everyone in between.

“They have great taste,” says Andrew Smith, executive chef at The Rossi and Philco. “They’re not really a one-trick-pony kind of company. They just seem to have a knack for it.”

Coty Hildebrand, regional manager for the Corbin restaurants, says part of the reason they’ve been so successful is their ability to bridge the past and the present.

“It’s neat because they take these places and find somewhere that has history and roots and say, ‘How can we update this but still keep a nod to the past?’ ” Hildebrand says.

Sometimes, it’s through decor. The Corbins have worked with the same architect, William Hugus in German Village, to design the interior of each of their restaurants. Hugus knows they have a taste for vintage, so he helps them choose elements to highlight the history of each location, like Philco’s sleek booths and bar chairs that hark back to its days as a popular diner.

Other times, it’s through food. They kept at least one menu staple at each of the restaurants they revamped. At Club 185, it was the hamburger. At Little Palace, it was the gyro. And at Philco, it was the Coney dog.

“We try to bridge it with that, maybe that one thing,” Tina says. “So there is one thing familiar. It’s a trust thing between us and customers.”

Another aspect of the Corbin brand is their attention to detail, staff members say. A few years ago, the company that supplied the beef for the Club 185 hamburgers went out of business.

“It was the same burgers they were getting from them in 1954,” Hildebrand says. “So that was a big deal. We ate burgers for a week, every morning until we found another company that was going to produce the exact same thing that could go off without a hitch—that nobody would notice.”

Smith had a similar experience when they were creating a Coney dog for the Philco menu.

“It was kind of sickening how many hot dogs we tried,” he says.

Says Hildebrand: “It’s annoying for me, but it’s also, I think, what makes these places, is those little details. It makes it unique, and it’s about good quality.”

Andy Patton, a regular at Club 185 and the Little Palace, says customers and other restaurant owners notice the Corbins’ attention to detail.

“They’ve made everybody else up their game a little bit to keep up with them,” he says.

Says Smith: “They seem to be able to find a niche that the city needs that nobody else can find, like a diner that serves breakfast all day in the Short North. That’s why they will continue to be successful and help the city progress as far as food goes.”

Betsy Pandora, executive director of the Short North Alliance, says the Corbins’ work has extended beyond just creating restaurants with good food.

“I think they’re part of a bigger picture of small businesses and retailers here and have done a great job in building the brand of the Short North Arts District as a creative hub,” says Pandora, who names The Rossi as one of her favorite restaurants. “They seem to be really creative and committed, and they’ve certainly been major players in the development here in the Short North and around Columbus.”

Meanwhile, Randy’s looking forward. He’s hoping to eventually do something similar to The Rossi in German Village, and he has his sights set on an old building in an up-and-coming area in the Short North. If they open a business there, he says, it will be a bar along the lines of Club 185 and the Little Palace but built on another new concept.

But before they get that far, he may have some more convincing to do.

“I always say, ‘No more!’ ” Tina says with a laugh.

“Randy thrives on building these businesses, and Tina does, too,” Hildebrand says. “God knows, I’m sure they’re not done.”