Table Talk: Known for nightclubs, Corso shifts focus to restaurants and real estate

Gary Seman Jr.
ThisWeek group
Chris Corso, shown sitting in his Urban Chophouse restaurant, plans to open four bars and restaurants in the new AC Hotel by Marriott Columbus Downtown on Park Street.

When the AC Hotel by Marriott Columbus Downtown opened June 3 in the Park Street entertainment district, it reinforced owner Chris Corso’s desire to become a serious restaurateur and real-estate developer.

The 160-unit, 8-story hotel, built by local developer Continental Real Estate Cos., will have four Corso-owned food-and-drink destinations to open at a later date: a sports bar, a Latin-dining concept, a speakeasy-style bar and a "green bar" lush with plants and other foliage.

Corso, who owns the property, worked with the hotelier to preserve the brick façade of the previous buildings on the street while the hotel’s upper floors rip through the downtown Columbus skyline.

“Park Street is coming back full circle,” said Corso, the founder of Corso Ventures, which owns additional property west of the AC Hotel that is poised to become another hotel, residential housing or offices or a combination thereof.

But before his business went vertical, Corso was cutting his teeth in an emerging club scene.

Corso’s early nightclub portfolio, with former business partner Mike Gallicchio, had its share of critics.

With cool deportment, Corso sluffs off his rebel image but understands why others portray him that way.

“I would say we got a bad-boy image because we always pushed hard because we’re impatient,” said the Sandusky native, now 50. “We want Columbus to be the best it can be, as fast as it can be.”

But nothing prepared him for the citywide media reports last May and images of maskless clusters of twentysomethings rollicking about Standard Hall, one of his Short North restaurants with a lively patio, after COVID-19 coronavirus restrictions were put into place.

He said he was trying to obey the state's COVID laws but in a reasonable amount of time.

“We were frustrated that the public guidelines were not clear as to what the expectations were,” he said. “It was a tough situation to manage. We want to do the right thing, but we do a thing that’s very social.”

But, once more, he got into hot water with the Black community when he enforced a dress code at Standard Hall banning baggy clothes, excessive jewelry, grills, work boots and sagging pants.

Stephanie Hightower, president and CEO of the Columbus Urban League, said she had reached out to Corso to say that the dress code was offensive to Black people, who felt shut out of some popular Short North destinations.

“He admitted he made a mistake,” Hightower said. “Once they did it, they realized it was discriminatory, and they fixed it.”

They discussed changing the landscape, not just for his spots but others, too, to include those who live immediately outside the neighborhood, Hightower said.

She said she wanted local business owners to extend job opportunities to people of color and give them opportunity for advancement.

“We were just getting ready to do something and the pandemic hit,” she said.

Corso temporarily closed Standard Hall, the Short North Pint House and the Short North Goody Boy diner – other properties he owns or co-owns in the area – after an employee tested positive for COVID-19. Corso recently announced that his Short North Food Hall is closing to allow Standard Hall to expand. 

Corso moved to Columbus in 1989 to attend the Ohio State University, from which he graduated with a degree in finance and real estate. It’s also where he met Gallicchio.

They collaborated with local real-estate developer Kyle Katz on Mecca, a big city-style dance club in what then was known as the Buggyworks building, near what would become Hamilton Park and the Arena District.

They continued to push the nightlife scene, with such clubs as Red Zone and Long Street Live, aimed at young people who liked to cut a rug to popular top 40 music and hip-hop. A broader goal was to keep college graduates from fleeing the city for larger metro areas, such as Atlanta, Chicago and New York.

“I feel like I kind of evolved what Columbus needed at the time,” Corso said. “It was an amazing time. We had thousands every weekend.”

Red Zone was the site of a fatal shooting in 2013. Corso and Gallicchio were named in a lawsuit when bartenders and servers at Park Street Patio sued – and won – for back wages at Park Street and three other bars in 2012.

When they opened Spice on Park Street, among a group of other nightlife spots, Corso acknowledged that parking, traffic jams and noise complaints piled up as fast as cocktail napkins.

He said he then joined the Columbus parking, community-relations and noise commissions to offer his input on ways to help reduce frustrations from the patrons, motorists and residents of Park Street and the Short North.

“The city’s always been a great partner with me on every issue,” he said.

Years later, after the velvet-rope properties became less of a focus and closed down, restaurants posed a more attractive business model, he said.

In 2015, he ended his longtime partnership with Gallicchio, who went onto run several festivals – such as the Columbus Food Truck Festival – and founded Titan Trucks Manufacturing, a food-truck and trailer builder.

Gallicchio said he still considers Corso a “great friend.”

“We’ve been friends forever, met in college, did a lot of business together and did a lot of successful things together,” Gallicchio said.

It was at Forno Kitchen + Bar, one of Corso’s Short North properties, where he met Urban Meyer, then head coach for the Ohio State Buckeyes football team.

“That was his go-to spot,” Corso said. “When he retired, we decided to do something fun together.”

The first such enterprise was Urban Meyer’s Pint House, a jaunty, casual spot that opened in September 2019 in Dublin’s Bridge Park.

Although Meyer was hired in January to coach the Jacksonville Jaguars in the NFL, he and Corso inked a deal for Urban Chophouse, a steakhouse that opened May 12 on the ground floor of Luxe 23, an apartment community in the Short North built by locally based Preferred Living.

Chris Corso partnered with former Ohio State University football coach Urban Meyer on the Urban Chophouse restaurant in the Short North.

Corso, again, owns the property and opened the chophouse, along with Whiskey Lounge and Terrace Bar there.

He said he doesn’t know if his bad PR is behind him, but he won’t let that stultify his ambitions.

“When you’re doing things on the cutting edge, you’re going to get some pushback,” he said. “We’re willing to try different things to try to make Columbus a great city.”

gseman@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekGary