John Havens and Aaron Mercier met as high school students at the Wellington School in Upper Arlington, Ohio, but it was another two decades before they opened a restaurant together.
“We were sitting on a dock drinking bourbon a few years back and I had been sending (Mercier) stuff about buying a food truck,” Havens said. “I looked at him and was like ‘you want to do this?’ You don’t get the opportunity very often so if you’re going to do it, do it. So we did it.”
Rooks Tavern opened in the fall of 2016 at the intersection of Chittenden Avenue and Summit Street. The owners said the upscale barbeque joint focuses on serving globalized barbeque dishes in a low-key atmosphere.
“When we started looking in Columbus, (barbecue) was an obvious market gap,” said Mercier, who is also the tavern’s executive chef. “When you do straight barbeque, there isn’t a lot of flexibility in public perception. Having it more upscale allows me to experiment and create weekly specials.”
Havens said the creative aspect that comes with owning a restaurant is important to him as well.
“It’s a creative thing, opening your own place,” said Havens, the restaurant’s LLC principal. “In a way it gives you a chance to create temporary art.”
Havens and Mercier’s interest in barbeque arose early in their lives.
“John and I both have family from Texas, so barbeque was in our DNA, it was something we grew up knowing and loving,” Mercier said.
Mercier’s love for food and barbeque in particular was only catalyzed through his experience working in kitchen after kitchen, both locally and in Texas. Mercier said he’s worked in other fields, but has always preferred working in restaurants.
Mercier also said he takes measures to use fresh meat instead of frozen.
“The only ribs I can get that aren’t frozen are spare ribs,” he said. “So when we serve St. Louis cuts, we have to trim the spare rib and end up with a pound and a half of scrap meat. We take that and make it into a demi glaze, which is the core ingredient in our pork chop sauce. That’s the heart of my philosophy of kitchen management, getting the most out of my ingredients.”
While their specialty is barbecue, Rooks’ has many other dishes, some permanent and some seasonal.
“My favorite thing on the menu kind of changes,” Havens said. “I really like the beets and goat cheese, but we have a cheddar apple turnover right now that is really, really good.”
Rooks offers snacks such as wings and stuffed peppers, and a range of dinner items including tacos, mussels, fried chicken and steak. Desserts include pot de crème — which is Mexican chocolate with berries, smoked cream and cilantro — along with cocktails, wines and beers.
Brunch is offered only on Sundays, and the most popular item on that menu is the brisket, the owners said. It is smoked for 18 hours and served on a platter with potato salad, pickles and peasant bread. Items such as a chili scramble and banana-pecan French toast are offered as at brunch as well.
Even though Rooks has only been open since November, they are already seeing familiar faces, Mercier said.
“We started with almost no marketing budget and have been really thrilled with the amount of repeat business,” he said.
Rooks Tavern at 195 Chittenden Ave. is open Tuesday through Saturday from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.