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Chef Chit Chat: Starliner Diner Serendipity

October 12, 2020

When asked how she became owner of Hilliard’s Cuban-inspired Starliner Diner, Molly Mahoney’s answer is short and sweet – serendipity! Having started out working at the diner as a server years ago, a change in management resulted in Molly stepping up to take over. She hasn’t looked back since! Keeping the core menu the same, Molly put her focus on sourcing local ingredients and suppliers, staffing the restaurant with the right people, and managing an ever-changing list of daily specials. “The menu is modeled after a Cuban restaurant in California that no longer exists,” Molly explains. “26 years ago, when we first started, [Cuban breakfast] was a very unique concept. No one here was doing huevos rancheros or chiliquiles.” Its popularity has erupted since, but Starliner Diner still holds the reins, having won several awards including Best Breakfast in Columbus, Best Hangover Breakfast in Columbus, and Best Diner in Columbus, as voted on by the readers of Columbus Monthly, Columbus Alive, and 614 Columbus.

Starliner Diner Today

Today Molly runs the restaurant with her son Wes, and with the help of Chef J.J. and Ronnie Phillips. Although they haven’t changed the core menu much, they continue to stay current by being vegetarian and gluten-free friendly, as well as locally sourced when possible. “From the produce we use, to the bakery items, and even the cleaning supplies – I like to order from local companies,” Molly describes. Further, a family atmosphere is apparent, as many customers know Molly by name, and vice versa. “We’ve seen families change and their kids grow. Now we have the children of customers coming in with their children!” Molly proclaims. “When we reopened [after the lockdown] this past May it was so good to see everyone! I hadn’t realized how much I missed them.”

COVID-19 Changes

In fact, when COVID-19 hit the United States this past spring, the Starliner Diner team remained resilient. “Everything was subject to change,” Molly recalls. “We attended many webinars with the Ohio Restaurant Association and Franklin County Health Department to ensure we could continue running in a safe manner… All of the sudden we were going through more to-go packaging than ever before, we had to install a new cordless phone system with two extensions, add an online ordering system, start offering curbside pickup, and put our restaurant up on Grubhub, in addition to already having it on DoorDash,” Molly remembers. Hanging social distancing posters, installing large partitions in between tables, and adding an alley patio (in addition to the front patio) were some other examples of transformations they made. It was evident the team was no stranger to quickly overcoming challenges. Just four years ago they had experienced a mandated location change – they moved and resumed operations in less than a month – a feat almost unheard of in the restaurant industry.

 

Menu Favorites

Throughout so many adjustments, one thing has stayed the same… the most popular breakfast item remains the Cuban French Toast! Round, dense loaves of their homemade Cuban bread are sliced, then cut into smaller squares, fried in batter, and topped with powdered sugar and fresh fruit. However, Molly’s favorite dish is a special that only comes around every so often – Crab Cakes on a bed of black beans, topped with smoked chili sauce and salsa verde, served with slices of Cuban toast. The Spinach Mushroom omelet served with hand cut home fries is a close second favorite. As Starliner Diner welcomes autumn, some seasonal dishes patrons can look forward to include butternut squash specials and a hearty corn chowder soup. 

A Look to the Future

However, with the winter months on the horizon, there is much uncertainty among restaurant owners, Molly notes. Will they be able to handle the reduced capacity measures when patios are no longer an option? For now, future planning is in limbo. Molly says, “I’m hoping to get back to full capacity before winter is over, but who knows… We’re just taking it one day at a time.”

              

Written by Marianna Marchenko