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March 8, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CST
A restaurant’s business is more than making a good slice of pizza or a delicious plate of pasta. It’s about creating an atmosphere — a unique mood made up of quirks that a customer can’t find anywhere else. An antler hat rack or an empty beer bottle on the mantel can reveal a lot about a place’s history.
Sometimes a customer never discovers the reason behind a restaurant’s oddity. Someone could only know this privileged information if he or she had the lowdown.
Décor is pivotal to a pleasant dining experience. Adornments allow restaurateurs to express themselves and their businesses, and some of Columbia’s restaurants take a more unique route than just putting a picture on the wall.
Shakespeare’s is a local staple known for its outlandish style and intriguing environment, and both locations display motorcycles in the dining areas. The Ninth Street location has a bike on loan from a local Harley Davidson dealer, but at the west location in Broadway Business Park, marketing director Kurt Mirtsching has on display one of his own bikes: a 1970 BSA Thunderbolt he purchased in 1979. “I put the bike up after I stopped riding it,” Mirtsching says. “I rode that bike to hell. It’s a conversation piece.”
Another conversation piece is a seemingly misplaced can of WD-40 in the midst of beers ondisplay within the coolers. As Mirtsching was fixing the hinges in the cooler one day, he left the can in plain sight, and a customer requested to buy it as a joke. Mirtsching now buys cases at a time and says it’s a popular item among Shakespeare’s fanatics.
“One guy came in on a game day, and we were out of WD-40,” says Mirtsching. “The guy started pounding his fists on the bar. He was really mad. He wanted to show his friends.”
Possibly the most famous artifact in the downtown eatery is a 6-by-7 foot canary yellow sign that reads “Liquor Guns Ammo” in bold black letters. It was a wedding present to Flat Branch’s manager Lance Wood, who eventually loaned it to Shakespeare’s. The sign even allegedly inspired alt-country group Uncle Tupelo’s song “Whiskey Bottle.”
Another unexpected yet somehow fitting sign that hangs in Shakespeare’s is from the ’50s and is adorned with a picturesque housewife that reads “Plenty of Hot Rain-Soft Water.” Mirtsching came upon an out-of-business laundromat and snagged three of its giant signs for $75.
“It was such a deal,” Mirtsching says. “It cost far more to have them put up [in the store] than it was to buy them.”
Mirtsching says Shakespeare’s likes to do abnormal advertising to get the store’s name out. For instance, the restaurant has a green pedicab with their logo that will drive people anywhere they want in the downtown area.
The pedicab might get people to the restaurant, but Mirtsching says he likes to keep people talking while they dine. Each table inside has different instructional ads diagramming things like how to swim the backstroke and Shakespeare’s own gluttonous nutrition triangle based on their popular pies.
“If you come here and have a great time and love the food, that’s fine, but we like to do stuff that’ll have you talking about it on Tuesday morning,” Mirtsching says, mentioning the 1956 S & S Cadillac Hearse in which his wife used to deliver pizzas that he is selling on their Web site and plans to put on eBay. “We want to be part of the fabric of downtown.”
There are diamond-shaped corrugated stainless steel walls with 3-D, miniature back-ends of ’57 Chevys on them that are almost as distinctively post-WWII era as their life-sized Elvis statue playing a guitar and doing his signature hip shake.
“This all comes from swap meets, auctions and people just bringing stuff in,” says Matt Davison, who clocking in at 11 years, is one of the longest running employees in the Diner’s history. “We picked [the life-sized Elvis] up at a furniture store in St. Louis.”
Walking into Sparky’s Homemade Ice Cream on Ninth Street, a customer might feel the need to pet the dog standing guard outside. However, the realistic pooch is only a replica of owner Scott Southwick’s English bulldog, of course named Sparky.
“Sometimes Sparky will come here and stand next to the statue,” says employee Emily Foster. “It’s normally either too hot or too cold. He’s moody.”
The canine figure is not the original dog, and it’s not even the original statue. The first one was stolen two years ago and never recovered. The ice cream parlor replaced the statue after it held a concert to raise the money. To keep possible thieves from committing the same horrible crime again, the new “Sparky” is now chained to a tree.
Some local restaurants go above and beyond their call of service to pleasing the palate, and they cater to other needs.
For example, The Forge & Vine on Seventh Street offers a locker system for customers. For a pricey $400 per year, the owners will go the extra mile and provide their customers with one of 32 lockers (fancy name plate included) that is filled with cigars and bottles of wine, some of which are not on the menu. Customers willing to splurge on a locker even get their own Forge & Vine steak knives.
When a grocery list grows long, the nearest Wal-Mart is usually the place to go. However, if one is feeling hungry as well, Lee Street Deli offers the chance to kill two birds with one stone.
In addition to its food services, Lee Street Deli also opened a minimart six months ago, and it sells items such as condoms, pepper spray, soap and tampons.
The east campus deli is also known for its signature shirts that read “LSD — It’s worth the trip.” Lee Street is also spreading its name internationally with its many posted pictures of employees and patrons wearing their shirts in front of places all over the world such as the Eiffel Tower and the Great Wall of China.
Art and decoration are part of a restaurant’s ambiance. A carefully placed oil painting or still-life photograph can set the tone for a restaurant and even determine what kind of establishment it is.
Owner Ken Applegate tries to incorporate art appreciation as well as good food with the paintings in the bar area of his Business Loop 70 restaurant. He says that he is even willing to sell the art if customers make an offer. Applegate jokes that he didn’t keep anything from the fire that damaged his establishment in 2001. “I am the only relic here,” he says. However, Applegate does still have an old sign that he thinks might be a nostalgic reminder to some people of an older Columbia.
“When I took over [Jack’s] 34 years ago, the sign said ‘Jack’s Coronado,’” says Applegate. “I thought I’d keep it up because when people come in from out of town, it reminds them of where they used to hang out.”
Some folks might remember the sign, but many might not know that the now traditional restaurant used to be called Red & Mel’s and, according to Applegate it had a reputation of being a rowdy roadhouse.
The Beanery is also popular for its memorabilia such as an autographed tire sidewall from one of Carl Edwards’ early truck races. The tire is genuine, but some other sports artifacts might encourage a double take. “Most people ask about the 1985 World Series pennants,” says Lane. Right next to the official pennant that has the Kansas City Royals as the winners, there is one that falsely names the St. Louis Cardinals as champions. The previous owner, Boone County Commissioner Karen Miller, left behind the pennants that were made before the game.
Miller says she had the pennants framed after a deceased patron left them to her the day after the series. “I felt the pennants should stay with the [bar],” Miller says. “There were just some things like the first dollar given to me when I opened, which hangs behind the bar, [that] belonged to the business, not me.”
Murry’s bar area has many sports artifacts such as antique St. Louis Cardinals paraphernalia. Among the most curious and comedic of decorations is an 8-inch figurine in a white uniform with thin blue vertical stripes with a miniature brown bag over its head. The barkeep reveals it is a Chicago Cub that is forever concealed while several proud redbirds beam around it in hometown pride.
The Wine Cellar & Bistro really sets the mood for fine wining and dining with its many wooden wine box panels on select walls and the hanging strings of wine corks that cover small windows by its entrance ramp. “People really enjoy the cork curtains,” says Sarah Cyr, who co-owns the restaurant with her husband and executive chef Craig Cyr. “They were here when we moved in, and that’s kind of how we knew we wanted to open a restaurant here.”
Another thing that catches the eye and might make a person blush is the local art that features seductive pictures of food from local photographer Deb Roberts. They feature food in a somewhat more exciting shape or position, such as a pear resembling a man’s package.
In true New Orleans tradition, Jazz has a frozen drink called the Bermuda Triangle that contains four kinds of flavored brandy and three kinds of rum. “We use three straws in the drink,” says England. “They’re filled with [Bacardi] 151, Meyer’s and Malibu, in addition to the booze in the drink.” Getting tipsy just thinking about it? It makes sense. England admits: “People get pretty drunk.” So drunk in fact, Jazz only allows two drinks per customer.
A drink similar to the Bermuda Triangle is called Steve’s Usual, which is a non-frozen version of the powerful Bermuda Triangle. It is dedicated to the regular who loved the drink and passed away in November.
This lounge-like restaurant located on Tenth Street knows the importance of variety on a menu. It offers 14 kinds of sake and five kinds of Japanese beers. The restaurant also values originality; although the menu includes standard sushi staples, around half of the items are originals created by management and chefs, including their Sake martinis and Tiger rolls.
“I like to bring all cultures to my cuisine,” says Rob Chen, owner. “I take unique concepts from Asia and mix it with European and American influences.”
Sake’s atmosphere is mellow and friendly, a reflection of its staff. On the wall opposite from the bar, there are frames including photos of Sake employees enjoying what Chen calls a “Sake Night Out.”
“We want to support other local restaurants,” Chen says. “Plus, employees make a restaurant successful. It’s a way to build camaraderie and get to know each other outside of work.”
Sky Hi wasn’t just a clever name having to do with the location’s altitude or the owner’s state of mind. In fact, it was the name of a drive-in movie theater that used to operate near its Old 63 location from 1965 to 1985. Owners John Peters and Chris McDonnell have a pencil sketch of the old drive-in theater drawn by Columbia artist Charles Kurre, and it currently hangs in Sky Hi’s entrance near the door. They bought it from another area restaurant, and it now serves as a constant reminder of the history of the location.
The restaurant serves some Columbia originals such as brick-oven pizzas and fruit infused martinis. It also gives customers the chance to get themselves drunk with build-your-own Bloody Marys on Saturdays and Sundays.
It’s difficult to think of waiting for a bus while ordering a steak in CC’s City Broiler, but before 1992 the restaurant located at the corner of Tenth and Locust Streets was a Greyhound station. Far from the dull look of a bus station, CC’s decided to decorate the establishment with white tablecloths and black leather furniture reminiscent of Chicago steakhouse style. “The owner is a big fan of the Rat Pack,” manager Erik Loyland says, in reference to a Dean Martin figurine on the bar.
While the inside of CC’s has a reserved look with its large paintings and pictures of regulars, the outside patio feels more like a cabana atmosphere with its palm leaves, large sharks and other fish gathered by owner Scott Cleeton on his regular trips to Key West.