In 1819, weary and famished travelers chasing the American dream westward could stop for a bite to eat and a place to sleep at the newly opened Gentry’s Tavern in the fledgling town of Smithton. When the community that became Columbia moved downhill two years later in search of fresh water at Flat Branch Creek, a team of oxen hauled the entirety of Gentry’s Tavern to the nearby Boonslick Trail, now known as Broadway.
So begins Kerri Linder’s debut book, Iconic Restaurants of Columbia, Missouri, in which she describes the 200-year history of Columbia’s dining scene, beginning with Gentry’s Tavern. Although it’s all about food, it is not a “foodie” book. Instead, “it’s about the stories within the walls of the restaurants,” Linder says.
Her book tells of the tight-knit communities that developed around the tables and counters of Columbia’s taverns, diners, cafes and dives — ones such as the one at the Bull Pen Cafe, which operated for 57 years. There, an endless array of nicknames, hijinks and jokes kept the staff and patrons on their toes, such as when customers hid a dishwasher’s moped in the men’s restroom.
“There was always something going on,” says Jackie Cockrell, who worked at the cafe for 13 years before owning it for 17 more. “There was never a dull moment.” And through the shenanigans, the staff and regulars became a family, Cockrell says.
Stories such as Cockrell’s abound throughout the 124-page book. Linder says her favorite part of writing it was meeting so many people she never would’ve otherwise while going through their old photos and listening to their stories.
Ken Gebhardt, also known by nickname “Poor Ken,” was one. Throughout his 30-year career in Columbia’s dining scene, Gebhardt owned a number of drive-ins and restaurants, including Interstate Pancake Howse. His “Pie are messy” commercials were inescapable around town. He says he had a lot of fun going over his old stories with Linder for her book. “It was an absolute delight,” he says.
The book is part of a series from The History Press, an imprint of Arcadia Publishing that highlights towns where the community’s relationship with the dining scene shaped the city’s culture, senior commissioning editor Chad Rhoad writes in an email.
Because she has lived in Columbia her whole life, and because of her experience owning a downtown walking food tour, Linder was the ideal author, Rhoad adds.
Linder started Columbia Culinary Tours in 2014 to showcase CoMo’s dining scene and history through walking tours of downtown. In January 2018, she sold the company to Jim McNeil, a tour guide for the company, and his wife, Tina, so Linder would have time to write.
McNeil got to flip through one of the earliest copies of the book. He says it was nice to relive the memories of going to eat at places such as 63 Diner and G&D Steakhouse with his family as a kid. Gebhardt, who’s well into his 80s, says he enjoyed reading about his old competitors, especially because many of them have passed away.
The book strikes a nostalgic nerve for Columbia, so much so that, when Linder took to social media in January 2018 to ask for suggestions, her Facebook post received more than 750 comments of long-gone restaurants and memories of Columbia’s lost gems.
“It’s not just a cool piece of history,” McNeil says, “but Columbia history.” ￼