Situated between two iconic food havens — St. Louis and Kansas City — Columbia is no slouch when it comes to historic establishments. Despite the city’s 60 square miles and over 120,000 residents, Columbia’s small-town roots are honored by townies and visitors alike. Four local restaurants in particular have maintained their classic ambiance over the years, and they can all be found right downtown.
Booches Billiard Hall
Founded in 1884
Before the Statue of Liberty traveled across the Atlantic Ocean to New York City, Booches Billiard Hall was serving burgers in Columbia. Named after its founder, Paul “Booch” Venable, the famous burger joint, bar and pool hall has been around since 1884 and makes present-day customers feel like they’re in the restaurant when it first opened up. The restaurant has a vintage billiards hall feeling. High above and to the right side of the bar, there are dusty bottles of Budweiser to commemorate the deceased who frequented the restaurant in its youth. It’s cash-only, and there isn’t a fryer in sight. Booches has relocated six times in the Columbia area, but it has been at its present location on Ninth Street since 1928 as a place to get some food, down a drink or enjoy a casual game of pool. Co-owners Charles Kurre and Rick Robertson have owned the joint since 2004.
110 S. Ninth St., Mon.–Sat., 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Ernie’s Cafe & Steak House
Founded in 1934
Pulling up to Ernie’s on Walnut Street, you’ll instantly feel like you’ve been plunged into a ’50s film. The popular breakfast establishment is in a faded white building with old-school green-and-red stripes on the outside. A black-and-gray drawing on the wall of Ernie’s depicts the inside of the restaurant in the 1980s; there are hardly any differences. Ernie’s was founded in 1934 and has been on Walnut Street since 1946.
Tom Spurling has been the owner since 1996 and describes the restaurant’s decor as rebirth art deco. The interior, containing vintage bar stools, booths and decorations, isn’t the only thing that has kept the same vibe, though. Ernie’s menu has been mostly unchanged for more than 80 years, just like its service and Pullman-style kitchen, which is a small or narrow cooking space. Ernie’s is a steak-lover’s dream, as the restaurant offers a variety of breakfast meals that include Kansas City strip steak, filet mignon and more. The breakfast is classic diner food, with about 20 different options, including customizable omelets.
1005 E. Walnut St., Mon.–Sun., 6:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Founded in 1938
A checkered frame borders the windows, teal leather tops the metal bar stools, red-and-white tiles line the floor on the inside, and a neon green-and-red sign reads “DINER” on the outside. You’re not on the set of Barry Levinson’s eponymous movie; you’ve arrived at Columbia’s Broadway Diner. There are even old-school pictures on the ceiling, all honoring the story that began in 1938 when the location was called the Minute Inn. In 1989, Dave Johnson and his family took ownership, and in 2001, it moved from Broadway to Fourth Street. The small, traditional diner is well-known among college students and Columbia natives for its stellar breakfast. On any given weekend morning, lines extend out the door for people willing to wait to get their fix. “Others might not like this, but I like how small it is,” says Ashlyn Herrington, a local who goes to the diner almost every Sunday. “It has both the look and feel of an ’80s diner, and it provides a friendly environment through its intimate size.”
The diner offers a plethora of choices that have been on the menu for decades. One dish in particular, The Stretch, is named after Kathy Folsom Hauswirth, a regular customer from the 1970s. This dish is a pile of hash browns and scrambled eggs covered with chili, cheddar cheese, green peppers and onions. You can get it with one, two or three eggs. It’s perfect for someone starving in the morning or looking for a late-night bite.
22 S. Fourth St., Mon.–Tues., 5 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Wed., 5 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Thurs.–Sat., open 24 hours; Sun., noon to 10 p.m.
Founded in 1963
If you’re walking north on Ninth Street from campus, you’ve surely passed the colorfully painted piano in front of a plain brick building with a blue tent that says, “The Heidelberg: Since 1963.” The wooden booths and brick interior showcase a classic look that helps MU alumni reminisce. In 2003, an electrical malfunction in the kitchen started a fire that burned down the original restaurant. After the fire, many sought souvenirs from the original building. Alicia Bredehoeft, a 1986 MU graduate, and her college friends jumped over the temporary fence to take some bricks from what was left. Columbians had to wait a year for the Heidelberg’s reopening.
“The nostalgia is alive, and [the Heidelberg is] creating new memories for the next generation,” Bredehoeft says. The inside of the ’Berg, as it is nicknamed, looks exactly the same as before the fire, with the addition of an extended rooftop patio. The Heidelberg holds a dear place in Bredehoeft’s heart because she rented the side room for a graduation party for her master’s degree and walked right from Jesse Hall with cap and gown still on. The morning of her wedding in Columbia, her husband, Kent, met her for breakfast at the ’Berg. “The Heidelberg is as much a part of campus as the columns,” Bredehoeft says.
410 S. Ninth St., Mon.–Sat., 11 a.m. to midnight; Sun., 10 a.m. to 11 p.m.