We like to know where our food comes from. Was it grown locally? Is it organic and grass-fed?
But Kerri Linder, Columbia native and founder of Columbia Culinary Tours, challenges us to think even deeper about where our food comes from. Her new book, Iconic Restaurants of Columbia, Missouri, was released in late November and explores what built Columbia’s food scene.
We caught up with Linder to chat about Columbia’s culinary history and its even tastier future.
How did you decide which restaurants to include? Narrowing my focus was a big challenge. When I sat down and tried to come up with restaurants from over the past 200 years that have been iconic to Columbia, I realized that I needed more input. So, I went to Facebook, and there is a page called “You Know You’re From Columbia When” with over 12,000 people following it. I kind of put it out there as a starting point, telling people what I was working on and asking what they consider the iconic restaurants. Overnight I had 1,200 comments and really just sat down with a tally sheet. There were several places I'd never heard of before. Through that, I was able to make a lot of connections with current and former restaurant owners. That was my starting point. Then I went to the Missouri State Historical Society, and through researching those different restaurants, other restaurants would come up. I was really just looking for good stories that paint the picture of what Columbia was like during those different history periods.
What little known fact about Columbia's food scene in history would readers be surprised to know? The Round Table group. I don't know that a lot of people knew about that. I think that's something that's very unique to Columbia as compared to other cities. It's not a restaurant, but their meetings revolve around restaurants. If you look at where this group met over time it points to iconic restaurants. It's been going on for over 100 years, continuously starting in 1916 and was actually started by Walter Williams.
Even some of our current places that are open now, just learning the background has been interesting. The owners of G&D Steakhouse came from Greece directly. The parents of the people who own it now had a four-acre farm in Greece. It had no electricity, no running water, no paved roads. To just think what they came from, what they built and the legacy that their family is still running. I think maybe people who are fans of G&D Steakhouse might not realize the backstory.
Tell us more about the Round Table group. Over time, it's kind of evolved and changed, but traditionally, it's been the leaders of the community. It started not as a way to come up with formal policy but just to keep communication open about what was going on in the city. There were judges, business owners, the farmers and government officials that were part of this group, and they would meet for lunch every week. Round Table was a reference to how many people can fit around the round table. That was what membership was limited to. They would meet at a restaurant, and when that restaurant closed, they would find a new restaurant downtown. You had to be invited to be a member. As one member would pass away or no longer be able to attend, they would invite another person to be a member. It has gone through different restaurants: Harris Cafe, Daniel Boone Tavern, Katie Station, Tiger Hotel, Boone Tavern, Bleu and they currently meet at Room 38. So, it’s still going on today.
What is your favorite thing that you learned during your research? The connections that people have in Columbia. And growing up here, I'm a little familiar with that. But when I started interviewing people, realizing the connections they had with other restaurant owners. For example, at The Pasta Factory when I was talking to the current owner Jenny Dubinski, she said, “You've got to talk to Bill Sappington. He's been coming to Pasta Factory since it first opened in the Crossroads Shopping Center. He comes every Friday afternoon for lunch.” He was very nice and kind and let me pull the chair up while they were having lunch and ask about his memories. He says his grandfather started Central. So, he talks about his dad, how he bought it and that he has worked there as a kid. It was just that these connections and realizing that the people in the restaurant community are actually a pretty small, tight-knit group.
How would you describe Columbia's current food scene? Locally owned places are really thriving right now. People are interested in where their food is coming from. There's also a huge variety, where in the past it was more of your cafés and diners. Now there’s a lot more diversity, like Indian food and Hispanic food. I think there are a lot more choices, and they are a lot more local places than there have been in the past.
How is Columbia’s current food scene influenced by its history? A lot of places downtown have been around for a long time. Booches goes back to the 1800s. I think older restaurants try to preserve that history. For example, in Booches if you walk in, you see the walls have a lot of the same pictures that different owners have just continued to maintain. A lot of current places don’t want to forget the history; they want to keep that history alive and make sure people remember how these restaurants started.
What do you hope readers take away from your book? I couldn't include all of the iconic restaurants throughout the 200 years of history. Some people say, “What about this place? What about that place?” I certainly don't want to exclude anybody’s favorites or make them think that their place isn’t special. But I hope the book has encouraged people to talk about those other places. My big goal is keeping the stories alive and maybe introducing some places to new generations of people.
Columbia Culinary Tours, columbiaculinarytours.com