"I loved the feel of Zaharakos so much that even if the food was inedible, I would gladly become a regular visitor."
329 Washington Street, Columbus IN 47201 (map); 812-378-1900; zaharakos.com
Cooking Method: Stovetop
Short Order: Fantastic décor, friendly service, and delicious drinks more than compensate for mediocre food
Want Fries With That? Meh. The skin-on fries were a little soft and the orange seasoning salt was nothing too exciting.
Price: Gom Cheese Brr-Grr, $5.49
When I set out to plan my recent trip to Brown County State Park, my mind naturally turned to wondering what edible treats awaited me on my maiden voyage to southern Indiana. As I usually do for off the beaten path culinary guidance, I turned to Roadfood and immediately discovered that the one "can"t miss" stop in that part of the world is Zaharakos in Columbus, Indiana, the most architecturally significant small town in the United States.
James, Pete, and Lewie Zaharako, three brothers from Greece, opened their ice cream parlor and candy shop on October 20, 1900. Named The Greeks until the 1950s, Zaharakos would stay in the family for the next 106 years, first under James's leadership until his death in 1945, and then his kids and grandchildren following suit. When Lew Zaharako died in 2006, there was nobody left in the family with the ability and desire to run the place, and it closed. Ownership fell to the Columbus Capital Foundation, which, as far as I can tell, is a local group geared towards historic preservation (it currently owns the Crump Theatre). In 2007, Tony Moravec, owner of Blairex, a Columbus-based pharmaceutical company, bought Zaharakos and spent the next two years restoring the place to its former glory.
A Step Back in Time
In addition to basic restoration work (like refinishing the original maple floors), Moravec, who worked at an ice cream parlor as a kid, also went on a spending spree, buying a variety of early 20th-century soda fountains from all over the country along with other decorative pieces, including a 1905 Tiffany-style marble and stained glass lamp. Moravec's most significant acquisition was the repurchase of the Welte Style 3 Cottage Orchestrion (like a self-playing piano, only awesome). The Zaharakos brothers installed the orchestrion in 1908, but when Lew Zaharako got sick in 2006 and closed the restaurant, he sold the organ to a collector. When Moravec bought the place, he was determined to bring it back and, after months of negotiation, was able to do so. Now the organ sits in the main dining room and plays continually today.
From what I can tell, since Zaharakos reopened its doors earlier this year on June 6, it has been an unqualified success. Walking in the doors is like taking the clichéd step back in time. From the white shirts and black bow ties that all the staff wears to the marble countertops, light fixtures, and woodwork, Zaharakos emits a warmth that feels welcoming and familiar, even to those of us whose exposure to such places is largely limited to movies. And, as I suppose is to be expected in a place like this, the staff was exceptionally friendly.
The only flaw with Zaharakos is that the food is, for the most part, merely okay. Ordinarily, for me to say I consider ambiance to be secondary to food is grossly overstating the value of ambiance. But I loved the feel of Zaharakos so much that even if the food was inedible (which it definitely was not), I would gladly become a regular visitor.
The Gom Cheese Brr-Grr
Zaharakos does sell burgers, but their featured offering is the Gom Brr-Grr, which is billed as a cross between a hamburger and a sloppy joe. Since I can get hamburgers anywhere, choosing a Gom Cheese Brr-Grr was really a no-brainer. The meat of the Gom Brr-Grr is not quite like anything I've ever seen before: It's not a patty, but it's not quite loose meat like what is sold at Maid-Rite (reviewed here on AHT). It is also not heavily sauced or seasoned anywhere close to the extent of a standard sloppy joe. The Gom Brr-Grr has its own unique place in the burger world.
When I mentioned the lack of seasoning to fellow Serious Eats contributor Nick Kindelsperger, who has multiple family connections to Columbus and has been to Zaharakos many times, he made the point that given the place and time that Zaharakos started, the seasoning that seems mild to us now was likely pretty exotic for many customers. And if the legend that the Gom Brr-Grr was invented by one of the original owners is true, I think Nick's theory is a good one. That said, in 2009, if I'm going to get a sandwich of loose well-cooked ground beef, I want more flavor. As it was, a large portion of the flavor in the sandwich came from the always enjoyable slice of American cheese and the nicely toasted fresh white bread.
The fries were also unremarkable. They had the skin on and seemed to be hand cut, which I certainly appreciated. But they were a little limp and the orange seasoning salt mixture was not my favorite. As with the Gom Brr-Grr, that's not to say the fries were bad, just that they were not very good.
But to judge an ice cream parlor and soda fountain solely on its burger would be almost immoral. To ensure I would do no such thing, I had to try a couple of different drinks—a homemade soda and a float.
While ordering the Gom Brr-Grr was a no-brainer, I had considerably more difficulty selecting a pop to drink with my meal. Zaharakos sells both fountain drinks and their homemade versions of numerous kinds of pop, including my usual favorite, Dr. Pepper. But after a long discussion about the merits of the two versions with our server, I settled on something I had never had before: Cinnamon Coke. The well-balanced drink featured traditional Coke flavor, but with an underlying cinnamon taste that really came through stronger as an aftertaste. Even now, a month after my visit to Zaharakos, I still don't understand why the good people at Coke haven't started making this stuff. But given their inability to make Lemon Fanta available in the United States, I don't have a lot of faith in that company to get wise to cinnamon any time soon.
Midway through the meal, our server, an incredibly nice older woman, arrived with a gift/challenge for me. She put two Dr. Peppers down in front of me, one from a regular fountain and made from Zaharakos soda fountain, and challenged me to tell the difference. It was actually pretty easy to tell the difference: The one made fresh in the store was sweeter. I preferred the less sweet version with my food, but if I were getting a float, I think I might like the sweeter Dr. Pepper better. A second difference that I thought I noticed but doesn't seem possible is that the in-house version seemed a little warmer, even a while after the drinks had been brought to the table full of an equal amount of ice.
As should be the case at an ice cream parlor/soda fountain, the best thing I had at Zaharakos was my float made of Green River pop and vanilla ice cream. Green River, which was just mentioned on Serious Eats last week, is a lime-flavored pop that was invented in Chicago during prohibition. Over the years, its popularity waned to the point that as recently as twenty or so years ago, it was only available in Seattle. But in 1992, an old, small Chicago beverage company brought Green River home and has increased distribution over the years, though it seems to still be a primarily Midwestern drink.
Before going to Zaharakos, I saw a picture of a Green River float on the menu page of their website and a light bulb went off. I like the bright green, very sweet lime-like pop a lot on its own, but there was no doubt in my mind that a scoop of ice cream would take it to a new level. At Zaharakos, the real thing did not disappoint one bit. The float, which tasted like a lime creamsicle, was delicious. Extraordinarily sweet, but a perfect cap on a meal at one fantastic restaurant.