When I was a young girl, growing up in Columbus, Indiana, there was one place that we would go for extra special treats, a downtown soda shop known as Zaharakos. A place to celebrate a good report card, acknowledge bravery after a doctor visit, or just because. Zaharakos is an icon in my town, serving up treats since its opening in 1900 as a candy store.
After visiting the 1904 World’s Fair, the three Greek brothers who owned the store decided to turn the store into a soda shop and began purchasing the decorations that turned this historic landmark into one of the finest ice cream parlors in the nation. From a pair of Mexican Onyx soda fountains that added the fizz and flavor, to the 50 feet of mahogany cabinets that serve as a double back bar to stained glass, mirrors and marble, to a delicate Tiffany-style lamp, these touches are what makes this place special.
But it wasn’t these features that amazed me as a child. No, it was sitting at a child-size soda table happily listening to the tunes swelling from the 1908 Welte Orchestrion that had me in awe. A clackety drum would roll and the notes from the self-playing instrument would burst forth creating tunes reminiscent of lively circus music. I would rush to the glass case to watch the rolled paper twirl forcing air through 182 pipes made of tin, wood and brass. Rumor has it that Walt Disney offered to purchase the instrument for use at Walt Disney World Resort, but was turned down.
Lovingly nicknamed The Greeks, Zaharakos provided a place where generation after generation could discuss the day’s events over coffee, grab a quick lunch, or hang out after high school games and dances to share one soda with two straws. That’s what my parents did there while dating, along with thousands of others.
As the years passed by, the health of the brothers deteriorated, and other members of the family took over the business. Finally, in 2006, with no relatives left to carry on, the doors of Zaharakos closed. While my small hometown was in mourning for the icon, there were plans afoot to restore the shop to its grand origins.
Reopening in 2009 as Zaharakos Ice Cream Parlor and Museum, the store next door was incorporated with the original structure to create a museum. On display are artifacts from other soda fountains and mechanical music makers dating back to the 1800s. Along the shelves lined with displays, postcards, and other souvenirs is a section of Boudreaux Butt Paste, a popular diaper rash ointment. While this might seem like an extremely odd combination,the new owner is also the owner of Blairex Laboratories, the manufacturer of Boudreaux products. The bottom line, you might say, is that it was chapped butts that brought in the cash to restore Zaharakos.
Like the Greek brothers 106 years before him, the new owner spared no expense bringing the icon back – and bringing it back more elegant than any of us remembered. From the red leather circular stools at the marble soda bar, to the original light fixtures and the tiny wrought iron soda table I sat in as a child, it was all back and looking like new.
Even the menu items are much the same, including the classic Green River, Cherry Phosphate, and other flavors of sodas. Even my favorite is back – the famous “Cheese-brr-grr”, which is not technically a cheese burger at all, but a GOM sandwich (think sloppy joe meat, with a sweet ketchup base) with cheese served on grilled bread. Soups, salads, other sandwiches served on pretzel bread and piping hot corndogs round out the menu. By all means save room for a variety of creamy shakes and sundaes all made with home-made ice cream. While the year-round strawberry ice cream is delicious, my personal favorite flavor is peppermint. It’s made only during the holiday season.
A recent broadcast by CBS Sunday Morning featured the renovated shop and editors of the publication, Indianapolis Monthly listed a visit to Zaharakos as the No. 1 thing Every Hoosier Must Do. Located approximately 45 minutes from Indianapolis, a trip to Columbus and visit to Zaharakos is an easy journey to escape back to an authentic soda shop and bygone days.
Location: 329 Washington Street, Columbus, Indiana
Hours: Monday – Friday, 8 am-8 pm; Saturday and Sunday 9 am-8 pm.