The whirl of activity was mesmerizing as we walked into Zaharakos. We heard the thunk-thunk-thunk of old metal ice cream cases opening and closing. Servers dashed by carrying trays loaded with ice cream in old-fashioned clear glasses. In the back room, an organ piped out tunes.
“Sit right here,” said our server, Wilma, pointing to two small soda fountain chairs. She dropped plastic-coated menus on the table and asked if we’d visited before. When we shook our heads, she announced: “I’ll be back to tell you the history.”
There’s quite a lot of history at Zaharakos, an ice cream parlor and museum in Columbus, Indiana. As Wilma later told us, “Everything in here is original except the chandeliers—and me.”
Zaharakos dates to 1900, when three brothers from Greece opened it as a candy store. The 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis inspired the brothers to add ice cream and sodas.
By 1911, the store had an impressive 50-foot mahogany and marble backbar, two Mexican onyx soda fountains from the World’s Fair, a Tiffany-style lamp from the fair and a 1908 Welte orchestrion (self-playing pipe organ).
The shop changed a bit through the years—a self-service area was added in World War II, and the storefront got a makeover in the 1960s after a car crashed into it—but it remained in the Zaharako family. In 2006, with the youngest generation employed elsewhere and one of the older family members in poor health, it closed.
But Columbus, a city known for celebrating and preserving architecture, wouldn’t let it go. Local businessman Tony Moravec bought the store and reopened it in 2009 after extensive restorations to return the space to its early-1900s atmosphere. He also bought the building next door and opened a museum to showcase his growing collection of 19th-century soda fountains and mechanical musical instruments.
Today at Zaharakos, the food is fine—we sampled a gooey-good grilled cheese sandwich, a bowl of chili and four (!) kinds of ice cream—but nostalgia is the star. We lingered long after our last taste of raspberry chocolate chip, plunking quarters in a 1914 Banjo-Orchestra Replica, peeking into ornate Victorian-Era rooms and marveling at elaborately decorated soda fountains.
The labels for the syrup dispensers alone are intriguing, with flavors like ginger, banana, pineapple, coffee, lemon, sarsaparilla and Catawba (a syrup with wine). My favorite, on an Oracle Soda Fountain from the 1880s: “Don’t Care.”
Why not? It’s all a taste of Americana.
Top photo by Bob Stefko; other photos by Ginger Crichton.