A century ago, Zaharakos was a bustling soda fountain and ice cream parlor in my hometown of Columbus, Ind., three hours northeast of Evansville. But five years ago, the once-vibrant Downtown institution, founded in 1900 by a trio of Greek brothers, was in trouble. After the third-generation owner died in 2006, Zaharakos closed, and its future looked uncertain. When Columbus entrepreneur Tony Moravec walked inside with a team of locals interested in saving the restaurant, “it was really in rough shape,” he recalls. A leaking roof had damaged the tin ceiling, interior woodwork, and 1890s maple wood floor. The orchestrion, a self-playing organ that merrily pumped music through the restaurant, had been sold to a collector in California.
Moravec decided the longtime community treasure had to be saved, and he tapped into his retirement money to fund a two-year renovation. In June 2009, a line stretched down the block when Zaharakos opened its doors. When patrons stepped inside, they saw a dramatically redone space with a pair of onyx soda fountains, a 50-foot double backbar, and the much-loved orchestrion, restored and repurchased from its previous owner. Zaharakos since has earned national acclaim and been featured in Indianapolis Monthly’s August 2010 issue, which included a list of 50 things every Hoosier must do. Number one: “Sit at the counter at Zaharakos.”
That’s what I did when I headed home for the holidays. Zaharakos now is a gleaming, 1900-esque ice cream parlor and soda fountain that serves a simple menu of sandwiches, soups, and salads. The sweet treats are the highlight: Fountain soda syrups number more than a dozen, and a popular flavor is the lime-flavored Green River. My husband ordered an ice cream soda (above), which blended Green River soda with Zaharakos’ homemade ice cream. I tried the raspberry chocolate chip ice cream, an unusual flavor that balanced a tart fruit taste with rich, flaky chocolate. The menu also includes milkshakes, malts, banana splits, and other diet-busting treats entirely worth the calories and the doable day trip from Southwest Indiana.