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One of southern Indiana's most popular restaurants in the mid-20th century was the Palms Cafe on Fourth Street in Columbus. The restaurant (an interior scene is shown) opened in 1936 and closed after 28 years of operation. Co-owners through much of its history were Frank Meyer ad Don Schafstall.

By Harry McCawley

If there’s an object lesson about the recent closing of Jordy McTaggart’s Grill & Pub in The Commons, it’s that the restaurant business is tough.

The Irish-themed eatery shut its doors late last month, becoming the third restaurant in the last four years to go out of business at the downtown location. A similar action was taken in December less than a block away when owners of Smith’s Row, a more established venue with at least 20 years under its belt, closed.

That said, there’s still no lack of choices for hungry folks around Columbus, especially in the downtown area. Over the past decade, several new restaurants, offering a variety of menus, have seen opportunities in the expansion of the downtown workforce of Cummins Inc.

So have older eateries, such as Columbus Bar, Zaharakos and 4th Street Bar & Grill. But even when those three are included, the list of dining choices in Columbus leans more heavily to newcomers. That wasn’t always the case.

I came to Columbus late in 1966 when the city still had a strong retail presence in its downtown and thus a good many restaurants and cafes. The customer base was different than that of today, which leans more heavily to engineers and other young professionals.

In the mid-60s, downtown diners were more likely to be store owners, shop clerks and government workers.

The restaurants were also different. In the downtown, small mom-and-pop diners were especially popular with office workers. There were also family restaurants, establishments that catered to evening and weekend meals. Some set aside space where civic groups and clubs could have dinner meetings.

Today, there’s a certain sense of nostalgia when recalling many of those mid-20th century eating places. Some of the names are almost institutional: small diners like Lucas Bros. on Fourth Street, Lib’s Restaurant at Fifth and Washington, Carmichael’s Fish Stand on Jackson Street and Sap’s Coffee House at 12th and Washington streets.

Of that group, Lucas Bros. had the greatest staying power. It had more than one location in its history, but until 2012, it had been open for 80 years.

There were a number of more formal restaurants in which diners dressed up for their meals. One of my great regrets has been moving to Columbus a few years after the Palms Cafe closed. Located where 4th Street Bar & Grill is now, the Palms was considered almost swanky in both appearance and meal choices.

It opened in 1936 and for most of its time in Columbus was managed by partners Frank Meyer and Don Schafstall. According to some accounts, people came from as far away as Louisville to dine on such specialties as “rock lobster” and Meyer’s famous “Frank Salad.” In the 1950s and ’60s the Columbus Jaycees used the Palms to wine and dine celebrities in town for their renowned Auditorium Series. One of their guests was comedian Bob Hope.

Another popular restaurant that drew families was the Bob-O-Link at 25th Street and National Road. It was an especially popular Sunday dinner stop for families following church services. One of the top selections on its menu was a ham loaf, which to this day is still remembered by many past customers.

The most popular meeting place for service clubs and groups in the city was Gene’s Cafeteria in Eastbrook Plaza shopping center. In the 1970s, Gene’s opened a cafeteria on the second floor of the old Commons with space for group meetings.

I refreshed my memory about these places by referring to the Restaurants section in the 1967 Columbus City Directory. There were 50 eateries listed, ranging from Lib’s Restaurant to the Bob-O-Link.

All 50 had one thing in common. None is in business today.

Harry McCawley is the former associate editor of The Republic. He can be reached at harry@therepublic.com.