By Harry McCawley
Columbus’ downtown has undergone a lot of changes over the past 50 years, so many that anyone who left here around that time only to return today would have a hard time recognizing the place.
There’s one establishment, however, a small space on Seventh Street between Franklin and Washington, that looks pretty much as it did 50 years ago, or even 60 years ago. Today it’s called Jill’s Diner. A decade ago it was Kramer’s, and before that it had been Sadie’s. In the 1970s it was called Benny’s Downtown Diner.
In fact there’s been a dining establishment in that first-floor space since the 1950s, when a man named Gerald Davis began serving his version of “soul food” in a diner he called Davis’ Grill.
His diner came to my attention following a column I had written about popular restaurants in the downtown area through the years.
The column was based on my personal recollections over the past half century and a 1967 Columbus City Directory listing of restaurants. There were 50 eateries on that roll call, and of the 50, I noted that none was in business today.
Actually Davis’ Grill was on the 1967 restaurant listing, but over the next 50 years it went through at least five name changes and the same number of different owners. But there have also been constants — the location, the down-to-earth menu selections and the kind of customers who frequented it.
Davis’ Grill was brought to my attention by Jim Davis, a Columbus resident and the son of Gerald Davis. He had more than a familial connection with the downtown restaurant.
“The whole family worked there,” he said. “I did. So did my sister, our mother, our grandmother, several aunts and cousins and, of course, my dad.”
Actually Davis’ Grill predated the Charlotte building in which it and its successors have been housed since the 1950s. It opened in 1952 in a house that ironically was situated in approximately the same location it occupies in the building.
“My dad rented the house from (William) “Dooley” Keller and started drawing large crowds from the start,” Jim said. “One day Dooley came in and asked Dad what he thought about moving into another space. My dad told him he was very happy with the current arrangement and didn’t want to move. Dooley told him that was too bad because he planned to tear the house down and put up an office building in its place. They talked some more, and Dooley told him that he would include space for the diner.”
The location was important to Gerald Davis. Columbus’ downtown in the 1950s was bustling, even more than today with the thousands of Cummins’ workers in the central business district alone. There was a strong retail presence then, and shop clerks, business owners and their customers converged on the mom and pop diners that dotted the downtown.
Davis’ Grill was especially fortunate in its location on Seventh Street. Indiana Bell had dozens of workers across the street. Back then the post office (now used as housing by LHP) was also directly across the street. Less than a block away on Washington Street was the A&P store and next door to the diner was the National Guard Armory.
There was one other powerful influence on the grill’s customer base. Two blocks down Seventh Street was the old Columbus High School at Seventh and Pearl. It closed in the 1950s and became Central Junior High School. Teenagers competed with shop clerks and business owners for service during the time the Davis family operated the business.
Times and circumstances changed over the 20 years that Gerald Davis served food at his Seventh Street diner. Retail businesses took their stores and customers out of the downtown. Others simply went out of business. Newcomers with different tastes went to work in downtown offices.
Still, the customer base for the kind of meals they could get at Davis’ Grill remained strong. Gerald Davis got out of the business in the early ’70s, but there were food entrepreneurs ready to continue the tradition of home-cooked meals.
Maybe those crowds aren’t the same today as they were 50 or so years ago, but there is a certain loyalty associated with the mom and pop diners like the one on Seventh Street. The appeal, I would imagine, is principally with the food.
However, I suspect there’s another element that was made famous by the establishment depicted in the popular television series “Cheers.” It’s the kind of place where everybody knows your name.
Harry McCawley is the former associate editor of The Republic. He can be reached at [email protected].