Smells and tastes conjure up memories from long ago.
You remember the laughs you and friends shared at the old drive-in or at that one place that served up fried chicken better than your mother’s — even though you swore yourself you’d never tell her that.
Last week, we asked readers to tell us about the closed Columbus restaurants that are missed the most. We got dozens of responses from readers. Here are the top choices:
Top Hat Cafe
Top Hat Cafe was the top choice by poll responders.
Locals started chomping down on the restaurant’s beloved fried chicken in 1938 when Henry Jackson and his sister, Rachel, opened Top Hat on Ninth Street. But the chicken became most famous when someone else ran the kitchen.
Jackson sold Top Hat to Charles Vaughn in early 1945. Vaughn and his wife, Willie Mae Underwood-Vaughn, beefed up the chicken to give it that signature spicy, clean-your-sinuses quality, according to archive reports.
“We added a lot to it,” Underwood-Vaughn told the Columbus Enquirer in 1983 about Top Hat’s chicken.
Underwood-Vaughn took over the restaurant after her husband’s death in 1959. She eventually retired from Top Hat several years before her death in 1989. That’s where the Ledger-Enquirer archives on Top Hat’s history ends.
But it’s clear that Columbus residents had an affinity for the place. There are copies of Top Hat’s alleged chicken recipe floating around on the internet, and the greasy paper bags stick out in customer’s memories.
Veronica Carnes is one of those fans. She wrote to the Ledger-Enquirer that she missed the “greasy, spicy chicken.” Her favorite menu item — like many others — was the breast sandwich.
“It was open late nights when you had that craving,” she wrote.
Founded in 1893, Spano’s was located at 21 East 10th Street. It was the oldest restaurant in Columbus and one of the oldest family-owned dining establishments when it closed its doors in 1979 due to financial problems, according to Ledger-Enquirer archives.
Plans for a new restaurant in a smaller place at a different location were discussed, Bernard Spano, a family member, told the Ledger in 1979. Joe Spano died in 1981, and Spano’s had not been resurrected then, according to his obituary.
Pollster Celia Page told the Ledger-Enquirer that her favorite dish from the iconic Columbus spot was the pan roasted oysters served with “an amazing dipping sauce.”
“When I was a young child, they had a toy box full of prizes and, if you had been good, you were allowed to pick one to keep,” she wrote. “They also served upside down ice cream cones with red hots for eyes so it looked like a clown.”
Pritchett’s Fish Camp
The catfish were all you can eat. The prices were fair. The service was good, and he brought his own whiskey along. That’s what Freeman Worley told the Ledger-Enquirer that he liked the most about Pritchett’s Fish Camp.
The fish spot with private dining areas was a favorite among Columbus residents.
A 1990 article published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution said the catfish spot opened in 1946 on the outskirts of town was designed for the “consumption of too much food.”
Jimmy Harper wrote that Pritchett’s was the best place to get fresh local fish unless you caught and cooked it yourself.
“The ‘atmosphere’ was also very unique in that service was provided in individual rooms rather than a large dining area,” he wrote. “Times spent there are some of the best “greasy” memories from my youth.”
Gus’s Drive-In and Restaurant
A holdover from the era when drive-ins dotted Victory Drive, Gus’s Drive-in and Restaurant closed in October 2018.
It opened in 1965 during the height of the Vietnam War, and over the years, owner Sophia Kontaxis became lovingly known by a large portion of the city as Mama Gus. When she retired, her son Anthony Kontaxis took the reins.
He told the Ledger-Enquirer in 2018 that Mama Gus used to keep the place open late back in the day.
“She would keep it open until 3 a.m., because the bars would close at 1:45 and the cars would be lined up, five or six deep,” he said. “We didn’t know many people back then, so my sister and I would sleep on the empty bread racks below the counter.”
Christa Sharp moved to Columbus in the late 1980s from Germany with her husband and their first son. Her first job in Columbus was working as a Gus’s car hop, and she said she misses her coworkers.
“I worked there for many, many years. Good memories at the place and time,” Sharpe said. “Now, that we moved back to Germany after living in Columbus for 30-plus years, I just wished I would have been there on the last day … to hug Mama Gus and Anthony for one last time.”
Gus’s was well-known for its steak sandwiches and country cooking. Just before it closed up, Gus’s “Famous Steak Sandwich” was $5.25 and you could’ve added a drink and fries for $2.99 more. A foot-long chili dog was $3.99 and a scrambled dog was $5.99.
The fried chicken livers were a popular menu item, too, according to readers.
The once-popular pizza and Italian restaurant closed its doors in mid-June 2017 after 55 years in operation.
Famed dishes include its pizzas, grinders (a slang term sub sandwiches), spaghetti and lasagna. Andrew Zimmerman wrote that he loved the place’s vintage Italian ambiance.
“I remember going to Deorio’s Pizza Inn in the early 1990s with family, and up until it closed, it was exactly the same,” he wrote.
Some of the other vote-getters included Goo-Goo Restaurant, McKinley’s Midtown Restaurant, Piccadilly Cafeteria and Shoney’s.