Last spring, we took a drive across the great state of Missouri. We previously published our first stop – St. Louis. We stopped next in Columbia and Jefferson City, the subject of this story. Next time, we will describe our visit to Kansas City.
Columbia is a quick two-hour drive from St. Louis. Home to the University of Missouri, affectionately known as Mizzou, this city offers a nice balance of college town vibrancy with the slow-pace of small-town America. Les Bourgeois Winery and Bistro in Rocheport overlooks the Missouri River and has been enchanting diners for 15 years.
Abbie, our darling waitress, kept up with the crush of Friday night patrons, ranging from college-aged parties to intimate romantic duos. Local produce and superb steaks were enjoyed while gazing through big windows with a picturesque view of the river. Be sure to try the Gruyere cheesecake appetizer!
After dinner, we took a short drive to the Rocheport General Store, an eclectic old grocery store-come-musical venue. It was mostly well-heeled locals who were tapping their feet as the Megan Boyer Band, playing in the tiny storefront window, created an evening to remember.
No admission; plenty of grocery items to peruse all lit by tiny twinkling lights on this quiet side street near downtown. Families and couples were driving into the parking lot the next morning to enjoy a visit to the past and a delightful Sunday brunch aboard the Columbia Star Dinner Train. As we climbed aboard, ‘40s jazz music greeted us and our private table sported linen napkins and tablecloth. We pulled out onto the tracks while our waiter brought us Mimosas. Four cars, 1938 and 1939 Pullmans, were loaded with celebrants and locals, all enjoying a two-hour trip to the past. Dinner is especially popular as are special occasions like Christmas and Mother’s Day. All food cooked on board. Reservations necessary as entrees are pre-ordered.
The Downtown Columbia Historic District, or The District as locals call it, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is worth several hours of your time. This area was renovated about 10 years ago. Concrete awnings were removed and now the tree-shaded streets are filled with the funky, the elegant and the unusual. Think of a cleaner, more upscale version of Austin’s Sixth Street. Columbia is home to three colleges, so the young, hip artistic mood is livened with entrepreneurs offering sidewalk cafes, one-of-a-kind shops and memorable art galleries There are more than 100 shops and 70 bars and restaurants spread over 43 city blocks.
As you wander – stop at Poppy and admire the jewelry. The Tiger Hotel, a lovely boutique property, is currently renovating with several floors already finished; the Ragtag Cinema and the Uprise Bakery can fill several hours. – shop and walk and enjoy the charm. Bleu Restaurant and Wine Bar is in The District and offers the best happy hour in town with tasty half-price appetizers and good, half-price wines. I recommend the Bleu Rosemary Lemonade, Blue Cheese Creme Brulee (red onion fig jam, balsamic reduction and homemade crostini) and the grilled pesto chicken sandwich.
Pete Miller from the University of Missouri gave us a walking tour of the campus, showcasing the Mizzou Botanic Gardens. There are 18 named gardens or special plant collections gracing the historic university, home to the nation’s first journalism school. Addison’s, also in The District, was our lunch stop. The most stunning feature in Addison’s is the series of original paintings by artist and bartender David Spear. Diners will appreciate the clean and elegant space. Try the Addison’s Burger – it is famous.
Before you leave Columbia, make room for dessert. Sparky’s ice cream parlor is the only one I know of with a liquor license. There is definitely something for everyone here. Funky and popular. Just a short drive found us checking in to the Doubletree in downtown Jefferson City, the capital of Missouri. Loaded with history, but rejuvenated with fun restaurants and shops, visitors will have a variety of things to do. The Missouri State Capitol Building dominates the skyline. Built in 1918, and covering three acres, visitors admire its immense columns and the 13-by-18 bronze doors. Take a tour and admire the Thomas Hart Benton murals in the House Gallery. Lewis and Clark made Missouri famous and are celebrated with the Corps of Discovery Monument at the Katy Trailhead Plaza which enshrines the date of June 4, 1804.
The bronze statue, created by a local artist, captures the travelers whose camp here eventually became the state capital. We headed over to Capitol City Cork and Provisions which not only serves up a wide selection of wines and fine edibles but is often the gathering spot for hardworking Missouri legislators. An hour later, we rounded the corner to have dinner at the city’s favorite eatery, Madison’s Cafe. Rob Agee, owner of Madison’s, greeted us with gusto and sent dish after scrumptious dish featuring northern Italian cuisine over for us to try.
The next day was gorgeous and we made the rounds of historical sites. We enjoyed a tour of the Governor’s Mansion where all Missouri governors have lived since 1871. Nearby, overlooking the Missouri River, is the Carnahan Memorial Governor’s Garden and Jefferson Landing, the oldest riverfront landing on the Missouri River. But our afternoon was truly unusual. In a testament to the old adage of making a silk purse from a sow’s ear, tourism officials have turned the former Missouri State Penitentiary into an attraction.
We had lunch at Prison Brews – a microbrewery and restaurant located just two blocks form the former penitentiary. The prison theme is lighthearted and not grim. Burgers, salads, sandwiches and tasty desserts are all enjoyable. Pulling up to the old prison was eye opening. The prison, also known as “The Walls,” operated from 1836-2004. Our tour guide, Ray Darlene, said, “When this prison opened in 1836, the Battle of the Alamo was going on in Texas and Andrew Jackson was in the his second term as president. The prison was 100 years old when Alcatraz began taking inmates.” Many former guards and prison employees now serve as volunteer tour guides with a longterm goal of saving as much of the deteriorating site as possible. Sadly, the prison was named the ‘bloodiest 47 acres in American” by Time Magazine in the mid-’60s. “Everyone had a weapon,” Darlene said. When looking at the cells, visitors are shocked to learn that it was still housing inmates just eight short years ago. Pretty Boy Floyd was an inmate as was boxer Sonny Liston, imprisoned for robbing a Kroger, and James Earl Ray. Tours are just $12.
We left the prison and lightened up with a visit to the Central Diary, an old-fashioned ice cream shop, located in the Old Munichburg neighborhood.The huge banana split can be shared by two – or even three! Our last evening in Jefferson City was pure delight. We drove to Summit Lake Winery, ordered a bottle of Missouri wine and spent the cool evening on the patio listening to live music and enjoying a terrific dinner. Owners John and Tracie Ferrier entertain guests from their blufftop restaurant with incredible views of the river and the valley.
As we headed out of town the next morning, we had to try Oscar’s Classic Diner. Our blueberry pancakes and biscuits were homemade and served with a smile. This nostalgic ‘50s diner is comfortable and famous for boasting of their friendliness. “We’ll treat you like family, but won’t make you do the dishes.” Contact the Missouri Division of Tourism for help with a memorable trip to Missouri or call 573-526-5900.