Tuning In To Small-Town Charm – Columbia offers unique art, music and food

By Bill Beggs Jr.

The hippies came to town and never left. “Turn on, tune in, drop out,” however, isn’t quite the anti-establishments creed it was in 1968.

These days, “turning on” might mean no more than tasting a Missouri merlot in a unique eatery, soaking up a supercharged stout at Shakespeare’s Pizza, maybe sipping a premium latte in a coffeehouse.

“Tuning in” still means enjoying or sitting in on a rock, jazz, R&B or acoustic show, inside or outside.

“Dropping out” may just mean sticking around, degree or no, and opening a fun, funky, one-of-a-kind business, such as Bluestem Missouri Crafts, named No. 1 in the country by Niche: The Magazine for Progressive Retailers; Slackers, a record store with video games, movies, posters and more fantastic $1 CD finds than you can shake a stick at; or Sparky’s, an ice-cream place with the friendliest bulldog out front you’d ever hope to meet.

There are 110 shops and 70 bars and restaurants in the 43 not-so-square blocks bordering the University of Missouri. None is the type of chain restaurant one might expect to find in six other convenient locations around town, with 60 more throughout the state.

“Honestly, something like an Applebee’s isn’t going to draw people downtown,” says Carey Gartner of the Central Columbia Business District. Most of the familiar restaurant nameplates, as well as most of this college town’s hotel rooms, are just a couple miles north along I-70.

Back in the day, downtown was sort of gray. Public art has been brightening up street scenes that once had colors of the spectrum ranging only from asphalt to concrete, with brick in between. In a continuing metamorphosis, utilitarian spaces and places have become inviting, eye-catching…  and jaw-dropping.

Benches in front of the First National Bank on Broadway sparkle and glitter, adorned with mosaics. Everywhere, it seems, sculpture evokes smiles, invites touch, and attracts kids. Up the hill just west of downtown, the stunning new public library is a magic mountain of glass brick, with windows of different sizes and a towering yellow sculpture rising like flames in front.

You can get almost anywhere on foot, and you can mosey along if you wish.

Lorah Steiner, executive director of the Columbia Convention and Visitors Bureau, says the city possesses an “it” quality sought by many an urban planner.

To captivate, a city “has to have that walkaround  factor,” Steiner says. “It provides a repeatable experience, yet a different experience each time.”

Columbia’s downtown isn’t just a place to park long enough to get your business done at City Hall and leave. Visitors don’t have to be college-age, or college alumni, to get this.

Shakespeare’s Pizza is an icon not only because it spins the world’s best pie this side of, well, anywhere, but because of the level of amusement it guarantees… from the cleverly threatening reserved-parking sign in the lot and the entertaining menu—with hilarious descriptions of the effects its featured brews may produce—to the thrift-store decor, Woodstock-era music and smart-alecky staff.

The Blue Note has drawn national acts for decades, the likes of whom appreciate the audience as much as the audience does them. Last fall, critically acclaimed alternate-country band Wilco played The Blue Note—outside, treating fans on the street and sidewalks to a free concert.

Beyond the restaurants, entertainment and shops, many festivals held throughout the year in downtown Columbia celebrate holidays, changing seasons and life itself.

Twilight Festivals attract hundreds to downtown every Thursday in June and September to enjoy jazz, bluegrass, string quartets, funky rock or bluesy country and any type of food that goes with. Carriage rides are for everyone and hands-on activities are provided for the kids, who can create chalk art and pretend not to be scared of the clowns.

As the weather turns colder, downtown shopkeepers begin planning for the annual Living Windows Festival. On the first Friday in December, from 6p.m. to 8 p.m., shopkeepers move merchandise out of their front windows and stage live holiday performances for onlookers. The celebration features open houses, strolling carolers, holiday treats, lights and visits with Santa.

In fall 2006, an interactive health education center is scheduled to open in The Federal Building, its stated purpose to educate the public on making healthy choices with engaging exhibits. Visitors may seek nutritional advice from a virtual chef while ordering from interactive menus in a mock restaurant. There’ll be a mockup of an emergency room where visitors can make decisions about treatment, and an exhibit highlighting the Missouri-Kansas-Texas (MKT) Trail that runs through downtown. As the project neared construction phase, a change to a less-stuffy name was in order. Thus the whimsical new moniker: the YouZeum.

“‘Interactive health education center’ is an oxymoron to most kids,” says Steiner, with a wry smile.

The trailhead to the MKT Trail, constructed on the old right-of-way, is a highlight of Flat Branch Park, a green space that preservationists secured years ago in the midst of a rapidly growing area near the Mizzou campus. The restored old railroad station is a highlight of this urban space that Gartner proudly refers to as Columbia’s Central Park.

Visitors have the choice of at least one bed and breakfast close-in—the University Avenue B&B. Save the Regency Hotel, there are few choices for traditional hotel accommodations with meeting facilities closer to the district than I-70. City planners and historic restoration experts, however, have their eyes on several vintage buildings that could be reconfigured for fine accommodations and meeting space off-campus.

Meanwhile, hotel rooms are being added at a brisk pace, notes Steiner—more than 700 in the last year and a half alone. Plenty of ample meeting spaces are coming online, too.

The Downtown District still attracts folks who have no problem just being themselves… pierced, inked, leaders, followers, geeks, freaks, jocks, fans, fanatics, poets, veterans, intellectuals, businessmen, average Middle American families.

Says Steiner: “It’s like a little Soho.” MM&E

(Bill Beggs Jr. is a contributor from St. Louis, Mo.)


Contact information

For general information, contact the Columbia CVB:

Phone:    800-652-0987


E-mail: [email protected]

Web sites: www.visitcolumbiamo.com



For more on lodging, select meeting locations:

Holiday Inn Select Executive Center


Ramada Inn Conference Center



Regency Hotel Downtown



Stoney Creek Inn




University Avenue B&B



About the author

Joe Clote

Joseph W. Clote is owner of Publishing Concepts, LLC a communications and marketing firm based in Saint Louis, Missouri. Mr. Clote is Group Publisher of MeetMed™ and Missouri Meetings & Events™ (MM&E) magazine, a quarterly publication read by thousands of meeting and event professionals, and producer of the St. Louis and Kansas City trade shows under the MM&E name. Mr. Clote has extensive sales and marketing expertise in the travel, tourism, fine art, insurance, and software development industries.