In a culture where the vast majority of new restaurant ventures won’t make it to their first anniversary, these Southern-rooted venues have made it to their centennials at the very least. They have what it takes to succeed, and what’s more, they’ve made history in their kitchens and brought together communities at their tables.
- Cotton Geatz’s (1880)—Cumberland, MarylandJohn Geatz (center; born Johannes Götz) owned a handful of saloons before his death. When his sons took over the business, they moved them all to one location under the name John Geatz’s Saloon. (Photo courtesy JP Geatz Collection)Born Johannes Götz (later changed to John Geatz for pronunciation), the German immigrant and businessman owned a number of saloons in the Cumberland, Maryland, area. After his death, his sons carried on the tradition, eventually moving it all to one location under the name John Geatz’s Saloon, landing it in its current location on Paca Street in Cumberland in 1905. The name “Cotton Geatz’s” came along after the founder’s grandson Norman—a.k.a. “Cotton”—ran it for more than forty years.Today, Cotton Geatz’s is run by the fifth generation of the Geatz family. It remains the oldest family-owned restaurant in Maryland.
- Commander’s Palace (1890)—New Orleans, LouisianaCommander’s Palace in New Orleans Garden District is known for dishing out famous chefs in its nearly 130 year run, including Emeril Lagasse and Paul PrudhommeAlthough it’s commonly believed that the upscale Garden District restaurant opened in New Orleans in 1880, it actually got its start in 1890 when Emile Commander opened it as a small saloon.The Brennan family bought the restaurant in 1969 and are still running the world-renowned, sophisticated eatery today. “Miss Ella,” along with her siblings, took the reins in 1974, updating the appearance with the signature “Commander Blue” paint on the façade. In the kitchen, they were shaking up the world of Creole cooking under the supervision of top chefs such as Emeril Lagasse and Paul Prudhomme.
- Columbia (1905)—Tampa, Florida The courtyard of Columbia’s Tampa location. Casimiro Hernandez Jr., the founder’s son, updated what his father had started, adding dancing and much-needed air conditioning.When Casimiro Hernandez, Sr., opened Columbia in 1905 in Tampa’s Ybor City, the small café that sold Cuban coffee and sandwiches was nothing that could claim itself to be the largest Spanish restaurant in the world as they do now. The operation didn’t expand until 1919, when Casimiro bought the adjoining restaurant to expand the dining area.After the death of his father, Casimiro Jr. took over Columbia in 1930. He made it a bit more upscale, adding music, dancing, and air conditioning. The restaurant only expanded from there, rising above a falling economy. Today Casimiro’s great-grandsons run Columbia’s seven locations throughout Florida, still serving up Florida’s (arguably) best authentic Cuban sandwich.
- The Bright Star (1907)—Bessemer, Alabama The Bright Star in Bessemer, Alabama, highlights the often forgotten Greek culture that has heavily influenced the Birmingham areaAlabama’s oldest restaurant is indeed a bright star shining on the (unbeknownst-to-many) Greek culture highlighting the Birmingham area.Opened in 1907 by Tom Bonduris, brothers Bill and Pete Koikos bought The Bright Star in Bessemer in 1925, two years after they had moved to Alabama from Greece. And the same family still owns it today. The restaurant offers Greek and Southern fare and has been consistently rated as one of the top spots to eat in the Birmingham area for decades. While their steaks have been praised throughout the South, locals say the fried snapper throats are what keep them coming back.
- Varallo’s Chile Parlor (1907)—Nashville, Tennessee While they are known for Southern comfort food, Varallo’s started with an Italian violinist and a recipe for a spicy bean soupThis fourth-generation-owned Nashville icon might not have the glitz and glamour of some of the newer Music City restaurants, but the down-home cafeteria-style restaurant didn’t become the city’s oldest eatery by dishing out just anything. The story goes that the secret was in the chili.Frank Varallo, Sr., was an Italian violinist. While traveling through South America, a family gave him a recipe to a spicy bean soup that he dubbed “chile.” Years later he opened Varallo’s Chile Parlor with the recipe in hand, selling bowls for fifteen cents. After taking over following his father’s death, Varallo Jr. assumed the chili-making responsibilities, dishing up wisdom at the bottom of a bowl. Literally. His “Thoughts from the Bottom of a Chili Bowl” was a customer favorite, although just a sentiment scribbled in the depths of the dish. It’s the little things—which is why Varallo’s is still a local favorite in Nashville.
- Cattlemen’s Steakhouse (1910)—Oklahoma City, Oklahoma Thanks to a whole lot of luck and a good roll, local rancher Gene Wade won the Cattlemen’s Café after rolling a “hard six,” which is now the signature brand of the restaurant—33 (photo by Marilyn Wolf)It takes a good-sized steak to fit a cowboy’s appetite, and if the steaks at Oklahoma City’s Cattlemen’s Steakhouse are good enough for the likes of the Duke himself (John Wayne, that is), we can assume they’re good enough for anyone.Cattlemen’s Café opened in 1910 to feed the hungry herds surrounding OKC. It changed hands a couple of times before it came under the ownership of Hank Frey. Frey was a known gambler, and on one particular day at the Biltmore Hotel, Frey put up the Cattlemen’s as the pot if Gene Wade, a local rancher who had put up his life savings, could roll a “hard six.” The dice left Wade’s hands and much to the surprise of many, and the chagrin of one, two threes sat on the table. To this day “33” is the signature brand on steaks and other items at Cattlemen’s Steakhouse, just a remembrance of Wade’s good luck that day.
- Gaidos (1911)—Galveston, Texas Founder San Giacinto Gaido opened the seafood restaurant with a determination to only sell the highest quality catch, a tradition the Gaidos family still maintains today in both Gaidos and their formerly members-only Pelican Club.Gaidos has been a Galveston beach-goer favorite in Texas since 1911. Founder San Giacinto Gaido opened the seafood restaurant with a determination to sell only the highest quality catch, a tradition the Gaidos family still maintains today. All their food is made from scratch, shrimp hand-peeled, oysters shucked in the kitchen. All of which make Gaidos, and the family’s once-members-only Pelican Club, staples of the Galveston culinary world.