For nearly three decades, Nathan’s restaurant served comfort on the outskirts of downtown Columbia.
Whether it was what some customers described as the best grits in town, a side of tomato pie with meatloaf, or friendly debate about the worthiness of the Pittsburgh Steelers, regulars made Nathan’s a quirky, quaint and well-loved institution.
But on April 7, owner Debbie Kaufman closed the diner’s doors for the final time.
“It was time,” Kaufman said. “I decided to retire. I’m getting older and don't think I can do it any longer.”
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It may have been time, but it wasn't an easy decision for Kaufman, who has been running the restaurant alone since her husband, Nathan, died five years ago.
Local attorney Jonathan Harvey was a long-time customer who enjoyed talking sports and music with Nathan Kaufman, a discussion that included an ongoing debate about who was better – Eric Clapton or Duane Allman (the latter being Harvey’s choice).
“Nathan's was very hospitable, with a great atmosphere and the food was good,” Harvey said.
Debbie and Nathan opened the restaurant in 1991. Originally a pharmacy, the restaurant had been a sandwich shop for about two decades before Nathan's opened and offered Southern style, meat-and-three fare.
They elected to open their restaurant downtown and to only open Monday-Friday for breakfast and lunch.
“We wanted to be home with the kids at nights and on weekends,” Debbie Kaufman said.
When the kids were younger, they’d spend time at the restaurant making houses out of the cardboard boxes cups came in, or climbing a tree out front. As they got older, they worked there – their daughter as a waitress and their son making deliveries.
With her daughter moved out-of-town and her son away at school, it made the decision to close Nathan's easier.
“I started getting the feeling it was never going to be the same,” Kaufman said.
When Kaufman gazes around the restaurant, she remembers the customers who brought the diner to life as they ate and chatted at the dozen booths and tables, covered by green gingham tablecloths in easy-wipe plastic.
She remembers singer Darius Rucker, formerly of Hootie and the Blowfish and now a solo country music star, ordering his usual two scrambled eggs, corned-beef hash, grits and toast when he lived nearby in college. She remembers David Beasley stopping by when he was governor, and U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham eating chicken livers at one of those green gingham tables.
And she remembers when country music star Lee Greenwood stopped by and wanted breakfast after they had switched to lunch. Even though she was a fan, she didn't recognize Greenwood and told him he had missed breakfast.
But more than the celebrities, she remembers her regulars.
“There have been so many amazing people who have been so supportive of me,” she said. “I want to thank all of my customers, I want them to know how much I appreciate them.”
The feeling is mutual, Harvey said.
“Debbie and Nathan were real appreciative of their customers and made them feel special,” he said. “I enjoyed the atmosphere, and enjoyed the food.”
Kaufman is trying to get used to not having to be at the restaurant early every weekday morning. She has a few catering jobs to finish, but should be fully retired this summer.
“It’s been a great ride, a great journey,” Kaufman said. “A lot of fun.”