A family diner offers tradition with a twist.
by Shawna Bethell
Take a seat at the lunch counter of Oscar’s Diner and you’re in danger of being swept along by a tide of nostalgia. Plates heaped with burgers and fries roll off the line while the orders are called from the kitchen’s window. Servers genially keep pace with the fury of demand. Black-and-white images of a simpler time line the walls, and a jukebox plays old, familiar tunes. It’s the 1950s all over again, with a twist.
“There weren’t any theme restaurants around here when we opened,” says Lisa Mankin, who owns the business with her husband, Kurt. “We wanted something fun and family oriented, so we came up with the diner.”
Good plan. Earlier this year, Oscar’s was voted as having the No. 1 lunch special in Jefferson City by the News Tribune, and their burgers ranked No. 2. Their morning favorites, such as country eggs benedict and the “hungry man” platter, are perennial winners in the best breakfast category.
It’s no surprise that Oscar’s is a winner. The original Oscar’s, owned by Kurt Mankin’s grandfather, Oscar Mankin, was a beloved Jeff City tradition from 1948 to 1971. When Oscar retired, he sold the business, but he always hoped that Kurt and his father, Bob (known as Fuzzy), would take over the restaurant. In 2004, a decade after Oscar passed away, the two reopened the place.
“It’s a tribute to the era of the original restaurant, with a ’50s theme and the quality of Oscar’s original home-style cooking and juicy steaks,” says Lisa.
Sadly, father and son would only have a few years working together on their family dream before Fuzzy passed, but by then, the restaurant had become a new tradition with Jeff City diners.
“It’s fun to see grandparents come in with their grandkids,” says Lisa. “They have an affinity with the time because they lived through it. You see them explaining the photos to the kids.”
The black-and-white images that the Mankins use to decorate the walls depict the era as it truly was. Photos of local families gathering at the fair, athletes playing the fields around the city, and landmarks of the area offer patrons a walk through history. When the building caught fire in 2013, Lisa said she received multiple calls from people who were concerned about losing those depictions of memories they had lived. Realizing how tenuous those connections to the past can be, the callers asked for copies, and, feeling like her customers are an extension of her own family, Lisa complied.
“We have regulars who come every day, every week,” she says. “It was very touching.”
But just because they offer that step back in time doesn’t mean they don’t keep up with new trends. Although most of the food served at Oscar’s is home-style, they also offer a heart healthy menu with smaller portions and lower-sodium options. They have gluten-free items for those dietary restrictions as well.
“The gluten-free menu has been very well received,” says Lisa. They took on the new effort after an employee had been diagnosed with dietary restrictions. “It made a dramatic difference in her health, and it inspired our change.”
Oscar’s is a family-style restaurant that focuses on building family relationships in business as well: from their employees, many of whom have been on staff for ten or twelve years, to their regulars, who come in for a traditional breakfast.
“People gather here [in the banquet room] for their important events: weddings, funerals, class reunions,” Lisa says. “We become part of people’s lives, and we enjoy that.”