I don’t know about you, but I always like to balance grimness with happiness. After I see a “dark” movie, I want to turn around and watch a lightweight cartoon with kitties and duckies in it. And the “prison + ice cream” combination offers the same kind of yin/yang balance. So after “doing time” at the Missouri State Penitentiary, we’d worked up an appetite for something, well, refreshing and light-hearted . . . ice cream!
Central Dairy Ice Cream Parlor
Jefferson City is rich with time-honored and retro frozen-dessert places, but the aptly named Central Dairy is indeed the “center” of it all. It’s in the Munichburg district, in the center of town, and as chance would have it, it’s only a few blocks from our house!
We used to walk here from Grandma’s house when I was a kid. My favorite has always been mint chocolate chip! Huzzah!
When we’re out in our yard during the summer, we can depend on motorists and bikers stopping by to ask directions to “that ice cream parlor”!
It is a local dairy, and has been since the 1930s; its first big surge in fame occurred in 1942, when Madison Street was extended and became US Highway 54 heading south out of town. From that point on, it became an incredibly popular stop for motorists en route to the Lake of the Ozarks. (Think of the days before a/c was common in cars!)
Even though US 54 was rerouted to its current position in 1965, Central Dairy has remained a favorite stop for folks heading down to the Lake.
Central Dairy was recently bought by Prairie Farms out of Illinois. Everyone hopes they will continue to honor the Central Dairy brand and its ice cream parlor!
This is the real deal, folks; nothing has changed! You can enjoy your frozen treat in the same little wooden booths that Archie, Betty, and Veronica (and their pals Potsie, Richie, and Fonzie) sat in during the 1950s, before air conditioning was ubiquitous, when cold drinks were necessary to make summertime bearable.
The ice cream counter was located near several local schools, so it was “the place” for young people to gather, drink milkshakes and chocolate malts, and date and gossip.
They serve real ice cream (not that goopy ice-milk stuff), though their offerings now include frozen yogurt, sugar-free ice cream, several new-fangled “premium” flavors, and more. They have one flavor called “Muddy River” (which seems quite apt, since it looks like the Big Muddy’s gonna be flooding in the next few weeks!).
My Great Aunt Minnie always preferred to buy her ice cream there at the Central Dairy counter, claiming that it’s much, much better when it’s hand-dipped: So much fresher than in the boxes at the grocery store! And yes, you can still buy ice cream there this way.
An aside: Sometimes at her big, formal Christmas dinners, Aunt Minnie would serve Central Dairy peppermint ice cream for dessert. She would dip up perfectly round spheres of it ahead of time and freeze them for easy serving later; then she would roll them in coconut flakes and serve each on a lovely plate (with a lacy paper doily on it, no less), garnished with a fresh green sprig of mint. Aunt Min sure knew how to impress!
The parlor’s prices are fairly retro, too! It costs two bucks for a “small” ice cream cone, which, if we’re speaking honestly, is actually more like a huge ice cream cone! But if you want to go all out, you can get all kinds of sundaes, banana splits, malts and shakes, fountain drinks, and a limited selection of hot dog and polish sausage sandwiches. If you order a banana split, you had better bring some friends along to help you eat it! The prices are surprisingly low and include tax, so a two-dollar cone actually requires two dollars out of your pocket.
During warm weather, and during any logical times for ice-cream consumption, the place gets packed—but don’t let that put you off: They have lots of friendly young servers working at once, the line moves very quickly, and there’s plenty of space inside and outdoors for eating (and chatting with other ice cream aficionados).
One word to the uninitiated: There are two doors, and one long ice cream counter. There’s no sign saying “line starts here,” but you should know that the line ends at the cash register (at the right) and starts at the opposite end (at the left). I recommend entering through the left door so you don’t have to push your way “upstream.” The locals all know this arrangement by heart and just do it. I tell you this because I don’t want you to be confused if you show up during an especially busy time.
Yep, summer has begun, and Missouri’s going to be heating up a lot in the next couple of months—and ice cream is a natural remedy. If you haven’t been the Central Dairy parlor, then by all means, go! (And if you want to bring me a lime freeze, I’d be much obliged!)
In 1920, Central Dairy started business in Columbia, not Jefferson City. The Jefferson City office was originally a branch. But Central Dairy’s former headquarters still stands in downtown Columbia, between the Alpine Shop and My Sister’s Circus. The building is now the home of Downtown Appliance and “Pickleman’s” sandwich shop (1104 and 1106 E. Broadway, respectively).
Next time you’re walking past the Field House on your way to India’s Kitchen, look for the words “CENTRAL DAIRY” engraved across the center of that building.