Nancys Keeps Cookin
Family continues Clintonville diner tradition after owner passes away
By Nick DekkerPublished April 1, 2012
The sign may say Nancy’s, but the restaurant should really be named Cindy’s. Nancy Kimmerling opened Nancy’s Home Cooking at 3133 North High Street in 1968, but quickly decided it wasn’t for her. When she put the restaurant up for sale, Cindy King bought the joint and re-opened it on Saint Patrick’s Day 1971. In order to save money, Cindy didn’t bother changing the name. She then spent the next four decades making the little diner into an institution by loving and supporting Clintonville.
Sadly, Cindy passed away on Saturday, March 3rd, and anyone who’s lived in Columbus for more than a month knows that she was as much of an institution as her restaurant. The long, narrow space, with its big brick wall, tight seating, and bright red tin ceiling, has served as a haven for the local community for decades.
Cindy was forced to end the restaurant’s four-decade run in the spring of 2009, when mounting medical bills and restaurant renovations became too much to handle. When she announced the closing, Clintonville replied with a resounding “No!” and jumped to action. Customers past and present chipped in for renovations. Checks came in from around the world. Contractors donated their time and resources to painting the restaurant, updating the electrical, heating, and air conditioning systems, and refurbishing equipment.
Cindy’s extended family had resolved to let the restaurant close, except for her niece Sheila Davis Hahn. Sheila decided to take up her aunt’s mantle and lead the restaurant. She knew that Clintonville valued the community focus and Cindy’s legacy. “People could hate this place and hate the food,” Sheila said, “but they came in for her.” With the help of the community, Sheila and her husband Rick opened the doors once again in February 2010.
“Nothing really worried me,” she said, “because I knew Cindy was always there.” Sheila spent a lot of time on the phone consulting with Cindy about running the restaurant. But despite any of her concerns, she knew that customers would keep coming. “As long as the coffee and the B.S. is flowing, people will return.”
The challenge in continuing is that Cindy is no longer there as a resource. But in many ways, it feels like she never left. The menu includes a quote from her: “If you’re in a hurry, you should’ve been here yesterday.” Dishes bear her name, like Aunt Cindy’s Chicken-n-Noodles or Aunt Cindy’s Meatloaf. Her portrait hangs on the brick wall, overlooking the restaurant.
After Nancy’s re-opened in 2010, one of Cindy’s biggest pushes was to restart dinner service at the restaurant. “‘When are you starting dinner? When are you starting dinner?’ she would ask,” said Sheila. Her aunt, Sheila says, was stubborn enough to stick around and make sure it happened; Nancy’s started dinner service on March 1st, two days before Cindy passed away. “It seemed like Cindy’s work was done,” Sheila said.
Cindy’s hard work over four decades taught visitors the meaning of community. She was known for chiding customers for not eating their vegetables. “You have to eat at least one,” she would tell someone who left green beans on a plate of chicken and noodles. Cindy offered meals to the homeless. She cooked for Clintonville firefighters. She had beers with customers after work. “It was always more of a social thing, plus some food thrown in,” Sheila joked. Any donations that were left over after the restaurant re-opened, Cindy passed on to the Clintonville Resource Center.
Sitting in the diner, you’d find it hard to believe that the restaurant ever closed. Sheila is on the phone taking orders. Her sister Shelli works the grill and scoops heaping plates of mashed potatoes and gravy. A host of employees prep and serve food to a constant stream of customers. Regulars seek out Sheila to give her a hug and share memories of Cindy. Cards and flowers line the window sill up front.
The morning after Cindy’s death, Sheila found a vase of flowers and a card sitting in front of the restaurant’s door. The card thanked Cindy for her years of service to the community and her love of customers. It was signed: “Columbus.”
In spite of the whirl of renovating and re-opening the restaurant, Sheila insists that she hasn’t done much. “I changed the locks and opened the doors,” she said. But she’s taken on a bigger role than just restaurant owner. She’s picked up her aunt’s mantle as a figure in the Clintonville community. If the hugs and conversation are any indication, she’s on track to continue her aunt’s legacy for many years into the future. Over the decades, unknowing customers had called Cindy “Nancy,” and she always answered to it. Now, it’s Sheila’s turn to do the same.