COLUMBIA —The "Berg" was Kristen and Jason Miller's favorite hang-out when they first dated in 1998 as journalism students at MU.
In 2002, he proposed to her in the front corner booth on the right. They tied the knot in August 2003 on the weekend after it burned to the ground, and a brick recovered from the old Berg sits beside their MU diplomas at home in Cleveland, Ohio.
"While we've only been back to Columbia a handful of times, it is always the first place that we go," Kristen Miller wrote in an email. "We visited just this past August, and it was our first opportunity to introduce our now 2-year-old daughter, Emerson, to the Heidelberg tradition."
The Heidelberg on Ninth Street turns 50 on Saturday as one of Columbia's most beloved restaurants. For the past half-century, the Berg has been offering customers German and American bar food, drinks and a cozy place to relax and hang out.
The restaurant has planned an open house from 11 a.m. to close with house food and drink specials, including sandwiches, pints, shots and birthday cake.
The Missourian asked readers to send in their Heidelberg memories, and some of those accounts are included in this story.
A family business
Dick Walls, George Petrakis, Marty Sigholtz and Jim Martin opened the Heidelberg on Jan. 5, 1963, at 410 S. Ninth St. Walls' two sons, Rusty and Richard, now share the ownership to continue the Berg tradition.
As far as the Walls brothers can remember, they have been working at the Berg nearly all their lives.
"I was 12 years old, washing dishes," Richard Walls said.
Over the years it was a place to watch Mizzou football and basketball games, to stage a first date, an anniversary, post-graduation or birthday party — even a pre-wedding drink — and reunite with fellow alums over beer and German wurst plates.
Many also returned for the pork loin sandwiches and the wings, as well as Long Island Iced Teas and Irish Car Bombs from the bar.
In 2003, a fire gutted the Berg, but Walls vowed to rebuild. It reopened exactly a year later with an expanded rooftop patio, which added 30 tables, allowing the Berg to serve even more customers.
Stephanie Barnes posted her memories of the fire recently on Facebook: She and her roommate drove over to the site, and each took a short strip of yellow police tape as a memento.
“I think I still have it in a box somewhere,” Barnes said.
Becky Vennemann said she had planned to order a beer and Cajun Burger at the Berg after a summer internship, but a going-away party delayed her departure by a day.
"As a friend was helping me unload my car," she said, "I asked if he wanted to go to the Berg. He said, 'Didn’t you hear? It burned down last night.'"
Current and former employees recalled how they were treated as a family.
Amy George, an MU alumna who worked at the Heidelberg from 1978 to 1985, said she could never have put herself through college if it weren't for the "Berg's support."
"I made good money, but more importantly, I made friends for life there," George said. "I even babysat Dick's two sons, Richard and Rusty, when they were in junior high."
George now considers the Walls clan her extended family, and said whenever she comes back to the Berg, she feels like she is coming home.
Emily Driscoll, 29, the server manager at the Heidelberg, is one of the longest-tenured employees. She has been working at the bar since it reopened in 2004.
"We are like a big family," she said. "It's a fun atmosphere, and there is never a dull moment here."
Memories of the Berg
Over the years, Driscoll said many of her customers would come back to share stories about their relationship with the restaurant.
"So many customers come in and say that they had their first date here," Driscoll said. "They remember coming here in the '60s, '70s and '80s in college, whether it's Mizzou sporting events or just coming back to visit."
Katie Hanney, a teacher at Ridgeway Elementary, said she stopped at the Berg to get a pre-ceremony drink before her wedding. She was wearing her wedding dress.
“I had a plate of French fries and Boulevard Wheat,” Hanney said. “Everyone said it was a great way to take the edge off, just before the ceremony.”
Will Cobbins, 54, of Columbia who visits the Berg every Friday, said he started going there when his high school basketball coach brought him by for a lunch. He now goes to the Berg with his family.
"They've got the best wings in town," Cobbins said. "I have grandkids who eat wings now."
Melissa Adell, who went to undergraduate and graduate schools at MU, said she spent her 21st birthday and spent her first date with her boyfriend at the Berg.
"It's a convenient place for everyone to meet," Adell said. "It's kind of a great equalizer. No certain type of people go there. It's for everyone."
Looking to the next 50 years
For the next half-century, the Walls brothers say they want to keep the same old-school, laid-back, comfortable atmosphere.
"We want to make sure that we are always the place you'll feel comfortable," Rusty Walls said. "We are not the new trendy place, but you always kind of know what you come to get."
As for the Berg's success, Richard Walls doesn't think it is anything magical.
"It's just doing little things and do them really well and try every day to do the best as you can," he said.
Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.