Early on May 4, 1979, Peg Zabawa watched as Mrs. Z's, her eponymous Swansfield restaurant and a popular Columbia community institution, went up in flames.
For the five years it was open, Mrs. Z's was a gathering place for early Columbia residents, who came not only for the food, but for the casual, home-like atmosphere.
"Eating at Mrs. Z's was like eating in someone's home, only with several selections of delicious and healthy homemade dishes," former Howard County executive and state delegate Liz Bobo, a Columbia resident, wrote in an email.
"It was homey and comfortable, very much a place of its time," said Jean Moon, another longtime resident of Columbia.
The home-like feel was so important to Zabawa that she told two different Washington Post reviewers, in 1975 and 1978, that Mrs. Z's was not a restaurant — it was "our home," a "people's place" and a place where people can "just be together."
"It's nice to have people buying meals so the others can be free to come in and not buy food," Zabawa told the Post. She expressed disinterest in the financial aspects of her business, saying "I'd rather spend two hours in the kitchen than do the payables or look at the cash register. But I have to earn money to keep the dream."
Zabawa, a musician known for wearing long colorful dresses, opened Mrs. Z's with a $45,000 loan from the Columbia Association, the Columbia Flier reported. The restaurant, with its focus on community, was seen as a reflection of James Rouse's goal — to give Columbia a small-town community feel.
Food at Mrs. Z's was served cafeteria-style, with salad and fresh-baked bread with orange or honey butter included, according to the Post. Moon described it as "simple, homemade food served on pottery plates with colorful cloth napkins." Main dishes changed with the seasons and often featured international cuisine.
Moon's daughter, Beth Singleton, was 13 when Mrs. Z's burned down. She remembers "mismatched pottery, apple butter and warm bread, and a corner that had handmade dolls and toys," she said.
Baltimore Sun restaurant critic Elizabeth Large, writing on Oct. 5, 1975, described the interior as "chic and bohemian […] a careful jumble of hanging plants, antiques, modern graphics and pottery." The reviewer sat at a table with antique scales on it, and metal wind chimes above it.
Large was underwhelmed by the food, she wrote, but was charmed when as she left, she heard Zabawa call out, "Anyone who wants to learn how to make baklava, come into the kitchen!"
The room was dimly lit and hosted poetry nights, concert, and a piano that customers "can, and do, play," the Post reported.
The room appealed to a broad span of generations — from older Columbians, who could bring their own beer and wine, to young children, encouraged to wander and provided with an area full of, as Bobo recalled, "creative educational toys."
The restaurant closed permanently after the fire in 1979, which destroyed the dining room and burned through the roof, the Flier reported.
Zabawa decided not to rebuild the restaurant. Years later, at age 75, she volunteered her time managing a cafe at the Columbia Growth Center, geared toward the mentally ill, the Sun reported. She died in 2010, at age 92.