KEVIN LEININGER: If you like food and history, new look at Fort Wayne’s past gives you something to devour

Today, the nondescript building at 2529 S. Calhoun St. is Alberto's Mexican restaurant. But it used to be Cafe Johnell, the city's premier restaurant that is remembered in a new book by Keith Elchert and Laura Weston. (News-Sentinel.com photo by Kevin Leininger)
"Classic Restaurants of Fort Wayne" goes on sale at book stores and elsewhere later this month.
Kevin Leininger

Some of my earliest and fondest memories of growing up in Fort Wayne feature food: eating at the Hobby House next door to Dad’s dental office on East Wayne Street, or at the Wolf & Dessauer department store that was just west of that, which was known for its Tea Room and then-unusual sidewalk dining. Later on, maturity brought an appreciation for the Hungarian goulash at Zoli’s on Broadway, the sweetbread and Turkish coffee at Cafe Johnell on South Calhoun, the tableside-prepared Caesar salad at the Summit Club and the Chateaubriand for two at Hartley’s Place on Fairfield, which to this day is probably the best steak I’ve ever had.

Does that make me an epicurian and maybe even a glutton? Not necessarily, say the co-authors of a new book about the “Classic Restaurants of Fort Wayne.”

“There’s an emotion to food, and food is intertwined with history, like when presidential candidate Bobby Kennedy visited Zoli’s in 1968,” said former News-Sentinel librarian and food critic Laura Weston, who edited, helped research and found photographs for the book written by Journal Gazette copy editor Keith Elchert — a labor of love that highlights unique restaurants that have withstood time and shifting taste and loyalties and, like the restaurants I mentioned, have not but deserve to be remembered.

In its 110 pages the book chronicles nearly 70 restaurants in the history of a city that, as Elchert notes in the prologue, is known not only as the city of churches and the city that saved itself (from the flood of 1982), but also as a city of restaurants experiencing a dining renaissance thanks to such newcomers as Tolon, Proximo and the Friendly Fox. But long before they arrived the way was being prepared by long-closed restaurants with names like Berghoff Gardens and, of course, the father of Fort Wayne drive-ins: Gardner’s, which opened at 302 W. Jefferson Blvd. in the mid-1930s.

This is not the first literary collaboration for Weston and Elchert, who in 2016 co-authored “Honest Eats: Celebrating the Rich Food History of Indiana’s Historic Lincoln Highway,” America’s first coast-to-coast road that passed through Fort Wayne.

“Doing that book, we saw history vanishing before our eyes,” Weston said in reference to the once-thriving roadside attractions that had passed into oblivion — an observation that moved Elchert to acknowledge that “We probably should have done this 20 years ago because we’ve lost so many primary sources (of information).” Even in the short time between the book’s writing and publication, another favorite from my childhood — the old Dawson’s hot dog stand at 3915 S. Anthony Blvd. — was razed to make room for a Dollar General store.

Happily, the living and historical sources that remain provided plenty of anecdotes, some fairly well known and others downright obscure. Did you know that after Kennedy visited Zoli’s just months before his assassination, he sent owner Zoltan Herman a note thanking the staff for “the best food I ever ate”? Did you know that years before Dave Thomas founded the Wendy’s chain he was a 15-year-old Hobby House employee? Did you know that the restaurant at 13398 U.S. 27 between Fort Wayne and Decatur was founded in 1837 and got its name because it was nine miles from the Courthouse and was a place where “stagecoach travelers spent the night and where pioneers met to exchange news over a pint”?

Read the book and you’ll learn — or perhaps remember — all of that, and much more.

But just as the Lincoln Highway book inspired this one, Weston and Elchert say their latest work leaves plenty of room for a sequel. Its introduction quotes a 2002 column by former News-Sentinel food critic Carol Tannehill: “Just mention . . . Lenkendorfer’s or Manochio’s and the Blue Moo, and most local old-timers shake their heads wistfully and raise their eyes toward heaven.” None of them is in this book, but Volume Two is a real possibility.

Especially if it sells, of course: Produced by Arcadia Publishing, it goes on sale April 29.

“We want to hear from readers,” said Weston, who lists Wolf & Dessauer and the Murphy’s lunch counter as her most fondly remembered restaurant ghosts and the Lincoln Tower Soda Shop among her current favorites. “There are still more stories to tell.”

The book sells for $21.99. For more information contact Arcadia Publishing & The History Press at 1-888-313-2665 or retailers@arcadiapublishing.com

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.

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