While Fort Wayne has earned a reputation as a City of Churches, it is just as accurately called the City of Restaurants.
Although there are hundreds of excellent culinary options available today, some restaurants hold a special appeal, a nostalgic pull, and that can be especially true of former favorites which are no longer part of the city’s landscape.
Two Fort Wayne writers decided to look into some of those eateries, an effort that resulted in a book, Classic Restaurants of Fort Wayne, published last spring in paperback.
A natural topic
Having already written a couple of books together, including Honest Eats: Celebrating the Rich Food History of Indiana’s Historic Lincoln Highway, the topic of food comes naturally to the authors, as does research. Keith Elchert, a copy editor for The Journal Gazette, partnered with Laura Weston to write about his hometown, Tiffin, Ohio, before they turned their attention to food.
“We’d written a previous book about food along the Lincoln Highway, and this was a natural outgrowth of that,” Elchert said. “We had each grown up in Ohio. I’m from Tiffin, and she’s from Marion.”
Weston, who worked for many years at The News-Sentinel and now works at ARCH, also comes to her love of food from her upbringing.
“I grew up next door to our family farm, and my grandmother would make huge meals,” Weston said. “I still have her recipes. And I used to write about food for The News-Sentinel and love to collect cookbooks.”
Despite the fact they didn’t grow up in Fort Wayne, Elchert and Weston quickly got up to speed on the rich culinary history of the area. They have found some great examples of local classic restaurants including such places as Powers Hamburgers, Nine Mile Restaurant, and Weston’s favorite, the Lincoln Tower Soda Fountain.
They also included places that resonate on a more national scale.
“We do a mixture of past and present,” Elchert said. “We wanted to include places that had some kind of historical connection or notoriety. Hobby House was a Fort Wayne institution, and of course with Dave Thomas you get another Fort Wayne connection.”
For those too young to remember the Hobby House, it sat on the corner of North Anthony and Crescent and was famous for its fried chicken. Thomas worked there early in his career before eventually starting his own food franchise, Wendy’s. Not coincidentally, the former home for Hobby House has been replaced by a Wendy’s.
But that’s hardly the only story that puts Fort Wayne restaurants on a national stage. In May 1968, just days ahead of the Indiana primary, Democratic Presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy visited Fort Wayne on a campaign stop. It was big news in the city, with many filling the streets of downtown to catch a glimpse of the charismatic candidate. His wife Ethel, pregnant with the couple’s youngest child Rory, accompanied him.
“The story is he blew off some big event at one of the local hotels,” Elchert said. “Ethel was hungry so they stopped by to eat at Zoli’s. Mr. Zoli was a lifelong Republican, but the two of them talked and bonded over a meal. Zoli escaped from Hungary in 1956, and Kennedy intrigued him. They made a toast to Hungarian freedom fighters. When they left, Zoli gave them pizzas and ham sandwiches and menus to take with them.”
Kennedy was assassinated just a few weeks later but not before he sent back one of the menus to Zoli autographed and stating that at Zoli’s he enjoyed “the best food I ever ate.”
Even more history
For more stories like that, visit the History Center on Sunday, Jan. 5, at 2 p.m. when Elchert and Weston will present a lecture and book signing for Classic Restaurants of Fort Wayne.
The History Center hosts free lectures the first Sunday of each month:
Feb. 2: “War as a Tool for Group Uplift: African Americans and War, Part II: 1941-1975,” lecture by Anthony L. Conley
March 1: “A History of the Allen County Bar and Courts, 1824-2019,” lecture and book signing by Don Doxsee
April 5: “Alice Hamilton of Fort Wayne: Scientist and Social Reformer,” lecture by Bill Ringenberg and Matthew Ringenberg
May 3: “1794 Old Northwest and the March to Kekionga,” lecture and book signing by Jim Pickett
June 7: “Historical Weaponry: Artifacts from the Revolutionary War, Civil War, and More,” lecture by Jack Lawson
While it may be called a “lecture,” Elchert and Weston expect something much less formal.
“We love to hear stories from people,” Weston said. “We’ll hear that so-and-so met their husband or wife at that restaurant or that they used to go to that place on dates. When we did a lecture on Keith’s hometown of Tiffin, Keith really didn’t speak all that long. It was much more fun to have the back and forth with the people that were there.”
“We aren’t authorities and don’t pretend that we have complete knowledge on the topic,” Elchert said. “In fact we ask people to feel free to reach out to us. We learn as much from people who come to see us as they learn from us. After this book was published, the Clauss family that owned Hobby House got in touch with us so we keep learning more and already have a list of places for the sequel.”
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