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Published: Monday, 3/11/2013

Glass City is home to rich, varied restaurant history

BY DANIEL NEMAN
BLADE FOOD EDITOR
Butch Dyer, left, and Ray Dyer are smiling in a packed Dyer’s Chop House in downtown Toledo 1981. Butch Dyer, left, and Ray Dyer are smiling in a packed Dyer’s Chop House in downtown Toledo 1981.
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The names are starting to fade, like Ghosts of Restaurants Past. All that remains are the memories of dishes they served.

The boeuf au fromage and the cognac dressing at Fifi’s Reprise. The lamb’s tongue at Revolver. The tenderloin London broil at the Willows.

Restaurants come and restaurants go, and even the best eventually close, except perhaps Maxim’s in Paris. Time takes its toll, tastes change. When the economy stumbles, it always takes at least a few good places with it.

Always a town of serious eaters eating serious food, Toledo has seen more than its share of top-notch restaurants shimmer away into the mist, like the lingering scent of a rich but vaguely recalled sauce.

No longer does the Top of the Tower serve its “pie, high in the sky” — nearly 400 feet above the ground on the top floor of the Fiberglas Building. No more clam chowder at the Northwood Inn. The strip steak and soft ice cream drinks are gone forever from Van’s Colonial.

Behind the front window of Dyer’s Chop House, and the lobsters on ice always displayed there, civic and business leaders lunched for decades in all-male exclusivity — until U.S. District Court Judge Don J. Young ordered that women be admitted, and not just as dinner guests.

Dyer’s reliably fresh seafood drew the local elite in the evening, some as much to see and be seen as to dine. Background music several evenings a week was courtesy of a woman playing the organ.

French cuisine brought diners in the 1970s and 1980s to the Wine Cellar in the historic St. James Hotel at Summit and Lagrange streets. Danish-style fare at the Tivoli on Monroe Street once was the rage. The Charcoal House on Talmadge Road could be counted on for fine steaks and chops.

All of it, gone.

What remains are memories of high-profile celebrities such as comedians Bob Hope and Danny Thomas, jazz clarinetist Woody Herman, and boxer Jack Dempsey visiting an iconic establishment such as Dyer’s, which anchored the same familiar spot on the 200 block of Superior Street for 72 years and was forced to evolve with the emergence of women in the workplace. It was put up for sale in the fall of 1989, and closed for good in 1993.

Dyer’s once was synonymous with Toledo’s downtown dining experience as among the most popular places for Toledo professionals. More so than some of the city’s other famed restaurants, Dyer’s departure from downtown was seen as a turning point.

Former owner Ray Dyer lamented the decline of downtown in a 1989 interview, in which he observed how the character of the central business district changed as so many doctors, dentists, and insurance executives had fled for the suburbs, leaving mostly lawyers and government workers. “It’s not fun anymore,” Mr. Dyer was quoted as saying.

Toledo’s downtown is gradually coming back, yet it won’t likely be the same as it was when Dyer’s was the place at which the city’s elite and visiting celebrities gathered.

Dyer’s dated to 1905, starting as an eatery known as the College Inn Restaurant created by Elmer Dyers in the basement of the original Ohio Bank Building at Madison and Superior. The business moved to its most familiar location along Superior in 1917, where its name was changed. It was a fixture during downtown’s heyday of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. In addition to its fine food, patrons enjoyed the familiar smiles and service of its many employees who had worked there 20 years or longer.

Dyer’s had male-only service that went well beyond the lunch hour in its early years. Women were banned from Dyer’s until 1929, when the stock market crash and subsequent Great Depression meant fewer customers. The restaurant relaxed that policy by allowing women to dine there after 1:30 p.m. for the next few decades, until Judge Young declared that policy illegal in an Oct. 27, 1972, ruling he issued to resolve a sex-discrimination lawsuit brought by two women, Charlene Bennett and Carol Nofen, after they were denied service before 1:30 p.m. in February, 1972.

Dyer’s Chop House was a favorite of business leaders and celebrities for decades. Dyer’s Chop House was a favorite of business leaders and celebrities for decades.
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Italian mainstay

For 34 years, Dominic’s Italian Restaurant, 2121 South Reynolds Rd., was a popular, family-style eatery in the South End, across from the former Southwyck Shopping Center. Its clientele went beyond the city’s pizza and pasta lovers to include many celebrities who performed at the nearby Masonic Auditorium, which was renamed the Stranahan Theater several years ago.

Dominic De Lelles, the restaurant’s founder, was the proud owner of the region’s first commercial-scale pasta maker in 1975. His restaurant opened in 1968, and closed in 2002. It thrived when Southwyck was one of the area’s top malls in the 1970s and early 1980s. The mall’s decline and eventual shuttering contributed to the restaurant’s downfall, as did the opening of an expressway exit at Dussel Drive on I-475/U.S. 23. That reduced traffic in front of Dominic’s restaurant by an estimated 35,000 cars a day.

The De Lelles family operated a number of restaurants in the area since the early 1950s. Dominic De Lelles was a baker from Steubenville, Ohio, who opened one of Toledo’s first pizza shops, the former Dominic’s Original Pizza on Nebraska Avenue, about six decades ago.

Posh eateries

A restaurant known as much for its elegant atmosphere as it exquisite culinary offerings was Porch of the Maidens on West Central Avenue near Holland-Sylvania Road. It was a posh establishment that operated in the 1970s and 1980s, adorned with furnishings that included a white Grecian statue and a Waterford crystal chandelier, with classical music played regularly on a grand piano. “The Porch” was the kind of place that served a couple of variations of duck, rack of lamb, lobster bisque, and caviar. It also featured a number of paintings in the Grecian-Roman theme.

There also was Ricardo’s, a once-glittering riverside restaurant poised along the Maumee River from the lower level of the skyscraper at One SeaGate formerly occupied by the Owens-Illinois world headquarters.

The building is now Fifth Third Center at One SeaGate, the northwest Ohio headquarters of Fifth Third Bank. Ricardo’s was the anchor restaurant in downtown Toledo’s tallest building, catching the wave of excitement when it opened in 1982 along with a new building that offered the promise and hope of a downtown renaissance. Downtown development fizzled, though, and by 1994, so did Ricardo’s. It was replaced briefly by a Mexican eatery called the Aztec Grille, but that went out of business.

Ricardo’s, which for a time was owned by the Skaff family (which also owned the Willows on Monroe Street), was a happening place for the martini-toting movers and shakers in the community during its 12 years of existence. It was one of the few restaurants that consistently had live music. Its food got rave reviews. So did the view it offered of large ships plying along the Maumee. Retired Blade food critic Mary Alice Powell once described Ricardo’s as “a pride of Toledo,” and a “gem on the downtown waterfront [that] sparkles with class.” The restaurant’s ambiance resembled that of luxury ocean liners of the 1920s.

Fire and flair

Tableside cooking over an open flame was the trademark in the 1960s and 1970s of Alfie's on Sylvania Avenue. Named for the song by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Alfie's boasted it was the only venue in Toledo where an entire gourmet dinner was prepared tableside.

When the restaurant first opened, the all-male dining room staff presented diners with wooden paddles listing the limited menu. Flaming entrees were introduced several months later.

Dressed in tuxedos, not smocks and toques, the Alfie’s dining room cooking staff prepared Steak Diane and caesar salads in front of guests and, later, with plenty of cointreau and brandy, peaches flambe and crepes suzette.

Food with a view

In 1991, the Owens-Illinois Inc. executive dining room on the 28th floor of One SeaGate, one floor above the executive suite, became the exclusive Skyline Club, where private memberships were first offered at $1,000 a year. Corporate memberships allowed four or more to join at 50 percent off. No minimum business was required of members.

Dyer’s Chop House had many traditions, including an organist.  Leona Kubitz is shown at the keys in 1982. Dyer’s Chop House had many traditions, including an organist. Leona Kubitz is shown at the keys in 1982.
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The Skyline Club was noted for its stunning views and its opulence. Ornate chandeliers and oil paintings of hunting dogs, the prized work of Toledo artist Edmund Osthaus, added atmosphere. The club's proprietor, Chris Felix, leased the space from O-I. Atop Toledo's tallest building, privacy was one of the selling points. The club featured an executive meeting room and five dining rooms that accommodated five to 125 guests.

Then-Mayor Carty Finkbeiner held $500-a-person birthday fund-raisers at the club, and George Voinovich held a $1,000 a person fund-raiser there for his U.S. Senate campaign.

Officials and employees of the publicly funded Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority, and its offshoot, the Regional Growth Partnership regularly wined and dined prospects there. From 1993 through 1997, The Blade found, economic development officials amassed $23,594 in Skyline Club charges on such items as $40 lamb chops and cognac at $16 a glass.

In early 1997, the Skyline Club closed, although previous reservations were honored, only to reopen as Christopher's in the Sky, which was open to the public for dinner and meetings.

By 2001, though, when Mr. Felix filed for personal bankruptcy to liquidate his debts, the space occupied by the Skyline Club had been reclaimed by O-I.

Dining spectacle

Frank Unkle well remembers his old South Toledo restaurant, Frank Unkle’s. The establishment boasted 15,000 square feet over two levels and floor-to-ceiling windows facing the Maumee River. And food, he is proud to say, was the best in town: Beef Wellington, prime rib, Cornish game hen, Veal Oscar, duck served with both a cherry sauce and an orange sauce.

“You came to Frank Unkle’s to dine, not eat. You can eat anyplace,” he said.

The restaurant lasted more than 20 years because of the food and the personalized service, he said. At any given time, it employed more than 100 people, from valet parkers to cooks to servers who created many dishes right at the tables. Many of these tableside dishes would be flamed, all part of the customer-pleasing show.

And there was one more key: “I used to serve very large portions of everything.”

For an extra bit of flamboyance, the restaurant began a tradition during its opening week that it continued for the most special of occasions. Every once in awhile, it would hire a skydiver to parachute down into the river outside the restaurant, carrying a bottle of champagne. A small boat was sent out to retrieve both the skydiver and the wine. The champagne would then be presented to a particular guest, often with the skydiver in tow.

That awe-inspiring spectacle won the National Restaurant Association’s award for marketing.

Though the restaurant was popular (“We were taking reservations until 11:30 at night,” Mr. Unkle said), eventually time and circumstances caught up to Frank Unkle’s. The largest bank in town, Toledo Trust, collapsed in scandal, and the restaurant had borrowed money from it. At the same time, Mr. Unkle was also going through a divorce. The restaurant could not keep up with the circumstances.

Economic casualties

When the national and local economies took a belly flop in 2008, it took more restaurants with it, including the acclaimed Diva downtown. The dining establishment’s last chef, Erika Rapp, said it decided to close before it was forced to close, so the staff could go out the way they wanted. “We were lucky, because a lot of other places were forced to close afterward,” she said.

That was the season that a boiler in the basement of the Valentine Theatre exploded, injuring five. The theater was closed for several months to repair the damage, which cut deeply into the nearby restaurant’s customer base, she added.

Diva changed its menu with the seasons and the availability of the freshest ingredients, which made it ahead of its time for this area, Ms. Rapp said. It was a white-tablecloth, formal-type of restaurant — and that, she said, was its downfall.

“Once you defined it like that, it was hard to get away from it. Which can be difficult, on a Wednesday night, to be a fine-dining restaurant,” she said.

Ms. Rapp is now the chef and co-owner of Registry Bistro downtown, which she describes as “casual fine dining.”

“A lot of the essence of what Diva was, we hold dear at Registry. We take special care of our guests; [we serve] food that is interesting and creative,” she said.

Open fewer than nine months, the restaurant seems to be catching on with Toledoans. Ms. Rapp thinks she knows what it takes to find success in the always-treacherous world of restaurants.

“To be successful, in my mind, is to define what you are and stick with it. Consistency is important — consistency and dependability. Like Mancy’s, they’re a staple. Places are going to come and go, but they are going to be here.”

Blade staff writers Mark Zaborney and Tom Henry contributed to this report.

Contact Daniel Neman at: dneman@theblade.com or 419-724-6155.



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