Introduction: The summer issue of Gleanings included a call to our readers to share their memories of restaurants that had once been an important element of the town’s social and business life. A number of readers responded including three who live in other parts of the country. In our research we found that close to 100 restaurants have opened and closed since the beginning of the 20th Century. We focused on those establishments that our readers mentioned. In addition we added several others that reflect Ypsilanti’s social history.
“Fast Food” arrived early in Ypsilanti. Familiarly known as Snappy Joe’s, this short order eatery opened its doors in 1932 on Pearl Street next door to the Weidman Ford Dealership. By 1954 it had relocated to 109 1/2 West Michigan, where it was housed in a narrow building (e.g. half a storefront). The interior contained a long counter with stools and a kitchen behind. Popular with the downtown lunch time crowd, the menu consisted primarily of hamburgers, hot dogs, and soup. Often there would be a bean dish, such as chili, prepared ahead of time. Maxe Obermeyer recalls a line outside waiting for a stool to open up. Joe's Snappy Service would continue on Michigan Avenue until the early seventies.
Further east on Michigan Avenue, across the river, stood Russell's Diner, later known as Averill's. This diner offered curb service during the 1930's. (see picture). The diner was opened by the parents of the late Red Averill. After the Averill’s separated, Red’s mother moved the diner further east to the site of what is now The Bomber. Red Averill would go on in the restaurant business. He took over management of The Bomber, and then later opened three Big Boy Restaurants.
A note about the picture of the diner: the service station and garage next door was first the George Fosdick filling station, and then became the location of Thompson Autos. The ornate building in the background was the Worden House. The land where these buildings stood is now vacant and is part of the Water Street Project.
Not everyone wanted or needed to get their food in a hurry. Dining out was still considered a special occasion for most Ypsilantians. The “white tablecloth” restaurants were the best. When the Huron Hotel was completed in 1923 in time for the city’s centennial, the hotel restaurant, The Huron: Ypsilanti’s Community Tavern, opened with great fanfare on January 1, 1923. Harvey Colburn writes, “…on the afternoon and evening of that day three hundred guests gaily celebrated the occasion around its tables.” The restaurant flourished during the late 1920’s. A Christmas Dinner buffet featured a large selection including an Oyster Cocktail, a shrimp and crabmeat Newburgh, ham, turkey, and steak as well as five desserts with three kinds of pie. All of this for a cost of only $1.50 per person.
Constantine Alex, a Greek immigrant, opened the Avon Restaurant in 1930 at 205 W. Michigan. The restaurant was named for the River Avon in England and was decorated in the Tudor style with dark oak, beamed ceilings and leaded glass. Architect Ralph Gerganoff worked with Alex on the design and décor. Alex chose to use red and white or blue and white checked damask tablecloths. Harold Goodsman described Alex in an Ann Arbor News article, as “…a genteel, personable, almost dapper man. He was very gracious.” Alex was known as “Connie” to his patrons. He quickly learned the names of regular customers and seated them at their favorite booth. My mother, Ruth Porter, shared her memories in the same 1997 News article. “Every Sunday, my husband and I would go to the movies and then go over to Connie’s for a bite to eat afterward. We had our own booth and Connie always knew what we wanted without us telling him.”
The Avon seated 100 and featured an extensive menu. The Avon Annex featured a shorter menu for breakfast and lunch time diners. Prior to World War II, the Avon also served Chinese (or rather Chinese American) food such as chop suey and chow mein. The war brought other changes to the restaurant. Gone were the male waiters who were replaced by waitresses. After 42 years in the business, Connie Alex retired in 1972. The Avon is still fondly remembered by Ypsilantians. Our own John Dawson recalls, “It was an institution here in Ypsilanti. It was a nice place to eat. And it was a gathering place for local business people. The menu never changed. It was always the same. My favorite was breaded veal cutlets with mushroom sauce.”
The 1920s and 1930s saw a number of restaurants open in private homes. My grandparents,
E. H. Porter and Ellen Craig Porter, owned and operated The Blue Bird Tea Room in their home at the corner of Brower (now College Place) and Washtenaw. Their path to the restaurant business was circuitous. Both of them were born in Canada, he in Nova Scotia and she in Ontario. My grandfather attended Guelph Agricultural Institute (now the University of Guelph) where he trained as a dairyman. He met my grandmother when he was working on an experimental farm owned by the Massey family, manufacturers of farm equipment and machinery. From 1907 until about 1917 he managed large dairy farms in Missouri and Michigan. The hard work with minimal help due in part to the World War caused my grandfather’s health to decline. My grandparents then managed White Lodge on the Huron Chain of Lakes for a couple of summers. They met people from Ypsilanti at the Lodge who urged them to move to town and open a restaurant.
Their clientele included numerous Normal faculty as well as retired faculty members. Normal students served as waitresses for a meal and tips. My grandmother, an unusually kind and generous person, had a group of “distressed gentlewomen” who relied on her for food. Granny would tell them to pay when they could. Not the best business decision perhaps, but certainly in keeping with her character.
Porter’s was known for its good home cooking and Granny’s marvelous desserts, often made with fruit. She did cobblers, pies, applesauce cake as well as the best oatmeal and raisin cookies around. The frosted molasses cookies ran a close second. The restaurant closed in the early 1940’s; my grandfather died in 1944. A few years later, our grandmother returned to Canada to live with her remaining siblings.
The Gondola first opened in the 1930s in the basement of a home on Marion at Packard. It was first named LaGondola. The restaurant, owned by Laurino (Louie) Agosti served Italian food. Several of our readers remember going to the Gondola with their family when they were young. Pat Cleary recalled eating there with his parents and his sister, now Ann Cleary Kettles. Joe Lawrence said he and his Dad thought the restaurant was o.k., but his mother, Christine, “hated it.”
The Gondola thrived, however. The business was purchased by the Simpson family in the 1950s. The business relocated to a new restaurant on Washtenaw at Cornell, keeping The Gondola on the west side of town and greatly expanding its seating capacity. By this time Ypsilanti had “gone wet” allowing the serving of liquor by the glass in addition to beer and wine. The new restaurant featured an extensive bar and expanded menu. Bill Simpson managed the operation. Mike Kabat, co-owner of Haab's, remembers going to The Gondola for a prom night dinner while he was in high school. In 1966 Bill Simpson sold the restaurant to a group of Ypsilanti business and professional men who renamed it “The Wigwam.” The Wigwam was relatively short-lived. Later, the building was demolished. A CITGO gas station now occupies the property.
Other restaurants were popular with families. Evans White Gables, located at 1004 West Michigan, was owned and run by Helen and Earl Evans. Pam Shepherd DeLaittre, Judy Morey, and I all remember eating there with our families. Mamie Schell Adair and her sister were waitresses at the Gables while they were in high school. She writes from Clearwater, Florida, “There were two dining rooms. The smaller contained one very long table which was filled each lunchtime by local business people who usually ate the “blue-plate special.” A typical “blue plate” was meatloaf, corn and mashed potatoes and included a drink for the price of $1.00. A piece of homemade cherry pie ala mode added 35 cents to the bill. The typical tip was 10 cents, which was earned by waitresses from the neighborhood and college students. It was their total pay, including a meal. On Sundays families dined in the big dining room….It was a busy restaurant.” The building that housed Evans White Gables is now a Mexican restaurant.
While not within the city limits, a number of readers recalled The Farm Cupboard. This restaurant was a popular destination for Sunday dinner. Everyone would get in the car to take a drive through the countryside to Dixboro. Maxe Obermeyer especially recalls Easter Sunday when the lawn of the old farmhouse would be filled with families in their Easter best. The farmhouse opened as a restaurant in the 1920s. It later changed ownership and became The Lord Fox. Just recently the restaurant has undergone renovation and is now Roger Monks.
Talk to local Boomers or their older brothers and sisters about restaurants and their first words will be Casa Nova. Owned by the Falsetta family, the first Casa Nova opened in what is now the third dining room of Haab's. The restaurant quickly became known throughout the area for its pizza. The Falsetta’s moved across Michigan Avenue to a larger, new building. Don Porter, my brother, writes, “This special place was our favorite restaurant. The pasta dishes were fantastic and the sauces were loaded with garlic and rich in flavor. However, the most delicious item on the menu was the antipasto salad with the homemade tomato-based dressing. During Tammy’s (Eberle) first pregnancy she craved that dressing. So I would head to the restaurant and pick up some cartons to go. A few years ago, my nephew obtained the recipe for the special dressing. We made it and it was okay, but it tasted better when we had salad at a table for two at the Casa Nova.”
Sadly, family health problems resulted in the closing of Casa Nova in December, 1977. It lives on in the memories of many former customers who continue to rhapsodize about the pizza, and, of course, the antipasto salad.
Readers mentioned a number of other “lost restaurants” including Marken’s just west of the Casa Nova on Michigan Avenue, first opened in 1944; The Old Town Restaurant in Depot Town, formerly Turner’s that opened in 1941; The Spaghetti Bender, at 23 N. Washington; and George’s Huron Inn, owned by the Beaudette family from the mid-1930s until 1984.
So, what about the “Survivors,” those restaurants that have continued in business throughout the decades? For this article, we identify three, two of which were mentioned earlier: Haab’s, The Bomber, and The Tower Inn. I talked with Mike Kabat of Haab’s about why restaurants, including popular ones, close. He noted that very few restaurants survive beyond one generation. Why? The restaurant business is very hard work, long hours, and subject to increasing regulation. Staffing can be difficult as wages are relatively low. Ypsilanti is blessed with a University whose students fill many wait staff positions although the downside is frequent turnover. Mike discouraged his own children from going into the business. However, after a stint as a paralegal, his son Dave expressed an interest in joining his father and is now Junior Partner. “I failed.” said Mike. Most Ypsilantians would disagree.
Author’s note: my thanks to everyone who contributed to this project. It required a lot of “digging.” Special thanks to the Archives staff, Maxe Obermeyer, Joe Lawrence, Bill Nickels, Mike Kabat, Don Porter Jr. and Penny Schreiber.
Information, including pictures, is sparse especially about businesses. All people interested in local history are urged to look through their scrapbooks, their files or boxes and consider contributing information to the YHS Archives. Photographs can be reproduced and the original returned to its owner.
Photo 1: Russell's Diner, later known as Averill's, offered curb service during the 1930's. It was later moved to the site of the current Bomber Restaurant.
Photo 2: The menu for the 1927 Christmas Buffet at the Huron Hotel. Quite a spread for $1.50.
Photo 3: Harold Goodsman described Constantine Alex in an Ann Arbor News article, as “…a genteel, personable, almost dapper man. He was very gracious.”
Photo 4: The Avon Restaurant, located at 205 W. Michigan, was named for the River Avon in England and was decorated in the Tudor style with dark oak, beamed ceilings and leaded glass.
Photo 5: The 40th anniversary of the opening of the Avon Restaurant was celebrated in 1970.
Photo 6: This is a partial menu from the Avon Annex, which had a more casual atmosphere than the main dining room.
Photo 7: E. H. Porter and Ellen Craig Porter owned and operated The Blue Bird Tea Room in their home at the corner of Brower (now College Place) and Washtenaw. The house still stands.
Photo 8: A menu from the Gondola. Note the “U.S. Choice Top Sirloin with Mushrooms” for $3.25.
Photo 9: The interior of the Gondola Restaurant (#2) which was located on Washtenaw Avenue in c1960s.