Landmarks serve top-notch meals, unforgettable service and a helping of nostalgia.
Every family has their special go-to restaurant for milestone occasions, where each dining experience is sauteed in nostalgia, basted in tradition and dripping with delicious memories.
For generations, these landmark eateries–located across Northwest Indiana at the intersection of American and Dream–have been the place to visit for top-notch meals and unforgettable table service. For decades, each one continues to serve the same award-winning, time-tested ingredients. And each has a long established reputation, genuine character, iconic imagery and a proud history that makes customers feel like they’re dining in a time capsule from a bygone era.
Unlike many chain restaurants that come and go like roadside billboards along our dining landscape, these gastronomical gems aren’t plastered with prefabricated “history” on the walls. They are history and, if their walls could talk, this is what they may whisper to Retirement Living magazine.
El Taco Real, Hammond
“The memory of yesterday’s meal, or last week’s, or last year’s, is what makes someone want to return to a restaurant,” says Raymundo Garcia, whose family owns El Taco Real in Hammond, located on Hoffman Street on the city’s north side. “If the food isn’t as good, or has been changed, that memory is lost or altered.”
After working there for more than 40 years, Garcia still calls himself the “busboy” though he performs all the management duties while greeting customers and working the crowd like a polished entertainer.
What’s the secret recipe of El Taco Real, and likely so many other landmark restaurants in this region? “In a word, tenacity!” Garcia replies enthusiastically. “A stubborn adherence to a level of proficiency and quality that is not compromised.”
One of Garcia’s first jobs was to “finish” the plated meals as they were exiting the kitchen. Every plate passed through his station and he looked at each and every one.
“I figuratively put my name on each plate that passed through my station and therefore I made sure they were all … just … right,” he recalls. “My folks were old school when it came to discipline and the high level of expectation they placed upon me as a very young person.
“It’s my hope that I have inspired my staff with that same unyielding level of excellence.”
Garcia believes it takes key ingredients to whip up a landmark restaurant: high-quality food, a caring staff, a rich tradition and the friendly face of familiarity for patrons.
“We are a family and our staff greets patrons at the door as though they were visiting relatives who’ve come to celebrate a meal,” Garcia says. “We know our patrons, their children, and their children’s children. Above all, my staff is sincere. We try to be the standard by which other restaurants are measured.”
Tippecanoe Place Restaurant, South Bend
Built by Clem Studebaker from 1886 to 1889, the Tippecanoe Place mansion has a rich and colorful history. Today, the restaurant indulges clientele in grand cuisine and noble wine, all within an atmosphere of unparalleled ambiance at the heart of the South Bend business and catering scene.
“The mansion with all its grandeur can be intimidating to guests,” says Kevin Jakel, general manager of Tippecanoe Place Restaurant. “Thus, we like to take care of our guests in a professional but not pretentious way, so they can enjoy themselves. Our goal is to exceed our guests’ expectations in service and food quality.”
In 1979, Continental Restaurant Systems spent $2 million to eventually renovate and convert the massive 24,000-square-foot mansion into a restaurant. The successor in interest, Paragon Steakhouse, then sold the property in 2001 to the Matteoni family on a leaseback transaction before finally acquiring the restaurant operation in 2008.
“Many families have made it their special place over the last 36 years,” Jakel says. “It might have started with their wedding, or their parents’ wedding, and they have continued to visit on special occasions throughout their life and have passed it on generationally.”
The historic mansion is open during business hours for self-guided tours. If you dine at the restaurant on a Saturday afternoon, guided 30-minute tours are offered for $5 from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m.
“Once again, we take care of our guests how they would like to be treated, and we do it in a gracious manner,” Jakel says.
Carlson’s Drive-In, Michigan City
One of the last remaining drive-ins in Indiana, Carlson’s has been a landmark in Michigan City for more than half a century.
“It all goes back to customers not wanting to get out of their car for dinner after World War II and the popularity of automobiles,” says Marty Rebac, who owned Carlson’s for 35 years before selling it to John Hermann. “Our not-so-secret recipe has always been the same–top-notch service and quality food and root beer.”
Carlson’s success traces back to its traditional, homemade and distinctive-tasting root beer. For more than 60 years the “secret recipe” has not changed, Rebac insists.
“Unlike other fast-food chains that carbonate the water and then add syrup, Carlson’s root beer is brewed daily and then carbonated,” according to the drive-in’s website. “This produces the unique and exceptional flavor found only at root beer stands. And just like the Carlsons did 60 years ago, that creamy foam-topped root beer is still deliciously served in a tall frosty mug.”
Hermann says many of the time-honored traditions there are still on tap, such as all-beef, bun-length hot dogs, freshly peeled and cut onions, and the secret recipes for the homemade chili and BBQ pork. “We have the best quality food at a great price and you can’t beat our service,” he says.
Hermann and Rebac also take pride in their employees, many of whom have grown up to be successful professionals in the region. Hermann adheres to the “five C’s” of the Carlson tradition: communication, cooperation, confidence, consistency and commitment. The men pride themselves on having carhops who’ve worked there for years, as well as generations of families.
“What is important,” Hermann adds, “is that the tradition remains the same–that nostalgic, magical sense people experience while at the drive-in.
“We’re one of the few left in the state,” Rebac says proudly.
Teibel’s Restaurant, Schererville
Is it the pan-fried chicken, the boned and buttered perch, or the Mason Jar apple pie that keeps generations of patrons returning to Teibel’s restaurant in Schererville? Of course it’s all three plus so much more.
For more than eight decades, the name Teibel’s has been synonymous with fine dining in the Calumet region. The comfy, cozy atmosphere alone serves as a timeless appetizer while waiting for a table or waiting for family members to arrive.
It’s like walking in to an old painting on the lobby’s wall and meeting the family’s original owners. When brothers Martin and Stephen Teibel opened its doors in 1929 as a simple, 12-seat highway diner at the corner of Route 30 and Highway 41, the siblings had no idea that word of mouth would spread like warm butter, eventually transforming the humble diner into a Midwest institution.
These days, after an extensive dining room remodeling that upgraded its amenities, yet retained its charm, the restaurant expanded with a casual cafe, two picture-perfect banquet halls, and plenty of parking. And if you visit there during the holidays, it feels like returning to your grandmother’s house–joyfully decorated to reflect your festive mood.
Still, while much has changed, much more has remained the same, which is the hallmark for any landmark restaurant. Most especially, the same fried chicken recipe that the Teibel family brought over from Austria.
Tony’s Place, Valparaiso
Welcome to Tony’s Place, where there are no windows, no convenient parking, no credit cards allowed, and no free refills on soda pop drinks. It’s been business as usual here since the Eisenhower administration.
Its fabled walls are still adorned with taxidermy mantles and sports trophies from a different era, and black-and-white autographed photos of celebrities such as Red Buttons, Phyllis Diller and Alex Karras.
They’ve all passed away, but not Tony’s Place, still owned and operated by Tony Gengo, the 67-year-old son of original owner Anthony Gengo Sr., who died in 2003.
“Pop used to make our pizzas in the front window,” Gengo recalls, pointing to the front of his joint from a corner booth.
Gengo still uses the same recipes from his ancestors back in Italy, he says. Even the same pots and pans have been used for the past 30 years. His loyal customers have routinely voted for his place on Lincolnway as one of the best pizzerias in Northwest Indiana. One of his customers even successfully nominated Tony’s Place for the national Pizza Hall of Fame.
“Restaurants like Tony’s Place are what make the region the great, unique place that it is,” says Ken Kosky, promotions director for Indiana Dunes Tourism. “There’s nothing better than a restaurant that has handed down its amazing recipes from one generation to another and serves them to satisfied customers who keep coming back time and time again.”
Each landmark eatery seems to reflect its owner’s personality, especially owners like Gengo, who is gregarious, outspoken and old school in running his business. He still makes his own dough from scratch, still chops his own produce, still grinds his own cheese and sausage, and still ladles his family’s pizza sauce recipe.
“Just as Pop did,” Gengo says. “People have told me to change my decor, upgrade this or change that. But then it wouldn’t be the same. This is who I am. This is who we are. This is Tony’s Place.”