Phil Smidt’s Now Just a Memory

Gayle Faulkner Kosalko

On October 20, 2007, one of our oldest and best known landmarks closed its doors.  Phil Smidt’s, the restaurant that lasted almost a century and was famous far and wide, served its last plate of perch and has not a frog leg left to stand on. The Chicago media was all abuzz with the news, but those of us here where Smidt’s had made its home for 97 years were simply stunned.

“Phil Smidt and Sons set a standard by which few in the restaurant business can be compared,” remembered Robert Mecklin.  “I remember my father (who was an executive at Amoco Oil) taking my family to Smidt’s for dinner and the orders we placed were boned and buttered perch, frog legs and, of course, the ever popular side dishes of cottage cheese, beets, potato salad and desert was the famous pies and cakes.”

It was those side dishes, the big pink roses and the waitresses’ black uniforms, the sound of glasses clinking off in the bar and, of course, the continuous click clack of the trains going by that were all part of the ambiance that was Smidt’s.  It’s an ambiance that can never be duplicated anywhere again.

The story of how Phil Smidt’s began is quite charming. California bound were Phil Smidt and his new wife Marie in 1910.  When the train stopped in Roby for water, the Smidts got off the train thinking they were already in Chicago where they would switch trains.  Well, the train left without them and there they were, in Roby.  Making the best of the situation, the Smidts, like many other entrepreneurs in the increasingly popular recreation area around Five Points at the turn of the century, opened a restaurant.  With a $600 loan, they opened the first Phil Smidt’s fish house.  There was seating for twelve, a bar and boat livery.   Smidt’s was one of many fish houses to be found there.

Pete and Irene Smidt, 1938.

Marie’s pan-fried perch was a great hit and their “all you can eat” philosophy brought many customers.  After all, the perch with vegetable and rye bread for 40 cents was a good deal.   And, of course, it all went down well with a stein of Utah Brau, the house beer.  High atop the wooden framed restaurant was a huge fish with the name Smidt’s, all of which were lit, beckoning new customers.

Their son Pete and his wife Irene ran the business in the late 1920s.  Even through the depression, customers came from hundreds of miles around.

“The first site I remember for Phil Smidt’s was at the Wolf River bridge, crossing Indianapolis Boulevard, although I'm sure there was at least one other preceding it,” wrote Wayne Stiller, who now resides in New Hampshire. At age four, Stiller and his family moved next door to Lundgren’s Fish House on Calumet Avenue which would eventually play a part in the history of Smidt’s.

Throughout the years, customers became “family.”  Irene, an incredibly popular figure, trained her waitresses that theirs was an important service profession.  Even today, customers fondly remember their favorite waitresses whom they knew by name at Smidt’s.  Irene’s idea of customer service made the restaurant’s reputation legendary and customers loved to listen to the great stories told about fishing and hunting expeditions offered by her husband Pete.

Actor James Cagney is on the left, and Whiting Mayor James T. McNamara is on the right during Cagney’s visit to Phil Smidt’s to raise money for war bonds during World War Two.

Pete was also known for his work on behalf of the war effort and once hosted actor Jimmy Cagney with a bond rally at the restaurant. Throughout the years, such famous folks as Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, Gene Tunny, Mayor Richard J. Daley, Bob Hope, Betsy Palmer and even the Prince of Wales were among those who dined at Smidt’s.

In 1945 an underground gas pipe exploded which destroyed the original restaurant. Two customers were killed and 19 were injured. “I was delivering newspapers there the day it blew up. I was about 11 or 12 at the time,” wrote Wayne Stiller. “I could hear what bystanders said was ammunition blowing up in the fire.” Wayne said that Pete, who was an avid hunter, kept his ammunition in the basement. Pete and Irene then relocated to the location on Calumet Avenue and Railroad Street, in a building which was originally Lundgren’s Restaurant.

Waitresses at Phil Smidt’s in 1951.

When Irene passed on in 1969, the restaurant was deeded by Pete to Calumet College. In 1980 the Probst brothers bought the restaurant. Mike Probst, who had a degree in restaurant management from Salzburger Hotelfachschule in Bad Hofgastein, Austria, had managed Smidt’s for the college for four years before he and his brother bought it. Twenty years later they sold it to the last owners, Dave and Barbara Welch, who ran the restaurant for seven years.

Smidt’s was always a destination point, especially at a time when many traveled US 12, US 20 and US 41 and many passenger trains came through the area. One reader of The Times wrote, “I was last there about three years ago, and it was like stepping back in time to the 1950s, but without the long waiting line... I suspected this day was coming but it's still sad to see it happen... Another bit of a better time has been lost... "

An auction was held October 29, 2007, and, thankfully, many of the historical pieces have been saved for posterity for a future city museum which includes the Rose Room sign, dishes, glasses and silverware, the 1940’s Smidt cash register, the neon dancing frogs, and letterhead among other things.  A waitress uniform and tablecloth and napkins have also been generously donated to the Historical Society.

Phil Smidt’s stood at the far north end of Calumet Avenue, across from the railroad tracks. This photo was from October 2013, six years after the restaurant closed. The building was demolished in 2014.

While we were there, the auctioneer told us to go sit in one of the big black booths and soak in the ambience one last time. We did. It was eerie, and our mood was subdued. The moment has been etched in my memory like the dancing frogs in the window.

 It was “a place that gave the opportunity for many to experience luxury dining at affordable prices and for others like myself, this restaurant also holds special memories of a personal nature, memories which I will always cherish,” said Robert Mecklin.

“Well even though this restaurant is now history, many who live in this area can say ‘I once ate in a legendary restaurant’,” he added.

In the last few weeks, everybody has a “fish tale” of a special time at Smidt’s to tell.  It’s truly unfortunate that this beloved fish house is the one that got away.