HAMMOND | The air reeked of soap from the Unilever plant, and there was no extravagant neon sign. Then, the 1995 construction of an overpass from Indianapolis Boulevard to the Horseshoe Casino cast a long shadow over Phil Smidt's. But the restaurant lowed brightly enough for 97 years, as well as for hundreds who rushed there during the weekend to savor one last plate full before the eatery went dark for good. (Watch an audio slideshow)
Customers in the lobby said the wait for a table was at least three hours.
Wilma Fisher of Calumet City left satisfied Friday evening. "I was afraid they were going to run out of perch but hey didn't. It was lovely. I've been coming since I moved and my husband, who worked at Sinclair, brought me here; I come in memory of him. We had the kids' graduation parties here. Its a wonderful place, and I hate to see it go."
Russ and Rose Mary Vicari of Lowell said eating at Phil Smidt's had become a tradition for them since they began dating many years ago. "They have the best lake perch and frog legs bar none."
Don Osborne of Hammond said, "I've been coming since 1946. I was on the Hammond Clark football team ,(and) the booster club would take us here after games. The best job which I was in school was parking cars Friday night and Saturday night here. They were lined up for blocks."
Dick Klazak of Evergreen Park said, "When our family came in from the East Coast we would take them here."
Phil Smidt's, which was in business for nearly a century, and several now shuttered restaurants along Indianapolis Boulevard was a destination for many who traveled U.S. 12, U.S. 20 and U.S. 41 and passenger trains that all funneled through here over the decades.
Interstate highways, the Indiana Toll Road and the casino increasingly drew traffic away
Owner Dick Welch said, "Customers were down. In 1976 this restaurant did $100,000 more business than it did in 1996 and that is with price increases. The numbers just didn't make it."
When he announced its closing last week, crowds began pour back, 250 for lunch Thursday. Welch stopped taking reservations or even picking up the phones which ran continuously.
"Where were these people before? Its human nature," he said with a laugh as he walked into his office to recount his seven year history with the restaurant. I had been coming here since I was 6 years old. My great grandfather was friends with Phil Smidt's. Phil would bring him back into the kitchen and we kids would go play by the lake."
He returned as an adult while working in the wine and spirits business and bought into it in 2000.
"This is a family type of restaurant. The menu isn't fancy. It doesn't have a sous chef. This is basic home food. It had two items on the menu that did 70 percent of the business, frog legs and perch. We were known for it. Frogs were used a lot in the advertisements because you could play with frogs, like clowns."
One female customer said, "I even have one of their frogs tattooed on my hip."