Miller Bakery Cafe has been a treasured institution in Gary's lakefront Miller neighborhood for decades.
The vintage restaurant was a popular fine dining spot with white tablecloths, wood floors, local art hung on the exposed brick walls, and an elegant ambiance. The classy U-shaped bar was a popular neighborhood gathering place.
Once an actual bakery before it was transformed into a popular eatery and bar, Miller Bakery Cafe, at 555 S. Lake St., was where friends met on Friday nights, where families celebrated high school graduations, where groups like Rotary Club did business and where city government employees grabbed a beer after work.
"It's Miller's flagship business," Miller Business Association President George Rogge said. "At least this time, we had some notice. Last time the owner left a note on the door at the end of the night."
Owner Jack Strode, a Miller native who managed Chicago restaurants like Smith and Wollensky and Rosebud Prime, revived Miller Bakery Cafe in 2013 after it had fallen into foreclosure two years earlier. He announced on Facebook Thursday the restaurant would close after two straight years of road construction on Lake Street, including a complete closure in recent weeks, but left the door open to "perhaps reopening at some future date."
Rogge and other community leaders hope the Strode family might consider reopening the business after the road construction is finally finished. Many Lake Street businesses have struggled because of a lack of access and parking while Lake Street is torn out.
"I ate lunch at Vibrations today and I was the only customer," Rogge said. "She's hanging on at the moment. I ate at Anna's Kombucha Cafe yesterday and had dinner at Miller Bakery Cafe. I try to do what I can but I can only eat so much."
The restaurant was most crowded during Friday nights, especially First Fridays, when people went out on dates or for drinks after a long week, Rogge said. He's confident Miller Bakery Cafe or another restaurant could still thrive at that location once the road work is done.
"This is the hardest point," he said. "I see the future as spectacular with the national park designation. The lake is not going anywhere. This place is going to be a gold mine."
Miller Beach Tourism President Peggy Blackwell also is holding out hope for a comeback, or for another restaurateur to take over the historic space, which used to be home to the Miller Bakery.
"It's been devastating to a lot of people in the neighborhood," she said. "It's been a mainstay of Lake Street. It's been difficult to keep the new Ming Ling parking lot open and that's made it even more difficult for businesses when the traffic is diverted. I'm grateful for everything they've done for the community but am just hoping and praying they'll come back."
The restaurant, acclaimed for its steaks, seafood and small plates, drew visitors from throughout Northwest Indiana, benefiting other shops in the area, Blackwell said.
"It did draw people because it had a longstanding reputation for great food in a more upscale spot," she said. "It stayed open all the time and had a nice dependable schedule. It was an important draw to Miller Beach."
As a beautiful space that was centrally located among the shops and art galleries along Lake Street, Miller Bakery Cafe also was a popular neighborhood gathering place that used to host live music, she said. Blackwell often frequented for the wedge salad, taco nights and First Fridays.
"It was a great restaurant and a big beautiful U-shaped bar where you can sit and visit with your friends all the way around," she said. "You always saw people from the neighborhood there in the evenings. A lot of different groups came together. It was very diverse, which made for a really cool environment. There was a friendliness and sense of inclusion. It was a great destination that embodied the spirit of Miller."
She said the streetscape project eventually could boost business there, such as by allowing space for al fresco dining on the widened sidewalk. She said it was a "big blow" to lose a neighborhood anchor at a time when new businesses have been coming and several community groups have been working to improve Miller.
Community activist Jessica Renslow said infrastructure projects were necessary and would ultimately be beneficial, but said that more communication was needed to ensure businesses survive the remainder of the Lake Street project and the upcoming South Shore Line station improvements.
"Infrastructure upgrades are needed, but Gary needs every business we've got," she said. "Miller Bakery is an institution, a place of nostalgia that had linen cloths and all that good stuff. It's sad."
She encouraged people to shop locally to keep such places alive.
"You really have power in your purchase," she said. "You have to spend money in your community if you want these brick-and-mortar stores and those ecosystems to keep going."
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