There is something about a restaurant that collects … well … things. The former Coney Island on Superior Street was a great example of a fun place to eat for this reason. No matter where one’s eyes rested, a new and interesting antique could be found. Many of the relics found at Coney Island were even Duluth-specific, such as an old coin-operated parking meter found at the counter. Though I never verified it as true, a Coney Island employee once told me the restaurant had obtained it from the parking spot directly in front of their storefront during a long-ago renovation of Superior Street.
One local restaurant chain has long been considered the king in displaying regional relics. If local lore and oddities is your thing, take a trip down to Canal Park. The owners of the Grandma’s chain of restaurants have long displayed local (along with non-local) signage and antiques, often switching the relics out between locations.
For a full afternoon of relic-hunting, start out at Grandma’s Saloon & Grill in Canal Park. The old Joe Huie’s Cafe sign hangs directly above the bar. It’s a bit hidden, but worth the search to find it and get a good, nostalgic look at the neon sign that once hung above the door of Duluth’s beloved 24-hour diner. Also found in Grandma’s are neon signs from People’s Brewery, Fitger’s Beer, Superior’s Capital Tea Room, and Pioneer Lanes — a second floor bowling alley once found in downtown Duluth on West 1st Street.
Not all the Twin Ports relics found in Grandma’s are signage — a stuffed bear sits in a dominant spot in the bar. Take a good look — it’s the young black bear that in 1929 famously followed a fish truck down London Road and into the Hotel Duluth, scaring the patrons and even breaking a window in its effort to get in.
A short stroll around Canal Park will allow a grand tour of more Twin Ports relics from the Grandma’s collection. The Sports Garden and Little Angie’s Cantina both display old Duluth signage, as does Adventure Zone and Famous Dave’s.
For an impressive collection all in one stop, however, head in to Father Time Antiques on Lake Avenue. Once inside, get in the habit of looking up as you wind your way through the shelves of antiques (though check through the wares on the shelves — you never know what kind of unique Duluth relic you might find!).
On permanent display in the antique store are several large neon signs. Remember the Arrowhead Hotel in downtown Duluth? The building itself still exists and is still in use, but not as a hotel. Other signs will tickle some memories. Do you remember Big Duluth Clothing? Lakeside Cafe? Or the Duluth Photo Engraving Company? The signs all hang in Father Time Antiques. They even have a few relics from places that still exist, such as an old neon Plaza Shopping Center sign.
Don’t forget to head up to Grandma’s restaurant at the Miller Hill Mall, where more relics are on display. The location in Virginia is full of local antiques as well.
A newer collection, but one bound to hit the nostalgia, is the menu collection found at The Boat Club restaurant in Fitger’s. “Menus from old, local restaurants are a great conversation starter,” said Jeff Anderson, owner of the Boat Club. “Food is a great shared experience, one we can all connect and reminisce over.”
Anderson began collecting menus from now-closed Duluth restaurants after a family friend gave him a menu from Joe Huie’s Cafe. The menu made him consider the rich food history found in the Twin Ports area. “If you look at some of these menus,” said Anderson, “you can really get a feel for the history of the area. Not just recent history, but generations back.”
His new-found interest prompted him to track down a menu for The Jolly Fisher, since patrons of the Boat Club told him they considered the establishment “the new Jolly Fisher.” Several old Duluth menus grace the walls of the Boat Club, some from as far back as the 1950s. “It’s remarkable to think that some of these even survived,” Anderson said. “Menus at restaurants get spilled on and damaged all the time.”
Anderson encourages people who are interested to visit The Boat Club and check out the menus. “No purchase necessary,” Anderson said. “It’s important to me that we keep these items local and accessible, where the history is relevant.”
If we are talking about collections of Duluth relics and area restaurants, we can’t leave out The Pickwick. The restaurant itself is Duluth’s oldest continuously operating establishment, opening in 1914 at its present location. The business itself is even older, having opened as The Old Brewery Saloon within the Fitger’s Brewery complex in the late 1880s.
Within the “newer” location, one can find the original woodwork, lighting fixtures, tables, chairs and canvas mural wallpapers. The restaurant even displays a collection of antique beer steins, some that have been on display since the Fitger’s saloon days. “We have owned The Pickwick for nine years,” said Amy Wright, “but we see ourselves as caretakers of the building, rather than owners.” They still call one of the dining rooms “Joe’s Room,” after Joseph Wisocki, who purchased the Pickwick in 1919, and whose family owned it through 2010, when Amy and Tim Wright purchased it.
The Pickwick has an extensive collection of Pickwick relics hanging on their walls, from old menus to photos from the original location.
Kathleen Murphy is a freelance writer who lives and works in Duluth. You can reach her at KMurphyWrites@gmail.com.