In 1887, the demographics of the Duluth City Directory looked very different than today. A quick peek revealed that our fledgling city boasted six plumbers, five general stores, eleven milliners (hat makers), seventeen restaurants and 51 saloons. The sheer number of saloons is rivaled only by real estate agents, Olsons, and — perhaps unsurprisingly — lawyers and insurance agents.
One of those 17 restaurants was Bell & Miller, listed as a coffee house on the 100 block of W. Superior Street. Though the proprietors certainly had high hopes for success, one of them, John W. Miller, could not have known that his coffee house would be the beginning of 132 years of restaurants operating almost consistently up until the present day.
It is entirely possible that many of my readers have not heard the name Miller in association with restaurants in the area. This is understandable, as the anchor establishment, Miller’s Cafeteria, closed in 1959. Prior to and after Miller Cafeteria’s run (1915-1959), the restaurant was usually present and operating, but rarely maintained the same identity for long.
Between 1887 and 1915, the restaurant changed names at least 10 times, locations four. The ever-changing names typically focused on the name Miller — Miller & Hart, Miller Lunch Room, etc. — but occasionally strayed away, with names like New England Cafe. It spent some time in the Torrey Building, but moved around the neighborhood. The unifying factor was always that it was owned or co-owned by John W. Miller.
The restaurant landed on the name Miller’s Cafeteria sometime around 1915, the year the Torrey Building photo accompanying this photo was taken. The ornate facade of the Torrey Building is almost unrecognizable to today’s gray granite entrance, but Miller’s Cafeteria can be seen prominently located on the main floor, a sign welcoming patrons into the restaurant by claiming it suitable for both “ladies and gentlemen.”
The Medical Arts Building was built next door to the Torrey Building in 1933, with Miller’s Cafeteria moving in shortly thereafter. A 1938 postcard shows a traditional cafeteria-style restaurant, showcasing the second floor seating area still present in the space today. The back of the postcard boasts over 50 years of business, 48 of them with “Chris, our celebrated chef” in the kitchen.
A 1940s place mat from the restaurant features a map of Duluth, with Miller’s Cafeteria as the center of the city. The place mat is titled “Interesting Things Visitors May See and Do While in Duluth” — proof that Duluth has always been welcoming tourists.
The place mat is an absolute treasure trove of locations and venues no longer with us. It is easily recognizable as Duluth, with landmarks such as the Aerial Lift Bridge, Enger Tower and the zoo highlighted, but several landmarks jump out to modern eyes because they have been lost to time.
The Brighton Beach Tourist Camp is marked with drawings of tents to highlight the park’s purpose. Brighton Beach, now known as Kitchi Gammi Park, hosted cabins and campsites through the 1950s. Indian Point Tourist Camp, which still stands as a campground, is marked on the shores of the St. Louis River in the same location as today.
Though Fond du Lac itself does not appear on the map, two venues are listed as places to visit: the John Jacob Astor Trading Post replica, which stood in Chamber’s Grove Park as a tourist attraction until 1968; and the Fond du Lac Municipal Arboretum. This appeared to be a short-lived addition to the Municipal Nursery located in Fond du Lac, though information on the arboretum proved elusive.
On the place mat, the Soo Depot still stands at the bottom of Mesaba Avenue, as does the Curling Club on London Road. Ordean Field was a fixture on this map, long before the building of a school in 1956. Perhaps in an effort to fill in space at the top of the map (rural areas in Duluth), both the County Poor House on Arlington and Arrowhead and the State Experimental Farm on Jean Duluth Road are featured with drawings of their buildings.
Miller’s Cafeteria was sold to a party outside the Miller family in 1953 (after an impressive 66 year run). It changed names in 1959, operating as The Captain’s Table until 1972, the Bread Board Eatery from 1976-1999, and Wing’s Restaurant for the few years in between. At this point, a few of these names might have a more familiar ring to a wider array of readers.
Since then, restaurants and catering businesses have come and gone in the location. Coco to Geaux and the Duluth Athletic Club Deli both frequented the location in the 2000s. More recently, How Sweet It Is bakery operated out of the location, with Great Harvest Bread Company taking over the space in 2018.
It would be inaccurate to say that Miller’s Cafeteria (and all its predecessors and descendants) have served as the area’s oldest operating restaurant in Duluth. That title clearly goes to the Pickwick, which opened and has been operating uninterrupted at its current location since 1915. The Pickwick, in fact, had been in operation even longer than that, originally operating as a bar in the Fitger’s complex.
The restaurants operating around the Miller family and the Medical Arts location have been many. By my count, it changed names at least 25 times, locations four, and owners somewhere in between. Several times in recent memory the space has stood empty; at least once in the late 1890s a Miller restaurant did not exist at all. It has not, by anyone’s standards, been continuously operating.
But it is fair to say that the operation has been a success, and that the longevity of the location as a restaurant should be celebrated. Stop by Great Harvest Bread Company for lunch, enjoy your sandwich in the upstairs dining area, and enjoy a bit of Duluth’s history.
Kathleen Murphy is a freelance writer who lives and works in Duluth. Write to her at email@example.com.