From a spot nestled at the back of an old Mishawaka business center, Scott and Mary Lou Stevens have forged a restaurant.
The way Little Black Dog Tavern has worked out isn’t what they expected, they said. They may be happier for it.
A year ago, they opened the restaurant at 100 N. Center St., Mishawaka, in the 100 Center. They had a chef and expected to open a bar called Little Black Dog Tavern and then a higher-end restaurant alongside called Morgans.
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At Little Black Dog, they started tours through European countries. For two weeks at a time, they offer dishes from a specific country. It’s a delightful way to travel without leaving northern Indiana. Spain, Italy and Germany have had their time on the menu. Norway is coming soon.
100 N. Center St., Mishawaka
Hours: 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and 5 to 11 Friday and Saturday, with bar opening at 3 p.m. weekend days.
They have loved traveling in Europe and wanted to offer its flavors. Few restaurants in northern Indiana are offering plates from different countries every few weeks.
The Stevenses had operated a bed and breakfast before opening Little Black Dog. She worked at Towne Air Freight for 20 years. He continues to work at a steel processing company during the day and the tavern at night.
They learned early on that you can’t make everyone happy at a restaurant. Their chef left, and with him, his vision of Morgans being the winner of a James Beard award. For now, the tavern is open and Morgans will come later, perhaps this fall.
A year in the restaurant business will teach you a lot and they now know that they don’t want to do fine dining. They like upscale casual, Scott said.
They came to work in jeans and started focusing on how to do upscale casual fare, service and atmosphere well.
What I know is that Scott and Mary Lou have a knack for customer service not every restaurateur does.
They smile readily. They open the door for you if they’re in reach. When they or their staff members refer to you as a friend, you don’t even blink. It makes sense. It’s part of the vibe at Little Black Dog Tavern. It’s probably also part of the reason the place is beloved and gets great online reviews.
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On a January night, we dined there with friends. Two people had called in sick. Our server was in the weeds. The food was decent with some very good dishes and a few that were just OK.
Mary Lou told me last week it was one of the most difficult nights they’ve had. But even on a rough night, they managed to provide a good experience for the customer.
She’s collaborating with Stacy Garbison, who’s trained as a pastry chef, in the kitchen. With other employees, they cook and work together on new dishes.
Mary Lou made the Black Forest meatloaf last week with veal and beef and no tomato. It was lovely with mashed potatoes and green beans ($18).
The chicken sliders ($8) are a favorite of bartender Craig Williams. And now they’re a favorite of mine. Tender chicken with mozzarella and marinara come on tender baguette.
It’s a good sandwich, but what seals the deal is the house-made potato chips on the plate. They’re light and crispy and dark. Remember those chips at Mishawaka Brewing Co. years ago that had a dark flavor without being burned? These are like them, only better.
The crab cakes ($11 for two, $14 for three) on the first plates menu weren’t great, but the fried calamari ($11) and the pretzel sticks served with house-made beer cheese or mustard were both stellar ($7).
(Thank you to the Stevenses for calling things “house-made” rather than “homemade.” Unless you broke the law and made something at home to serve in the restaurant, it’s not homemade.)
The desserts Garbison and others are producing are very good and to offer three miniature portions for $5 is genius. It’s hard to say no to small portions of three things and they tend to be very good at Little Black Dog.
I can’t vouch for the entire menu and every so often a texture isn’t as good as it could be. The coconut in the meringue between two baked rice pudding cakes was stringy. The meringue would have been better with just coconut milk powder or coconut cream. Some of the thinner cuts of meat, including the steaks, get a bit tougher than a thicker cut would.
Little Black Dog Tavern is part of a resurgence at 100 Center. The outdoor patio will be open soon. Smokestack Brew is now open next door. It’s different than Little Black Dog Tavern, where you’ll find Iechyd Da’s special brew Hair of the Dog on tap, but not Bud Light.
Morgans could enrich the mix if the Stevenses can get it open by the time their patio closes at Little Black Dog.
They’re having success offering wine classes. They’re hoping for a full house Thursday when Rich Hutchinson of Amphora Winery hosts a five-course wine dinner for $50 a person.
They’ve gotten through the tough first year and, as rookies in the restaurant business, have done just fine. The food is good. Their warmth helps smooth things over when it’s not perfect.
This summer, they’ll feature lighter dishes from Europe rather than changing the menu every two weeks. They’ll soon be open for lunch a few days and later at night for the summer. They’re still learning, but they’re also having a lot of fun.
“How we got there isn’t how we expected to get there,” Mary Lou said.
It rarely is.
I’m hungry. Let’s eat.