On April 5, 1991, LaSalle Grill opened its doors to its first diners as the boxes were being pushed out the back door.
The renovation and preparations were finished. The fine dining restaurant in the historic landmark building was ready to open.
That night, the first of two trial runs before public opening, the staff served 150 meals, said owner Mark McDonnell. Since then, it’s served about 1.6 million at 115 W. Colfax, South Bend. Many of them would be during the usual dinner hours Tuesday to Saturday, but others were at banquets, feasts or bar snacks upstairs.
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LaSalle Grill, which has become a dining destination, which has been one of the places to go for fine dining, is marking 25 years this month with plenty of champagne.
LaSalle opened to the public on the second Monday of April, and next Monday McDonnell will go get the 20th AAA Four Diamond Award for Excellence, the only restaurant in Indiana to have that number. Then he’ll come back and break a bottle of champagne on the corner of the building, saber another and serve champagne to every guest ordering off a menu with 1991 prices.
He came to South Bend in 1991 to work for Continental Restaurant Systems, which operated Tippecanoe Place. In 1987, he went to oversee the food service part of Century Center. By 1990, he was ready to open his own place and looked at a variety of options before taking over the former Sheffer Advertising building. Renovations started in early 1991 and they were open by April.
“I said I wanted to do anything but prime rib,” he said.
He auditioned three chefs and Tony Bombaci cooked a meal that wowed McDonnell. He got the job as the first executive chef. “He did food like I’d never had,” said McDonnell last week as he reflected in the dining room.
The food world of the 1990s, particularly in northern Indiana, was a very different place than it is now. Diners were skeptical of spring mix. Seared Asian tuna with a pink middle scared people and servers had to tell them, “Try it first,” McDonnell said.
The current menu under executive chef Tom Sheridan, chef de cuisine Rob Davidson and sous chef Brad Curtis may be less daring than the first ones, McDonnell said. Monthly wine dinners take bigger risks, but McDonnell and his staff have learned that what sells is the steak and seafood from the wood grill, game dishes, and even vegan and vegetarian dishes.
The world has changed and so has fine dining. It’s easier to get fresh seafood. People have traveled and tasted. Television cooks have helped turn ethnic ingredients into grocery store staples. But at the heart of what they do at LaSalle Grill is offer a good fine-dining value, seasonal ingredients and full flavors. The service is always at a high level, in part because of training and education. At the daily Q-Time kitchen staff go over the menu, explaining ingredients and preparation so that servers can relay that to the guests.
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LaSalle Grill isn’t just LaSalle Grill. From 1999 to 2013, Club LaSalle on the third floor rode the bourbon and cigar trend, as McDonnell puts it. Over the years, some of the world’s best bourbon makers, including Booker Noe and Julian Van Winkle, have been there for events.
Now LaSalle Kitchen & Tavern offers a gastropub experience in that space. The live music on weekends draws a crowd, but weekday business could be better, McDonnell said.
In addition, catering business has expanded to include a number of offsite venues including The Brick and Homestead 1835. Depending where you have your wedding in South Bend, LaSalle Grill will make the food.
McDonnell hasn’t just built a reputation and a business, he’s worked at building up downtown South Bend. He was one of the founders of the Downtown Dining Association. He’s active in Downtown South Bend events such as the River Lights project. “It just speaks to his dedication and commitment,” said Jill Scicchitano, interim executive director of DTSB.
From a downtown perspective, LaSalle Grill isn’t the only great restaurant, but he’s worked to make South Bend a dining destination, she said. His restaurant is part of that. “He runs a fantastic operation,” she said.
It’s that effect on South Bend of which he’s most proud, he said. The city is easier to do business in these days.
Restaurants such as LaSalle Grill that sustain who they are and what they are elevate dining in a city. That’s the case here. McDonnell remembers crisp sweetbreads, Iranian caviar, foie gras with caramelized pineapple compote, and a Sunday morning breakfast of fresh eggs and shaved truffle. That’s the kind of food he helped make more familiar in this area.
Running a fine dining restaurant for 25 years is not for the faint of heart. McDonnell and his team are to be congratulated. They continue to get it right. We eat well because of it.
I’m hungry. Let’s eat.