Flourishing food scene nourishes Valparaiso’s comeback
Fifteen years ago, Valparaiso, IN, faced the same problem as many small cities: Shopping centers and online shopping had pulled customers away from downtown and local businesses.
Today the downtown has become a destination spot for locavores and gourmands, with excellent restaurants intertwined with special events and activities, such as Central Park’s ice rink and Shakespeare in the Park.
“What you see right now is the result of years of planning,” says Patrick Lyp, the city’s economic development director.
A Focus on Food
Mayor Jon Costas set out to revitalize downtown when he took office in 2004, and fine dining became key to attracting people, Lyp says.
To attract more restaurants, the city got state legislative approval for 10 liquor licenses reserved for fine dining in downtown, giving restaurants the ability to serve wine, beer and liquor without having to compete for limited three-way licenses.
Carlos Rivero, who’s owned the downtown mainstay Don Quijote with Elena Jambrina since 1985, compares the resulting boom to a car dealership opening and attracting five more to the same area.
“I think it’s fantastic—the more restaurants, the better. I don’t compete with the restaurants. I compete with myself,” he says. “The secret is dedication and care.”
He also encourages customers to walk downtown for the events and shops because the more people there, the better.
A New Energy
Dan Cook, owner of Blackbird Café, has also seen the change since he began serving coffee, tea and light fare eight years ago.
“I think there’s a vibe that’s happening. People from outside Valparaiso are coming here as a destination,” Cook says.
The proximity to Chicago helps bring customers, especially people traveling to Michigan or southern Indiana and willing to go a bit out of their way, says Sarah Geary, who worked in Valparaiso restaurants before opening Meditrina, a traditional Mediterranean restaurant, six years ago.
Many of her customers are Valparaiso University staff and students, who tend to be more open to international menus, but Valparaiso’s dining has grown with chefs’ and customers’ desire for more minimally processed, organic and locally sourced food, she’s noticed.
“There’s a wave I’m seeing now that I didn’t see five years ago,” Geary says. “Sometimes all it takes is one person to open up a place. It could be a small little place, but it could change the whole community.”
Joe Gaal, owner and chef at Sage, an Italian café, became part of that second wave three years ago when he moved his restaurant from nearby Chesterton.
“We felt the palate was getting better out here and that we had a better vehicle for our food out here,” Gaal says.
City officials welcomed Sage with its menu driven by seasonal ingredients and its cocktails infused with herbs grown on-site.
“It was like coming home. They gave us a big hug,” he says.
The growth has also allowed people to come home to Valparaiso.
Bill and Carrie Durnell bought Roots Organic Juice Café a year ago so that, after 15 years of commuting to Chicago, he could spend more time with his son.
Given the turmoil in retail, the restaurants have become downtown’s stability, which has made neighborhoods like his around downtown booming, he says.
George Djurovic, the chef and owner of New American restaurant Main + Lincoln, returned to raise his children after working as a chef in New York, Paris and Chicago for 15 years.
“I didn’t come back for a restaurant, but after a few days it was obvious something was going on,” he says. “How could I pass up the opportunity to do that here?”
Food Trip to Downtown Valparaiso
Here is a sampler of some favorite places to eat and drink in downtown Valparaiso. By no means is this a comprehensive list. Check out the Valparaiso Events website or the Valpo Downtown smartphone app to help you plan your visit.
Dagger Mountain Roastery • 3205 Cascade Dr., Suite F
Coffee roaster serving pour-overs, espresso and tea in a renovated storage garage just outside downtown.
Blackbird Café • 1114 E. Lincolnway
Cozy coffee shop featuring scratch-made baked goods, quiche, soup and sandwiches.
Fluid Coffeebar • 159 W. Lincolnway
Third-wave café specializing in nitro cold brew, pour-overs, espresso and café fare including vegan and gluten-free options.
Don Quijote • 199 E. Lincolnway
Considered Indiana’s first Spanish tapas restaurant since opening in 1985; imported Spanish goods and food market attached.
Valpo Velvet • 55 Monroe St.
Ice cream made in Valparaiso since 1920, plus sandwiches, soups, frozen yogurt and housemade waffle cones.
Main + Lincoln • 210 E. Lincolnway
Fine New American restaurant featuring local and seasonal ingredients when possible.
Meditrina Market Café • 24 Washington St.
Mediterranean cuisine, wines, cheese trays and unique desserts.
Sage Restaurant • 157 W. Lincolnway
Italian fare with American influence and cocktails using local distilled liquor and garden-fresh herbs.
Misbeehavin’ Meads • 66 Franklin St.
Mead, cider and wine with seasonal flavors.
Aftermath Cidery & Winery • 15 Washington St.
Wine and seasonal cider, plus pizza and charcuterie.
Figure Eight Brewing • 150 S. Washington St.
Valpo’s first brewery with a rotating menu of craft beers, food made with beer, and root beer.