Dowagiac loses first dining destinationPublished 9:00pm Wednesday, May 29, 2013
Round Oak Restaurant would have turned 32 years old in June.
Whether you went there as a New Year’s Eve tradition, to dance to Marge Dudeck and Paul Jones or talk politics with U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, Doug McKay’s health-determined decision to close the doors of Dowagiac’s first dining destination marked the end of an era.
“I’m sad to see him have to give it up,” said Shirley Laylin, one of the founders of the Dogwood Fine Arts Festival, which held its annual membership meetings at Round Oak.
She and her husband, Leon, Dowagiac’s mayor pro tem, saw each new year in there.
“We did that for several years,” said Don Hall. He and his wife, Lois, the former city treasurer and councilwoman, shared New Year’s Eves with the Laylins.
“The entertainment was good,” Shirley said.
“We were there every week we were in town unless there was something going at the Elks,” said Polly Judd, whose late husband, Don, was Dowagiac Union Schools business manager. “We just really enjoyed their music. There were several ‘regular’ couples, one from Berrien Springs, one or two from St. Joe, some from Niles. Stan and Sharon Gregory from Diamond Lake used to always be there every weekend.”
“Marge and Paul had a crowd that followed them from all over. (Tenor saxophonist) Franz Jackson used to play there a lot,” Laylin said. “We liked to have meetings there” because of the acoustics. “It was peaceful and nice.”
Hall, a former insurance executive who works for the Council on Aging, agreed.
“The atmosphere was nice. It wasn’t a rowdy place.”
Hall and Laylin particularly remember the New Year’s Eve when a Marine from Edwardsburg came in with his date to claim the last table for two in the packed establishment.
“They didn’t feel like they were alone” with every passerby thanking him for his service.
When Marge and Paul played their medley of service themes, the Marine sprang to attention and received a huge ovation.
“We really miss them,” Hall said. “It was a nice place to go and we got very well acquainted with them,” which is how Marge and Paul happened to entertain on Aug. 12, 2009, when Hall organized the first Coins for Cass County Cancer Service luncheon at Dowagiac Elks Lodge 889.
As a pianist-singer in Green Bay, Dudeck frequently played for iconic Packers coach Vince Lombardi and his wife, Marie. His favorite song was “Darktown Strutters Ball.”
Her venues around Michiana included The Wooden Keg, Eddies Restaurant, The Club Lido, The Lincoln Highway Inn and The Pick Oliver, where she first played with Jones in the ’80s. He taught music in South Bend public schools for three decades.
Not only did Round Oak, with its back bar from the House of David, take its name from the stoves which made Dowagiac nationally famous, in its early days there was a dance club on the lower level, Philo’s Pub, named for Round Oak founder P.D. Beckwith.
When McKay first approached the city about opening a restaurant, Philo’s was likened to a “rathskeller,” a name in German-speaking countries for a bar or restaurant located in the basement of a city hall.
In that pre-Wood Fire and Zeke’s era, “There is a definite need for a facility of this type in our city. The nearest ‘like’ facilities would be approximately eight miles outside the city, which requires expenditures of fuel and time to be accommodated at these establishments for meals and entertainment,” City Manager Karl Tomion was quoted in the Sept. 29, 1980, Daily News. “The city needs additional places of employment and such a facility would furnish additional employment.”
At the time, McKay was working with the Barrier Free Design Board of the Michigan Department of Labor for a variance.
Tomion said the existing available area was small enough that an elevator would destroy the “quaintness of the interior” with its natural brick walls.
Restrooms had to be fit around Don’s Furniture, which occupied part of the building.