South Bend bistro is a popular downtown destination
By CJ Woodring
»South Bend’s LaSalle Grill is a place where conversation flows and memories are made. Where urban professionals and cosmopolitan visitors meet. And where architecture, art and culinary artistry mingle to create an upscale, yet not uppity, ambience.
Founded nearly 25 years ago under Mark McDonnell’s proprietorship, the grill is a destination of choice for local and regional guests, who savor the overall dining experience McDonnell and his team have spent years perfecting.
And perfect it they have. LaSalle Grill is Indiana’s only restaurant to receive the Four Diamond Award for 19 consecutive years. It has been a recipient of the Wine Spectator magazine Award of Excellence for the past 10 years and garnered TripAdvisor’s Certificate of Excellence the past three years.
The venue has become an institution, McDonnell says, through stability
“Our goal is that every time you dine with us, it becomes a special occasion, and the food, presentation, service and atmosphere all contribute to that,” he explains. “We try to blow guests away on a consistent basis and always operate at the highest level we can.”
According to McDonnell, service and hospitality are two distinctly different things. “Without warmth, genuine hospitality and welcoming, the service is nothing,” he explains. “We try to make a point of warmly thanking people, as many times as possible, for choosing us. It causes us to be different, and people recognize that.”
Growing a Legacy
LaSalle Grill operates under the umbrella of the LaSalle Hospitality Group, which also includes the South Bend Country Club-based Grill at the Greens and Events with Style, an outside catering service.
The grill (lasallegrill.com) opened in 1991 as an American bistro offering upscale cuisine paired with award-winning wines. Small plates, a raw bar and wood-fired steaks are guest favorites.
Opened in 2013, the third-floor LaSalle Kitchen & Tavern (lasallekitchenand
tavern.com) tends to draw a younger crowd with its 30 craft beers on tap and bottle, more than 120 whiskeys and scotches, affordable wines and weekend entertainment.
The second level boasts a pergola-
covered deck, overflow space and two private dining areas.
McDonnell’s ancestral roots are planted in New Orleans; his background is in the corporate world. After working for Boar’s Head in the 1970s and ’80s, he became a manager at Tippecanoe Place, the former family mansion of the Studebaker family, which had been transformed into a restaurant.
“I was told to, ‘Turn it around,’” he says. “‘Run this place like you own it.’”
Challenging words for a Michigan City native who grew up wanting to own a business.
McDonnell oversaw operations there from 1981 to 1987, leaving for an interim job at the city’s downtown Century Center, where he ran the food service concessions. It was there he met Andrew Galloway, who one day would play a major role in LaSalle Grill’s operations.
“I gained very valuable experience there,” McDonnell says. “It also gave me time to develop the grill’s concept and to look for a building.”
When he left Tippecanoe Place, McDonnell vowed he’d never again work in a four-story, historic building.
The theory, of course, is never to say “never,” which came home to roost when he found himself eyeing the three-story historic building that initially housed the St. Joseph Hotel. Built in 1868 and located in the heart of downtown South Bend, it is the oldest commercial structure in the city.
Its saving grace was that a former tenant had invested in a major 1984 renovation.
High ceilings and neo-classical columns set the tone. A rotating gallery of work by regional artists, commissioned through Judy Ferrara’s Blue Gallery (judyferraragallery.com), has transformed the former hotel lobby into a veritable salon.
Local native Galloway was employed as Century Center’s cook when McDonnell tapped him for general manager. “He told me to just give it a try, and I’ve pretty much been here since the beginning,” Galloway says, crediting McDonnell for the grill’s success.
“You have to put it all to Mark, his drive, his vision,” Galloway says. “He’s the father figure to us, and we all jumped in there and stuck with him, because we have a goal to keep the doors open.”
Executive chef Tom Sheridan oversees the grill’s chophouse menu and all LaSalle Hospitality Group’s operations.
Onboard for nearly 20 years, he was a 2012 James Beard nominee who participated in the James Beard Celebrity Chef Tour held at the Joseph Decuis Farm in Roanoke. That year he was named winning chef among a dozen participants in Greatest Chefs of Michiana, an annual fundraiser for the local YMCA.
Sheridan’s interest in all things culinary was piqued as a youngster when his family owned Chauncy’s restaurant, a former landmark on South Bend’s west side. He received culinary training at Vincennes University, followed by seminar courses at The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, where he focused on regional French and Italian.
But this is still the Midwest, Sheridan says, and patrons love red meat, primarily hardwood-grilled filet mignon. Which isn’t to say beef dominates the grill’s menu.
“Duck and game meat sell a lot,” he says. “Sea bass is a number one seller, as is hardwood-grilled salmon. People are more health-conscious now, and they’re looking at gluten-free items and adhering to dietary restrictions, so they expect a lot more these days.”
LaSalle Grill is renowned for its locally sourced food. Think duck from Maple Leaf Farms (Leesburg). Bison from Cook’s Bison Ranch (Wolcottville) and poultry from Miller Amish Country Poultry (Orland). Meat and fish from Meats by Linz and Fortune Fish & Gourmet, both in the Chicago region. Then there are the vegetables: fresh, organic produce from local growers.
But Sheridan says it’s about more than cuisine. “Our management staff — about four people — has more than 120 years’ collective experience,” he explains. “We’re called ‘lifers.’ This is our job, and that makes a big difference because guests can walk in and see the same people who have been here all these years.
“LaSalle Grill is a destination restaurant for special occasions,” he adds. “People come here for their anniversary dinner, their birthday. A lot of people propose here. So it’s not just a restaurant, it’s a brand. And it’s not just supper, it’s an adventure.”
Part of that adventure, he says, is guests’ willingness to order outside the Midwest time zone: Hardwood-grilled Black Buck Antelope has become a favorite, along with hardwood-grilled ostrich, formerly on the menu, which changes daily.
With winter around the corner, Sheridan says they’re looking at heartier foods. “We’re big on duck now, including duck bacon. Pork belly. More gastropub cooking and smoking our own meats. We’ll be serving more braised comfort food, such as homemade ravioli, or a nice New Zealand rack of lamb, a very consistent product.”
And all this paired with an award-winning wine list: More than 300 bottles are featured on the menu, a fraction of the cellar’s capacity.
It’s all about “flair, showmanship and knowledgeability,” McDonnell says. “These all lead to the value, and I want people to remember they had a great time, a memorable dining experience.”
LaSalle Grill | 115 W. Colfax Ave., South Bend, (574) 288-1155