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Bistro serves its last supper

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By Steve Doyle

Today there is darkness in what for decades had been a bright spot in downtown Shelbyville.

Maggie’s Bistro 535, the latest incarnation of an eatery that has fed residents and visitors for more than a quarter of a century, has closed, a note on the front door telling patrons that the restaurant won’t be reopening and is for sale.

Owner Embry Herrick and his daughter, Maggie, who managed the restaurant, said the sagging economy had pushed them to make the difficult decision to lock the doors after a 2-year run at 535 Main Street.

They said they had planned to remain open until June 30 – “to have sort of a grand finale with a lot of specials,” he said – but the lightning storm on Sunday night knocked out the restaurant’s computer system and an ice machine.

“And one of our coolers we used to make sandwiches broke down, too,” Maggie Herrick said.

The Herricks said they just couldn’t see spending the money for the repairs to operate for two more weeks.

“We had a really good April,” Embry Herrick said. “But I think about the time of the oil spill in the gulf, people quit going out to eat. That shows up in restaurants across the country. Mother’s Day was good, but the rest of May was bad.

“When we bought the place, I had set sort of a 2-year time frame for us to see where we were. It’s just not working.”

 

The issues

The Bistro, a full-service restaurant that served lunch and dinner six days a week and special events on Sundays, was a large and open old room with a bar in the rear and a small deck out the back door.

It had a long and distinguished history – a place that added to the local color and flavor and to hold significant gatherings – and a loyal base of customers, but at times it sought to establish its niche against public perception.

“Some people thought we were expensive,” Maggie Herrick said. “They thought they couldn’t afford to eat here.”

Said her father: “We wanted to create the idea that this was a casual dining place, not fine dining.”

Competition also expanded, even during tough times.

“For the longest time, downtown had three or four options [for dining],” she said. “Now there are six or eight. People will talk about going to lunch, and they don’t always want to eat at the same place.”

More recently Bell House and a new hotdog stand have added to the lunch competition, and the Herricks said dining dollars are not being spent like they were.

But that wasn’t their only problem: There’s the parking.

“We sent out customer review cards,” Maggie Herrick said. “And the only bad thing anyone every mentioned was the parking.”

Diners typically have to parallel park on Main Street or in the evenings use a small, crumbling lot directly behind the building on Washington Street. “People don’t like to parallel park,” Embry Herrick said.

 

The history

Embry Herrick, in partnership with his sister, Virginia Chatterton, and mother, Ermin, formed EVE Family Partners Ltd. to buy the building and restaurant from Bill Hisle Stewart Meredith in July 2008.

Hisle, who owns Cattleman’s Roadhouse restaurants in Shelbyville and Frankfort, owned the Bistro for 15 years. Meredith, his cousin, bought out an original partner during that time.

But the restaurant goes back much father than that.

Sarah Dutton opened the restaurant on Main Street in the early 1980s and managed it until Hisle purchased it and combined it with a competing restaurant he had owned.

The place was a huddling spot for powerbrokers and political leaders. Deals were made there, and it was a central depot for public opinion.

It’s likely no one knows the place better than Tony “Ice” Allen. He was 15 when he started at Sarah’s in the middle 1980s. He leaves as the restaurant’s manager.

“I started as a busboy and dishwasher,” he said. “I went through the cooking stage, the serving stage, the bartending stage, the catering stage and the manager stage.”

He said he was “like everybody else, I think, a little shocked and saddened” at the closing, but he said he realized there are factors you just can’t control.

 “People just weren’t getting out as much,” said Allen, 40, who lives in Frankfort. “We had our nights, and we had our days. It’s just one of those things you can’t control. Life goes on.”

 

Next stage

The Herricks certainly are planning for that, and they are not giving up on the restaurant business in Shelby County. Embry Herrick said his partnership is looking at some property near Weissinger Hills for a new concept restaurant.

“This will be something totally new for Shelbyville,” he said. “We’re excited about doing something different.”

Embry Herrick said the facility is for sale – Family Court Judge John David Myles has his offices in the upstairs space until the new judicial center opens early next year – and that he hopes someone will buy it and reopen it as a restaurant.

“We’ve heard from some folks who want to keep it a restaurant and from lawyers and from lawyers,” he said. “We would like it to remain a restaurant.”

Fans of the restaurant lit up The Sentinel-News’ Facebook page with memories of the restaurant. Some cited their favorite dishes, ranging form macaroni and cheese to sea bass, and Tracy Bond Bird recalled that she had a very special event there.

"My husband and I had our wedding rehearsal dinner there nearly 14 years ago,” she wrote. “I certainly hope someone opens another restaurant there!"

Said Allen: “I met some incredible people there and made lot of friends I'll have for the rest of my life.”

The Herricks share those feelings.

 “We’ve put a lot of money into this place, adding furniture and equipment and updating paint and stuff that needed to be done, and all the touches are hers,” he said, nodding at Maggie, 25, a fine arts graduate of Loch Haven University of Pennsylvania. “She has experience from working at Texas Roadhouse, and she knows what to do.”

One of the things Maggie Herrick wanted when she took over the restaurant is to keep the large, freshwater fish tank that has attracted children and added ambience for years.

It remains alive, bubbling and swarming with life even as the restaurant sits dark around it.

“I didn’t want to let this go,” she said. “And we’re not going to get rid of it.”