Don Hall’s Restaurants & Guesthouse Hotel
For nearly 70 years, the Don Hall’s Restaurants dotting Fort Wayne, Indiana and the Guesthouse Hotel have been city landmarks, noted for unique dining experiences and a long running family history. From a retro-1950s drive-up diner to a Japanese steak house, a dining destination in the heart of a 19th century gas plant to a casual tavern, Hall’s has something to offer visitors and locals alike.
“We’re a unique company,” says Jeff Hall, the youngest of the four Hall brothers that now run the various operations. “In the state of Indiana, there’s no one quite like us –we run the gamut. We’re coming up on our 70th anniversary; we’re local, homegrown and working on transitioning to the third generation of family ownership.”
Don’s dream for a drive-in
The vision for Hall’s began in 1946 with Don Hall, a young man with a meat-cutting business, 40 acres of swamp land just south of Fort Wayne and a big dream. Don’s dream was to build one of the area’s first drive-in restaurants.
“My father was a meat cutter by trade with five markets around Fort Wayne, not to mention us seven kids, but he had a vision for a restaurant on the south end of town,” tells Jeff. “He eventually gathered some money to make the property purchase and the original Don Hall’s drive-in was put up on Bluffton Road next to Quimby Village.”
The original drive-in restaurant was complete with carhops and curb service, as well as a 35-seat dining area. “It was simple fare -hamburgers, french fries, soft drinks, chocolate frosties and milkshakes,” recounts Jeff. “It was your classic late 1940s early 1950s diner.”
As men returned from World War II, Fort Wayne was a booming industrial city, recalls Jeff. “With the guys coming home, the economy was strong, people were able to afford automobiles, and it worked well in our favor,” he says. “There was a great deal of opportunity.”
On the site of the original drive-in, Don added other retail outlets and Bluffton Road became home to one of Fort Wayne’s first shopping centers, complete with a Kroger’s. “My father eventually started a small barbecue joint on the same parcel,” recounts Jeff. “Over time other drive-up restaurants opened and a few free-standing locations. He also remodeled one of the meat markets into a small restaurant on South Wayne Avenue. In fact, he always kept a meat location up and running to supply hamburger and other cuts to the restaurants.”
Nearly seven decades later, the Hall’s family of restaurants extends across 12 locations, including the Guesthouse Hotel, a bakery, a catering division and complete commissary based in New Haven, Indiana. “Today, I run the commissary,” says Jeff. “This 25,000-square-foot location is a meat processing facility and a prep kitchen for daily specials and soups –we even hand bread our onion rings for the restaurants every day.”
As each new restaurant opened with its own flair and personality, the connecting principles of quality, service and value remained, led by Don. After his passing in 1972, the Hall children and some 560 employees have worked to keep the tradition and these principles alive.
Casual, but memorable
Reigning true to these roots, Jeff says Hall’s has always been more casual, blue-collar driven at its core. “We’ve always served casual fair, even at our highest level,” he considers. But, just because the restaurants tend to cater to a more casual crowd, this doesn’t mean the experience is anything short of unique.
One of Hall’s hallmarks is The Old Gas House Restaurant; one of Fort Wayne’s distinct dining destinations. A nod to the city’s industrial foundation, the Gas House is located at the site of a 19th-century gas plant and has served guests for more than 50 years. From steaks to seafood, sandwiches and salads, the Gas House is a local favorite for lunch and late-night dinners.
The restaurant boasts two private dining rooms, providing an ideal location for rehearsal dinners, business lunches and private affairs, capable of accommodating 50 guests. Through the summer, the Gas House offers large deck dining on the banks of the St. Mary’s River –an attraction for many years.
From the industrial boom to the rock-n-rolling 1950s, Hall’s is helping history live on. The Hall’s Hollywood Drive-In restaurant, the second of the two drive-up style locations, brings guests back in time. Customers simply pull up, flash their lights for service and the carhops deliver trays of food direct to the door.
For a business trip or just cocktails and dinner, the Guesthouse Hotel & Grill has been a Fort Wayne landmark for unmatched hospitality for decades. A banquet in the grand ballroom to live weekend entertainment, the hotel offers some of the best accommodations in Fort Wayne.
With so many moving parts in Hall’s business, Jeff says every day presents new challenge. “The last several years with the economy and the influx of national players has not been kind,” he says.
Jeff says the Fort Wayne landscape has changed quite a bit since the first Hall’s opened in 1946. “Fort Wayne was huge in manufacturing and industry, but the transformation to high-tech has really changed things, there’s just not the same kind of opportunity here anymore,” he measures. However, as transition can be painful, Jeff believes such challenges also bring new opportunities.
The business continues to stand out in the crowd because there is no one quite like Don Hall’s Restaurants with such rich and enduring Fort Wayne history.