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Sandusky's Restaurant History

Ron Davidson • Nov 4, 2013 at 12:56 PM

So where did early Sanduskians go to eat when they didn’t want to cook for themselves? Unlike today, where we have dozens of eateries to choose from within a few minutes’ drive, restaurants were relatively rare in the nineteenth century (and even into the early twentieth century). And many, if not most, of the earliest restaurants were inns, serving travelers more often than locals who wanted a night out. Most likely, few people ate out, unless they were traveling or were wealthy. But with the post-Civil War rise of the middle class, the popularity of restaurants increased, becoming a common destination for people of nearly all income levels today.

Not surprisingly, there was not much of a market for restaurants in Sandusky at its founding in 1818. The few people in the city at the time presumably spent most of their effort and wealth toward simply surviving. Supplies shipped from the east were expensive, and building the community was the highest priority. By 1822, however, there was at least one, and perhaps two inns in Sandusky, the Steamboat Hotel and the Portland House. Probably most of their business was with travelers and new migrants into the city. The early history of Sandusky is sketchy, but we know that throughout the United States, restaurants as we know them today were rare outside of the largest cities. Early Sandusky’s public eating places were almost certainly limited to hotels and saloons.

In the Sandusky City Directory for 1855 (the first one published), only one restaurant is listed – the Euterpian Restaurant on Water Street. The proprietor, Fritz Butts, advertised “ice cream in all varieties” and “game and fowls of all kinds,” among other foods served. There were a few more restaurants listed in 1867 – five, including one operated by Andrew Butts, most likely a surviving son or brother of Fritz. By 1888 Sandusky had fourteen restaurants, still no match for the 181 saloons in town, but still room for growth.

By the twentieth century, of course, restaurants became common, and not solely for travelers and the wealthy anymore. Soon all types of restaurants began to appear, from diners to fine dining, and, later, fast-food. What may have been the first Chinese restaurant arrived in Sandusky around 1910, according to a 1912 Register article. In the article, the restaurant proprietor was identified as Hop Sing, but I suspect that this name may have been used as an ethnic slur at the time (see Wikipedia). The 1910 federal census for Sandusky shows a restaurant owner named Hentin Lai on Columbus Avenue, where Daly’s Pub is today.

Many restaurants have operated in Sandusky, and only a few can be mentioned here, so we will cover ones that have some original documentation recorded in the library’s historical collections.  

As mentioned above, many of the earliest restaurants were in hotels and inns. The Townsend House was a popular hotel in 1850; the “Bill of Fare” for November 20 of that year lists a substantial variety of meats, including beef, turkey, wild ducks, and venison, as well as popular side dishes and relishes, such as oysters and Madeira wine jelly. The library has two copies of the menu, printed on fine cloth.

The Hanson family produced several popular restaurateurs, from the beginning of the twentieth century. William Henry Hanson’s first job in Sandusky was as a chef at Cedar Point, eventually opening a restaurant, the Palm Garden, with partner Louis Leser, on Water Street. He and his family are best known for Hanson’s Restaurant, opened in 1927 on Water Street, in business until the 1960s.

Diners have been a popular style of restaurant in Sandusky. Many will remember the Kewpee (with the namesake doll above the doorway), later Markley’s, on Wayne and Market Streets. Other popular diners included Jean’s Diner, at Warren and Monroe Streets, and May’s Dinette, among others.

This is just a small taste (pun intended) of the many restaurants that have served Sandusky and Erie County residents over the years. We several new, good restaurants gracing our region, particularly downtown, we can expect good eating for years to come.

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