Downtown restaurants have much to offer

Twenty years ago, if you wanted to have a beer with your lunch or dinner, there were two choices in Warsaw’s immediate downtown – The Downtown or Rex’s Rendezvous.
Today, those two stalwarts are still going strong, but they’ve been joined by five more choices and Jason Brown has a few ideas on what’s behind the exponential evolution.
The 33-year-old former orthopedic salesman-turned restaurateur knew there was great potential when he bought the building at 110 N. Buffalo St., from his aunt who had run a shoe store there previously.
Two years ago, Brown opened his farm-to-table restaurant and bar, One Ten Craft Meatery, and last year, expanded by opening The Vic, an event center directly to the north in the old Reader’s World store.
He said he opened the restaurant and bar to seize on the opportunities he saw in the downtown. He opened the Vic to cater to orthopedics and, specifically, those staying at the Zimmer Hotel across the street where the orthopedic leader brings in guests during the week.
The orthopedic industry has attracted “hundreds and hundreds” – if not thousands – of well-paid “transplants” to the community who are looking for quality restaurant options.
“Warsaw has a remarkable opportunity that you can’t find on paper,” Brown said. “That’s why I’m here.”
Much like the history of orthopedics in Warsaw in which former employees at DePuy left to start Zimmer and others left Zimmer to start Biomet, the outgrowth of independent, trendy restaurants began about 17 years ago with Noa Noa in Winona Lake.
While he tips his hat to other restaurants like Boat House and American Table, Brown says Noa Noa, a sushi and seafood restaurant in Warsaw, to a great degree spurred the outgrowth of unique restaurants in downtown Warsaw.
“What has happened in the food world specifically is that Noa has created a lot of feeders,” said Brown, whose own connections to Noa Noa began when he started working in their kitchen off and on for eight years.
He and three other future restaurant owners all cut their teeth and found their passion while working for Noa Noa, which is owned by Scott and Natisha Woods.
In addition to Brown, other cooks who worked there include Andrew Jones, who owns Rua with Andrew Holliday; Gabe Rager, who owns a seasonal food truck called Curbside with his wife, Kami; and Caleb France, who owns Cerulean in Winona Lake with his wife, Courtney, Brown explained.
At one point, three of them were working at Noa Noa at the same time.
Add Oak and Alley, a craft bar run by Dave Gustafson, and the city has a mix of restaurants many towns would love to have.
Mad Anthony’s and La Troje, a Mexican restaurant, round out the variety that can be found in a two-block area of Warsaw.
“It is a beautiful thing,” Brown said.
The emerging foodie atmosphere, Brown said, “Changed our mindset on what was possible.”
The owners network and cooperate to a certain degree. At times, Brown said if he has a long line, he’ll encourage those waiting to visit another place for a drink.
“We’re not competing. We’re giving Warsaw options,” he said.
Rob Parker, executive director of Kosciusko Chamber of Commerce and Warsaw Community Development Corporation, credits the growth of restaurants for helping propel the downtown with new retail stores.
“When you can make the downtown vibrant with food, you make it vibrant for all retailers,” Parker said.
He also believes the number of high-quality restaurants in Warsaw and Winona Lake is making the community one that  people want to visit.
“We’ve got some top-notch restaurants that people will make it a destination,” Parker said. “That’s pretty cool.”
From the perspective of Marshall King, a longtime Michiana food critic, the spawning of new restaurants from one source is rare for Warsaw’s circumstances.
“For a town it’s size, it’s pretty unique,” King said.
“For a small midwestern city in the rustbelt to have the kind of really good dining that Warsaw has is not that common,” he said.