Human Interest

THE IRON SKILLET

In life, “nothing lasts forever” and “all good things must come to the end.” These are trite cliches’, but they do pertain to life activities and milestones we are enjoying and don’t want to end. But people will be people and uncontrollable circumstances occur that force us to let go of something we hoped we would never have to. Such is the case with The Iron Skillet, the iconic restaurant on the near northwest side of Indianapolis, which has closed after 71 years in business. The closing of this quiet, family-oriented restaurant will disappoint a lot of people. My family and I are a few of them.

The Iron Skillet opened in 1953 after Charles Kelso converted a “private home and clubhouse” into a restaurant. Located on West 30th Street less than a mile west of White River, the parking lot and entrance sit just behind the elevated tee of the par five 15th hole of Coffin Golf Club. To the north is the campus of Marian University and the Wilbur Shaw Soap Box Derby Hill, and to the south, Larue Carter Hospital and Coffin.

Restaurants gain popularity for several reasons, but foremost among them are good food and good service. Having a unique or prix fixe menu you can count on every time helps, too. I don’t know how long The Skillet served a pre-set fried chicken dinner, but it was for as long as I can remember. They had a menu full of other choices, but I rarely read it because I knew I was having the fried chicken! Whatever else there was made no difference.

When a building has been a restaurant for 70 years, you know it’s old and has suffered wear and tear. The outside of the  building was brick painted white with black trim and shutters. The old two-story home that had a modest-sized foyer that had been added to the front. The entrance was covered by a dark red awning. Inside, you entered a long narrow room with tables on either side of a center aisle. The aisle led to a doorway that opened to a sunlit dining area that had four tables, each seating six. To the left was a long narrow enclosed porch area with long tables that easily sat 12-16 people. Off the entry foyer to the right was a separate room with several tables for four or six. On the right side of the narrow dining area was a staircase leading upstairs. There were overflow dining rooms on the second floor, but they were used sparingly. 

As I said, it was an old building so the carpeted wood floors creaked and had “dead” spots. The tables and chairs left little extra space for standing. In the two large dining areas, light was abundant through the large windows. White tablecloths covered the tables and place settings of plates, saucers, cups, and silverware were set. The china proudly displayed “The Iron Skillet” on the rim of the plates. Upon arrival at your table you were immediately brought serving trays of red pickled beets, cottage cheese, and apple butter next to a basket of dinner rolls. 

After a cursory glance at the menu, I always ordered the family-style fried chicken dinner with white meat only, without the slightest concern for the price. I didn’t care because the price was worth all the items that came with the meal. Iced tea was my beverage of choice.

After the beets and cottage cheese, the first course was a bowl of iceberg lettuce soaked in vinegar and oil dressing with something added that gave it a sweet flavor. You served yourself with tongs from the large bowl, and took as much as you wanted. The next course was a choice between a glass of tomato juice or a cup of onion soup with cheese croutons. The latter was my choice 90% of the time because I loved that soup. It was guaranteed to give you bad breath and a dry mouth, but I always looked forward to it.

Then, the servers brought a huge plate of fried chicken—a huge plate—plus bowls of corn, green beans, and mashed potatoes plus a gravy boat of white chicken gravy. So eat up!!

And we did. There were more than enough pieces of chicken on that platter, but if by some miracle you ate every piece, you could order a second full plate. The same was true for the corn, green beans, and mashed potatoes. We never ordered a second plate of chicken because the first plate had more than we could eat.

Just when you’re stuffed from the chicken and side dishes, it was time for dessert. But just before that, the server brought a basket filled with rolled up, warm, damp, scented towels to clean your hands before dessert. The dessert choices were French vanilla or raspberry sherbet. Somehow I always had room for dessert. Besides a dish of ice cream, the server brought a lazy Susan tray with four toppings (chocolate, crème de menthe, butterscotch, and strawberry) to put on your ice cream. Any chicken and veggies left uneaten on the table were packed into containers to take home. Generous portions of chicken and vegetables guaranteed that you’d be taking food home. I don’t know how much fried chicken they sold in a week, but it was a lot. We always had chicken left to take home. 

We loved the Iron Skillet. The food, the family atmosphere, the service, and the price were always exceptional. As I said earlier, I can’t tell you how much the fried chicken dinner cost because it was so good I didn’t care. But I know it was very reasonable, and the quality of the meal was always excellent. If you don’t like fried chicken, et al., and never ate there, I’m sorry because you missed a great experience. 

Way back in August, 1966, the Iron Skillet hosted our wedding rehearsal dinner. Unfortunately, I don’t remember much about it, now. Since we live in Arizona, and because travel is virtually impossible, our visit to the Iron Skillet in 2021 will be our last. The current owner, Mr. Ronald Torr, hopes to sell the business, but until that happens, it will remain closed. Those Hoosiers who love the Iron Skillet fried chicken dinners will have to patronize the two competitors who serve the same menu—Hollyhock Hill on N. College and the Kopper Kettle in Morristown. I’ve been to both and found the same quality of food and service, but the proximity of the Iron Skillet made it our favorite for family celebrations.  

I sincerely hope the owner, Mr. Torr, who has had serious health problems in recent years, can find a buyer, and that the new owner leaves everything just the way it’s been for 70 years. It would be a shame to change it! If you’ve been an Iron Skillet patron, you may have the same feelings as I. It’s a place you don’t soon forget. 

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