This is the time of year when Applebee's and T.G.I. Friday's put ads on television urging us to come eat their cheap food.
It's January and they want our money so if we go visit them they'll give us a zillion choices for only $9.99 or $12.99
We can choose from appetizers, entrees and desserts. At Applebee's, the latter is called a shooter -- which is a fancy way of saying, "It's a small dessert, but you're only paying $9.99."
On Friday night, I didn't go near those places. For $9.95, I ordered a carry-out smelt dinner from Hunter's Place.
Hunter's Place is a bar near the corner of Hively and Main in Elkhart. It doesn't have an advertising budget. But it has a sign out front.
The old-fashioned letterboard sign didn't used to change much, kind of like the inside of the place. But now it's gotten pithy.
Owner Fran Hunter and a friend started putting up messages that did more than announce the price of prime rib on Saturdays and Sundays.
"Hunter's Place is Frantastic."
"What happens at Hunter's we talk about all week."
"Fish so fresh you'd like to slap it."
"Home of 1,000 happy customers and one old grump."
Hunter said who the grump is depends on the day.
The humor on the sign made me want to go inside and enjoy a meal since I hadn't warmed a seat there for a few years.
This is a bar where when Fran walks in, it's like Norm walking into Cheers. One day at lunch last week, she kissed the balding head of a regular customer amid the banter. She knows most of the people who walk through the door for a drink or one of the good sandwiches.
This is a bar that's cozy, so much so that the wood-paneled ceiling seems 4 feet high when the cigarette smoke rolls out of the mouths and nostrils of those who indulge. Hunter's Place has a smoke-free family dining room in the back, but if you sit in the bar you're pretty much committed to puffing smoke whether or not you put a cigarette to your lips.
But this is a bar with a great tenderloin sandwich, fried fish on Fridays that could make a Minnesota fisherman dance for joy, and a soon to be unveiled menu that will include a Grouper Reuben and Black & Tan sandwiches.
"In the old days, it was a drive-in," Hunter said.
Before it was Hunter's Place, it was the Checkerboard Tap.
Fran and her husband took over in 1985 and they ran it together until a year ago. She runs it on her own now.
A grease fire in 1989 in the hood system prompted Hunter's to be closed for 41 days. It reopened, still as a small bar, but with seating for 125.
If the Hively Avenue underpass had gone through, Hunter's would have gone away. The sign outside Hunter's told the story -- that those who love Hunter's were thrilled to stay -- when city officials elected not to build it.
I hate waiting on trains, but we're probably better off with Hunter's than another underpass.
An underpass couldn't serve a huge fried tenderloin ($4.75 with chips) like the one at this place. This is a sandwich that takes planning to eat. The tender, juicy loin is inside a beer batter between a bun, topped with molten cheese and perhaps vegetables, though there's little point to ordering tomatoes in January. To eat the sandwich too quickly will almost certainly result in a burnt tongue, one of the world's great indignities. But to eat around the edges of the sandwich, treating it like a spinning, disappearing globe, works just fine.
The menu isn't crammed with healthy options. Just bar food at good prices.
I'm not sure about the Grouper Reuben ($7.95 with fries), a new sandwich that has sauerkraut and thousand island dressing on a piece of fish. The Black & Tan ($6.95 with fries) that mixes turkey and corned beef with rye and white breads was good, but needed some zip beyond the coleslaw and Swiss cheese. Grilled onions would have been a nice touch.
I still wonder if I hit Hunter's Place on an off-day during Burger Quest. I haven't tried the burger recently, but the half-pounder is only $4.95.
And I'm curious about the prime rib. I just may have to drop by for a 16-ounce cut for only $15.95.
Hunter said everything at her place is homemade. What she means is that it's made from scratch and like homemade.
Either way, the people making the food and serving it are loyal. Shirley Shafer has been cooking 15 years. Georgia Johns has been there since Hunter's opened and another waitress has been there about 20 years. Hunter's daughter Lisa is helping out too.
"We're just a local bar," Hunter said, later adding, "Business has been good. It really has."
This is a tough time of year to be in the restaurant business. January and February are often slow.
But Friday night at Hunter's, the parking lot was full and the bar was crowded.
I got the fish to go. And I nearly dropped the container on the way out the door because it was heavy and full.
Inside was a mesh of fish, a huge pile of the sweet morsels whose breading was flecked with cornmeal. And coleslaw. Not great coleslaw, but good, fresh stuff that came from the kitchen, not from a supplier's cooler.
So for supper the other night, I had smelt. I like smelt, though some people aren't fans of the little guys. Hunter's also has perch and catfish. And you should know that telling you about their fried fish puts me at risk of angering a longtime friend who once told me that I shouldn't tell people about Hunter's because he didn't want to have to fight people for a seat.
Well if he can't find a seat at Hunter's Place, he can go to Applebee's. And have a conversation with their new talking spokes-apple from the television commercials.
* Wings Etc. on the southeast side of Goshen is expected to open Wednesday. The long-awaited restaurant at 2815 Lincolnway East will be similar to the Elkhart location and offer wings, burgers and beer, among other items. The owners of the company, which has sold 91 franchise or development agreements, plan to open seven to 10 more locations this year, mostly in the Midwest, according to Dennis Witte, executive vice president and co-owner of Wings Etc. Inc. They're looking for another site on the northwest side of Goshen.
* Gourmet Grinds at Linway Plaza, Goshen, closed recently. And it appears that the Hot Pepper taqueria at Benham and Indiana in Elkhart wasn't open long and is already closed.
* The rush of new restaurants has slowed in Mishawaka from what it was several years ago, but a Sonic restaurant is being planned, according to Greg Sheron, senior planner for the city.
* Kelly Renolds, who was known as Kelly Miller when she owned Flytrap's, is partnering with Jeff McKew to operate Sliders, a bar that will offer "world-class bar food," according to a press release from McKew. White Castle popularized sliders, small sandwiches that are usually burgers, but will include chicken Florentine, Cuban pork and shrimp po' boy options at the restaurant. It will open soon at 327 Union, Mishawaka. Phone number will be 259-3556.
* Martin's Super Markets will offer cooking classes at its Cobblestone Crossing location, 3900 E. Bristol St., Elkhart, in the coming months. Chef Greg Beachey of the Elkhart Area Career Center will teach "Chocolate Bliss" on Jan. 31. Chef Eddie Hernandez of the Palais Royale will teach "Some Like it Hot!" on Feb. 26. Personal Chef Sara Ivarson will teach "Herb Garden Classic" on March 27. All classes start at 6:30 p.m. and are $10 per person. The cost includes sampling and recipes. Tickets are available at the customer service counter of the store.