hilltop signHilltop Restaurant






"Cafe Indiana" review of the Hilltop Restaurant ~

Joanne Raetz Stuttgen / The University of Wisconsin Press

Lisa at the Lakeville library told me about the Hilltop Restaurant when I asked where I could find a local hangout with good home cooking. "When people learn I'm from Lakeville," she said, "they say, 'Oh, that's where the Hilltop is." I knew Lisa had steered me correctly when I spotted cars lining the street out front of the restaurant for a block in either direction. Sure enough. On an ordinary Thursday morning in mid-September, the Hilltop is filled with people, voices, and a collection of old stuff so exstensive that empty tables and empty space are both at a premium.

The Hilltop has been owned by Vera Gouker and Karen Iovino, who are mother and daughter, since 1977. Vera started the restaurant in 1977, was away for a year, and then returned. "Mom always collected antiques," says Karen, "and when she started the restaurant, she brought some of them in to decorate. The collection has kept growing ever since."

"Do you ever have enough?" I ask.

"There's always room for more," Karen smiles, "And this isn't even all of it. There's a lot more in the basement."

Study the contents of the Hilltop for thirty seconds, then close your eyes and try to recall what you have seen. I remember a pair of Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls, kerosene lamps, salt glazed crocks, a wicker doll sleigh, an enamel wash pan and coffee pot, an old school slate, a crosscut saw, a whirligig that's a man cutting wood, historic photos of local buildings, framed needlework, and common school and high school diplomas. My pitiful inventory is an embarrassing attempt at my own game.

Inside the front door, a chalkboard advertises the daily breakfast specials, all an attractive alternative to typical Hoosier cafe fare found everywhere else. Anything out of the ordinary is bound to be good, so even before I sit down I decide on the french toast stuffed with pineapple cream cheese and served with orange syrup. Nevertheless, I pick up the menu to see what I may have missed. It is as artistic as the specials: hand-lettered and sprinkled with sketches, poetry, wise sayings, and tongue-in-cheek advice from the kitchen. "Everything is prepared with a sincere desire for excellence," I read, "Our staff are highly trained professionals that have studied at the Julia Wild School of Culinary Arts. We are proud of their work. Please be patient if, when we're crowded, it takes longer for your order than you'd like, and remember, we're cooking as fast as eggs can fly–this means it may take 15–40 minutes on weekends. God Bless."

"Weekends are crazy here," confirms Karen. "We get people from miles around: South Bend, Mishawaka, even Michigan. We hear all the time, 'The food is good, but it takes so long.' We are constantly trying to figure out how to get faster."

During the week, the locals have the Hilltop to themselves. At the rear of the dining room, they cluster at tables and along the counter left behind when Jacob's Drugstore moved out. The proximity of the kitchen puts them close to Karen and her staff, with whom they share talk and laughter. It is back here, too, that members of the Lakeville (LaVille) High School football team gather every Friday morning during the football season. They begin filling the tables about twenty after six, then move on to filling themselves with lineman-size breakfasts washed down with pitchers of Mountain Dew before heading off to the school just down the road. "We talk, shoot the bull, talk strategy, mostly socialize," a player tells me.

Wearing blue and white Lakeville (LaVille) home game jerseys, the football teammates anticipate tonight's game with Jimtown, whom they haven't beaten "in years." They seem resigned to the steady continuation of tradition, the same vague force that brought them to the Hilltop for breakfast for the past five or six years. "My older brother used to come here with his team," I'm told, "so this must go back to at least 1999, I'd say."

Filling every available seat at the tables at the back of the cafe and over-flowing into nearby booths, the teammates ignore the three men who drink coffee at the counter. The men also ignore them. This is not the Hollywood 'Hoosiers' or 'Titans' scenario, where adults manipulate players and meddle with the team behind the coach's back.

"No, that doesn't happen," says Shelly Vidmar, who has worked at the Hilltop for twenty-seven years. "And I'm not sure the kids are wanting that. This is just their thing. They're doing it on their own. They're keeping it going by getting the new kids to come."

The Lakeville (LaVille) Lancers bypass the frilly breakfast offerings that excite me, selecting instead farm-food standbys like boneless sirloin steaks, eggs, potatoes, omelets, biscuits and gravy, pancakes, and french toast accompanied not with coffee but pitchers of soda. After twenty-seven years, Karen knows she will never tear the locals away from their favorite food, like the Hilltop's homemade corned beef hash, but she continues to try "to make people eat more healthy. They're slowly coming around." One healthier alternative that has become a permanent fixture on the menu is the hi-octane oatmeal made with flax, sunflower seeds, and quinoa. Keep your engine revved up by ordering a bowl. But beware. The large bowl is really large, the small bowl is large, and the cup is just right.

"We make as much as we can from scratch," Karen says. This commitment has earned the Hilltop rave reviews. "The man fixing our neon sign told me we're an icon. An icon! It was nice to hear that."