Cafe Navarre: Restaurant Brings New Life to an Historic South Bend Building

By+Kathy Jonas

The elegant yet cosmopolitan Café Navarre, located in the old American Trust building in downtown South Bend, didn’t start out so elegant or cosmopolitan.

Kurt Janowsky, long-time local restaurateur, had a vision for the space that would honor its historic nature, but allow lots of light and an open, urban feel. It boasts 24-foot high ceilings, curved windows (one which looks out on the historic downtown clock) and a detailed plaster ceiling.

The restaurant serves up to 175 people and includes several private dining areas on the mezzanine space.

The five months of renovations – after he was given the green light to proceed on the project – involved LOTS of creativity and tenacity. Two of the biggest challenges had to be solved: the heat and air exchange and the sound.

Janowsky said finding a way to move the air was complex and very expensive, but necessary, as no one likes to eat in a restaurant that is either too hot or too cold. The bar was designed with a return air system and ductwork was added in the mezzanine, which was constructed to add texture and seating as well as meeting the utilitarian purpose of air and heat flow.

He hired an acoustic engineer to tackle the sound. Janowsky said a truckload of foam is tucked within the restaurant – not that anyone would ever notice it.  An unseen trough – which blends in seamlessly with the molding – contains acoustical foam. Segments of the wall are foam-covered and booth dividers are covered in fabric. The floor is a sound-absorbing cork .

“We wanted a vibrant, not clubbish atmosphere,” Janowsky said. “There is a buzz when you come in here.” He said he wanted people to be able to have conversations, yet still feel a part of the ambience of the place. Thus, he didn’t want heavy draperies on the windows and was adamant about natural lighting,

“Natural light provides a better place to work,” he said, adding that the restaurant has the best natural light of any space in the area. He said several places he has worked in the past, including the Ice House in the 100 Center, and the Loft, which did not have much light at all. He has incorporated neutral shades at the windows.

The fact that the building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places is wonderful, but it also made renovations more restrictive and challenging. Aside from its use as a bank, it most recently housed Van Horne Jewelers and Fannie May candy. It also has been a clothing store and a grocery.

The exterior of the building was restored by Michigan Street LLC, which Janowsky said did a marvelous job. Brad Toothaker and Mike Wargo were developers of the building, which is located adjacent to the historic clock at Washington and Michigan streets.

Café Navarre was named after Janowski and South Bend Tribune’s Market Basket columnist Heidi Prescott asked readers to name the business. That resulted in more than 500 entries. The winning entry was from attorney Andy Nickle, who came up with the idea of naming it after Pierre Navarre, one of South Bend’s fist European settlers who came to the area as a fur trader in 1820. 

Prescott said it was the most popular question ever posed by her column. She said it conjured up so many memories for readers. “It was amazing how many entries I received from older residents who met friends at the clock, or even met their future spouse at the corner.”

Janowski, who also owns the Matterhorn in Elkhart and has the catering contract at the new Lerner Theater in Elkhart, said he is constantly on the road between South Bend and Elkhart. 

He said he thrives on multiple projects and wouldn’t want to have it any other way. “I wouldn’t ever want to be in just one place,” he said.

The restaurant has been extremely busy and well received by the community. Part of that is due to the staff that Janowsky has assembled. “I have been fortunate to put together a really passionate team. It has been a real blessing on both the culinary and service side to have such a dedicated and talented staff,” Janowsky said. The management team is comprised of local restaurant veterans Larry Katz and John Dawson, along with Elaine Thibault, who came from the Summit Club. The club announced in May it would be closing indefinitely.

The executive chef is Matthew Jay, who trained at the Culinary Institute of America and has worked at Flytraps in Elkhart, the Grand Hotel in Mackinac Island, and MK in Chicago. Café Navarre specializes in French, Spanish and Italian food. 

Janowsky said he wanted to offer food not readily available in other establishments and decided on more of a French and seafood menu. He said there are plenty of great steak restaurants in the area, but he didn’t want a business model that was doing something already done well. “It was kind of a no brainer,” he said, “You don’t see a lot of fresh seafood being prepared using French cooking techniques.

Café Navarre, since its opening in January, has served more than 40 different kinds of oysters and more than 50 species of fish.

Have you ever heard of Moonfish, Amberjack or Black Cod? Moonfish is an Hawaiian fish also called Opah that is firm, rich and colorful. Amberjack is an Atlantic offshore fish averaging about 40 pounds and Black Cod is a marine ice fish that is succulent and flavorful.

Janowsky said one of their fish suppliers in Michigan provides live product in tanks so it is “swim today, process, and on your plate tomorrow.” Now that’s fresh.

Gunthorp Farm, LaGrange, supplies the free-range chicken and pork. He said they are trying to be as farm-to-table as possible, but in terms of produce there are limitations to the local supply due to the weather. He said they have used an abundant supply of fresh, local produce this past summer. Small plates – or appetizers – are popular, according to Janowsky, as it allows diners to try a little of everything. He said the restaurant creates a tapas experience in lieu of an entrée. Some examples are gambas, fois gras, or mussels.

The restaurant started offering lunches in mid-March as a service to customers who are looking for an upscale location for a business lunch. While a sandwich is a nice lunch option, he said there is a need for something more and that has not been readily available in the downtown.