The Journal Gazette
Sunday, August 13, 2017 1:00 am

Back in the neighborhood

O7 Pub's owner follows family tradition with eatery

STEVE WARDEN | For The Journal Gazette

It's been said that water has a way of finding its own level. If you're lucky, life can be like that, too; that no matter how old you may be, or how far away from home you have traveled, you'll eventually find yourself and everything seems to level out.

Some never find it.

Marcus Spillson did.

The 36-year-old proprietor of 07 Pub, 3516 Broadway, sits in a corner booth and watches the early arrivals enter through the front door. At the moment, he's polishing off a club sandwich he retrieved from the kitchen. Once the place fills up, there'll be no time to eat. But of course he knows this. He's a Spillson, after all.

If the name sounds familiar, it should. In the 1930s and '40s, Marcus' great-grandfather Nick Spillson owned Berghoff Gardens, downtown at Berry and Harrison streets and the city's most popular supper and nightclub lounge. Its most distinctive feature was the pitch-black ceiling that was illuminated with tiny white lights, giving patrons a sense of dining beneath the stars. Tommy Dorsey's orchestra performed there; so did Ella Fitzgerald and scores of others.

Not to be outdone, Nick's son, John, found his own fame in 1961 when he opened Cafe Johnell on Calhoun Street, catty-cornered from the Rialto Theater.

The explanation is that in the early 1960s, French cuisine was all the rage because of the popularity of first lady Jackie Kennedy, whose ancestors were French. The United States was coming out of the 1950s simplicity of “I Like Ike” to watching a White House couple with culture and appreciation for the finer things in life.

John Spillson spared no expense for those finer things. Cafe Johnell, with its red velvet interior, hushed atmosphere and extensive international wine cellar, was consistently rated one of the nation's four-star restaurants.

John's son, Mark, and father of Marcus, tells the story of how John Spillson was so enraged when he got a shipment of produce that was below the restaurant's standards that he heaved it into the parking lot and told the supplier that he had exactly 15 minutes to come pick it up. “'And don't ever send it to my place ever again, or I will never do business with you!'”

Mark Spillson went from washing dishes as a 12-year-old on Saturday nights to becoming the business's vice president and a restaurateur in his own right.

Then Mark and his wife had five children, Marcus being the oldest.

“I had a deal with my kids,” says Mark, 55. “'If I send you to college, you cannot go into the restaurant business.'”

So much for that. With the opening of 07 Pub less than three months ago, Marcus became the fourth generation of Spillson catering to the palates and parched throats of Fort Wayne-area residents.

With its natural brick wall behind the three-sided bar, the original high tin roof ceiling, the hardwood floors and the bright blue padded bar chairs, 07 Pub is the 2017 version of the Spillson legacy.

“This place is so different from Cafe Johnell,” Marcus says. “Cafe Johnell was plush and very quiet, and we're very open. We're not doing Cafe Johnell. It's a totally different thing.

“But I feel like I need to provide excellent service, and a place where people want to come to.”

It's a neighborhood bar – plain and simple, Marcus says. But not just a neighborhood bar – his neighborhood. That's what the 07 stands for. It's the ZIP code for this southern part of town, from Calhoun Street to Winchester Road, from Creighton Avenue to Lower Huntington Road.

“I wouldn't have done this anywhere in the world but this neighborhood. Specifically, this neighborhood,” he says. “I wouldn't have the passion about it. I wouldn't have cared, really. This is definitely a passion project for me, and because it's here, it's easy. This is literally where I was born and raised. It's where I live now. Here we are.”

If proof was ever needed for Spillson's loyalty to his roots, it came in the form of his Facebook post a few weeks ago with the photo of a vandalized window at the Foster Park Little League concession stand.

“Foster Park is the centerpiece of our neighborhood,” Marcus Spillson wrote. “Clancy (close friend and business partner Shank) and I grew up playing at this park. So tonight we will donate $1 for every adult beverage we sell to help repair the damage. Hope to see you at the pub.”

Marcus Spillson, who was an all-state football tight end at Bishop Luers High School, initially agreed to the “no restaurant” agreement when he graduated from Wabash College. He found a job in Indy, then moved to Houston where, for five years with an oil and gas firm, did title research and got land owners to lease mineral rights.

Two summers ago, when he came home for his brother Mike's wedding, he noticed that one of his old haunts, Lombardo's Lounge, had closed up. The owner passed away and the place was for sale. And it was maybe then that the Spillson blood took hold and he found himself dialing the telephone number that was on the building's “For Sale” sign.

“The next thing you knew, I owned a bar and a liquor license,” says Marcus, who then called his dad.

“'You did what?'” Mark remembers saying. “'You're gonna buy a what?'”

Friends and family jumped in to help convert a 100-year-old building into Marcus' vision. In addition to Mark's third-generation kitchen and menu expertise, he also worked side-by-side with his son with crowbars and hammers.

It was amid the construction when Marcus Spillson perhaps fully understood his father's refrain of, “You did what?”

“I was a couple hundred thousand (dollars) in renovation, and it looked like a bomb went off, and I thought, what the (expletive) did I do?” Marcus says. “The only thing I've done is I washed dishes. Never worked in a kitchen. Never worked in a bar. I'm a couple hundred grand in (debt), not counting the purchase price, and I'm looking around and I'm thinking, what did I do?

“Then, the first night, everything went away. It's all worth it. It's all worth it already.”

Whether there will be a fifth-generation Spillson who assumes the family spatula, no one is sure. Marcus and his wife don't have any children.

“We've got Giada,” Mark says of his nearly 1-year-old granddaughter. “We've had her making cookies and stuff with my wife's mom. We start 'em young here.”

A wait staff member comes and takes Marcus' empty plate as a younger couple walk through the front door and find a place at the bar. The young owner thinks back to that first night and all that occurred.

“It was one of the coolest things that ever happened to me,” he said.

Then came the wee hours of that opening night, after the customers had disappeared and only a few workers remained, when Marcus and Mark Spillson “had a moment,” Mark says. “Just me and him.”

“It was emotional,” Marcus says.

They agreed that, after the 10 years Marcus was away, and the five years in Houston he helped others find oil on other people's land, how fitting that another Spillson found his own riches back home – back in the 07.

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