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Even those who know little about Indianapolis are likely familiar with that “saintly” steakhouse on Illinois Street that has been serving up massive chops and fiery shrimp cocktails since 1902. Today there is no shortage of high-end steakhouses and a promise of more to come. Some 30 years ago, there were two candidates vying for bovine divinity in Indianapolis. It was a battle of the patron saints of soldiers and sailors, one, a mere block away from the monument, that pays tribute to both. Although the victor is obvious, many have fond memories of the other saint: the former St. Moritz Steakhouse.

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Restaurants with a 60 year shelf life are quite rare. While popular celebrities and athletes have long been a fixture at St. Elmo’s, the politicians and lawyers of Indianapolis often spent their evenings at St. Moritz Steakhouse, one block east of the circle. The restaurant was founded in the unlucky year of 1929 by the Zilson family on the ground floor of the Lemcke building at 109 North Pennsylvania Street. The restaurant endured the Great Depression, World War II, and the gradual decline of downtown for the next forty years.

In this 1979 photo you can faintly make out the Saint Moritz sign in the lower right hand corner. The much more historic Ober (When) Building is prominent in this shot. (Courtesy IUPUI Library)

In this 1979 photo you can faintly make out the Saint Moritz sign complete with coat of arms in the lower right hand corner. The much more historic Ober (When) Building is prominent in this shot. (Image: IUPUI Library)

By 1968, the restaurant operated under the stewardship of Nick Zilson, a nephew of the original owners. Under his guidance, the popular eatery moved across the street to 44 North Pennsylvania Street, near the intersection with Market. The business remained popular, often advertising itself in a tongue-in cheek manner as the number two steakhouse in Indianapolis. It seemed as if St. Moritz would last forever as an Indianapolis legend.

This 1985 ad makes light that after 50 years in business they are still only the number two steakhouse in town. (Courtesy Indiana State Library)

This 1985 ad makes light that after 50 years in business they are still only the number two steakhouse in town. (Image: Indiana State Library)

Popularity could not stop the power of real estate speculators. In 1984, a massive project was proposed on the site of St. Moritz and the two historic structures to the south. The ambitious Symphony Towers were to consist of some 700 apartments in a 48-story building, a 700-space parking structure, and 30,000 square feet of retail space.  Accepting the restaurant’s fate, Zilson prepared to celebrate the last day of business on July 1st, 1987. Banners decorated the Swiss Chalet façade, and many local movers and shakers enjoyed one last meal. Zilson told stories behind the bar, including an instance where he was slapped by a prominent politician after cutting off his drinks for the evening. The two eventually reconciled and became friends.

This building was the original location of St. Moritz in 1929. Surprisingly this structure dates back to 1899. It was tragically altered during a 1974 renovation. (Courtesy Jeff Kamm)

This building was the original location of St. Moritz in 1929. Surprisingly this structure dates back to 1899. It was tragically altered during a 1974 renovation. (Image: Jeff Kamm)

The plan for Symphony Towers ended up bursting with the rest of the real estate market in the late 1980s. The buildings intended to be cleared sat in various states of disrepair for nearly a decade, until being demolished in 1994 for a one of the city’s many bland parking structures. Zilson went on to manage J. Whit’s restaurant in the Lockerbie Marketplace until it closed in 1991. He passed away in 2008 at the age of 79. Who is your #1 steak saint of years ago and today?

 

Printed Sources:

Indianapolis Star, December 25th, 1986

Indianapolis Star, July 2nd, 1987

Polk’s City Director, 1989

Indianapolis Business Journal, August 5th, 1991

4 responses to “At Your Leisure: Saint vs. Saint”

  1. Basil Berchekas Jr says:

    A very good rendition of the Saint Moritz Steakhouse! Jess Zilson, Nick’s older brother, was my Godfather. Jess brought Nick into the family business when Nick finished a tour in the Air Force as a Captain at Sandia Base, New Mexico. I know Jess had a Bachelor’s in Chemistry from Butler and worked with my Dad at the State Highway Department after graduation before running the family business (the Saint Moritz). He told me once that making drinks at the steakhouse “put my Chemistry degree to work”. At any rate the Saint Moritz (German for Maurice) was good right up to the “end”.

  2. Erik says:

    Wow, really interesting! Thank you!

  3. Basil Berchekas Jr says:

    AOK!

  4. James Prattas says:

    Actually the St. Moritz was started by John D. Prattas.
    John brought Jess Zilson and Mike Voivodas In as junior partners because John Prattas wanted to retire and go back to Greece with his wife Niki Prattas and their 3 children.
    John had a heart attack in 1954.
    Jess Zilson and Mike Voivodas took over.
    Mike decided he wanted out to run his pharmacy.
    Zess brings in his brother Nick.
    Jess dies.
    Nick took over and it all went.
    Thanks for the memories
    James Prattas

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