My great grandfather, John Hau, was in the saloon/restaurant business his whole working life. In the early 20th century, he owned the Cozy Tavern at 102 N. Main St. in Fond du Lac, Fond du Lac Co., WI. But, with prohibition looming, he decided to go into the restaurant business. In 1919, he founded the H & H Cafeteria, with Edward Halverson, at 105 S. Main St. in Fond du Lac. The restaurant, in need of more space due to its popularity, then moved to the former Commercial National Bank building, located at First and Main, which they purchased in 1923.
The two-story Richardsonian Romanesque bank building is built of rusticated brownstone with a coursed ashlar finish. It was built in 1903. A detailed description of the building can be found in the Wisconsin Architecture & History Inventory housed at the Wisconsin Historical Society. The AHI Number to search for is #46802 in Fond du Lac County.
In its first year of operation, the cafeteria employed seven persons, but over the years it had expanded to 21 people. It was renamed the Lion Cafeteria because of the two stone-carved lion heads flanking the entrance of the bank building. The cafeteria was distinctive because it was the only restaurant in Fond du Lac, and one of the only in the state of Wisconsin, which served food cafeteria style. As a former customer remembers, “The Lion was the only restaurant that I had ever been in where I took a tray and slid it down the race of gleaming metal tubes.”
The Lion could handle upwards of 165 people at tables, booths and the counter. Sunday was the busiest day, often serving 800 to 1000 meals. Sunday specialties were ham and prime rib of beef. A daily specialty in the bakery were pies. Some days, 70 to 100 pies were baked. Chicken fricasse and dumplings was a favorite on weekends. The Lion was also known for it’s soda fountain.
A former busboy sent me a letter recalling his memories: “The old Lion Café was a very classy eating place in Fond du Lac, located in a former bank building with lots of marble, etc. Although one of the better culinary establishments in town, the meals were reasonably priced. It boasted a cigar humidor case long before such things became popular in recent years. I recall putting the clay bricks in water to soak up moisture and when placed in the case, would keep the cigars moist.
“I worked at the Lion Cafeteria for a while as a busboy around late 1951 or 52 and soaked up some of its old world atmosphere. Clarence (Hau) would dress up in chef’s garb and carve the prime rib or roast round of beef. They had a colorful chef by the name of Chris who used a lot of tomato puree in his cooking which we busboys hauled up out of the basement. There were a couple of nice “old ladies” who had worked there as waitresses for more than 25 years or so and they ran a tight ship guiding us busboys. The evening shifts at the cash register were divided between Clarence, Ray (Hau) and their father (John) who seemed to be a very reserved old gentleman to us high school kids.”
The Lion Cafeteria’s heyday lasted throughout the 1950’s. At that time, Fond du Lac was a city of about 30,000. As in most towns of that era, almost all business, shopping and entertainment spots were located on Main St. There were no shopping malls or strip centers. Main St. was bustling with activity and both businessmen and shoppers would fill the restaurant for lunch. Business hours were 11 am to 2 pm and 4:30 to 7:30 pm daily, except Mondays when it was closed.
By the 1960s, Fond du Lac, like many towns, was changing, and business wasn’t what it use to be. Following 50 years in the business, John Hau retired in 1959, selling the Lion to his sons. Clarence and my grandfather, Raymond, continued to run the business until it closed in 1968. I don’t remember much of the Lion. We didn’t live near Wisconsin, so our visits were rare. I wish I had a photo of grandpa in his restaurant.
The old Commercial National Bank building has housed a number of businesses since the Lion Cafeteria closed. It’s been, among other things, a lighting store, a Thai restaurant, a family restaurant and currently, the home of The Coliseum Sports Bar & Grill.
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