In 1989 the Silver Grille restaurant at the Higbee Company’s downtown department store closed its doors. The 10th-floor space later became a special-event center managed by the nearby Ritz-Carlton hotel. This was a noteworthy transition because, in a very real sense, dining at the Silver Grille had always been a special event.
One contributor to the eatery’s special-event status was its décor: an immersive Art Deco experience. Short for Arts Décoratifs, Art Deco was the height of fashion when Higbee’s opened in 1931. And a meal at the Silver Grille was a celebration of everything Art Deco stood for: luxury, glamour, hope and the power of progress. Entering the restaurant, guests were met by a red marble fountain stocked with goldfish. Ornate grillwork complemented the green-colored walls, bronze light fixtures and floor-to-ceiling columns bathed in purple light. Uber-modern aluminum tables with black marble tops dotted the room. Even the name of the restaurant’s manager sounded innovative: Mrs. Kenneth McKay (yes, Kenneth was her first name) previously taught restaurant management at Columbia University. The space was conceived by Rorimer-Brooks Studios in collaboration with Philip Lindsley Small, who designed Shaker Square and nearby Moreland Courts. Small also architected numerous structures for John Carroll and Case Western Reserve Universities, as well as opulent homes in Cleveland Heights and Shaker Heights.
“Patrons of a certain age” may recall that the food also was an event. Many might wax nostalgic about the creamed chicken and chicken pie: famous, according to architectural historian Richard E. Karberg, for its sheer “WASPishness.” More could cite the innovative Puerto Rican salad with mangoes, avocados and dates. But invariably topping the nostalgia list was the Grille’s welsh rarebit: melted cheese over toast, garnished with almonds. At one time or another, every child has insisted that this 18th-century British delight is actually called “Welsh Rabbit.” And believe it or not, they’d be right: The Columbia Guide to Standard American English states that “rarebit” is a variant of “rabbit” — believed to be an insult to the Welsh, whom the English claimed ate the cheese dish “instead of the rabbit meat they lacked.”
And speaking of children, every Silver Grille hamburger, hot dog or french fry arrived ceremoniously in its own little stove, truck, teepee or space capsule—originally tin and later cardboard. At Christmastime, youngsters might order a Christmas tree adorned with tiny sandwiches, followed by ice cream shaped like a snowman or molded into a wreath with lighted candles.
The Silver Grille also was part of a larger experience—an all-day, all-Higbee event that frequently included live music and fashion shows in the restaurant. Female patrons, often with children in tow, would arrive early via the Shaker, Van Aken or Windermere (now the Green, Blue, and Red) rapid transit lines. The Silver Grille served breakfast as well as lunch, so folks could dine-and-shop-and-dine-and-shop. So in addition to feasting, a full day might include getting a manicure (6th floor), trying on dresses (2nd floor), picking up pet supplies and even pets (4th floor), purchasing live plants and books (5th floor), sitting for a photo shoot (7th floor), perusing furniture (7th floor), and tempting kids with Higbee’s massive toy collection (4th floor). The latter, of course, is where Mrs. Parker bought the Red Ryder BB gun that would surely shoot Ralphie’s eye out.
Despite an ownership change in the late 1930s, Higbee’s and the Silver Grille survived the Depression. Both thrived well into the 1960s. After all, this was the heyday of the “soup-to-nuts urban department store”—Higbee’s shared the lower Euclid Avenue area with Bailey’s, Halle’s, May Company, Sterling-Lindner-Davis and Taylor’s department stores.
By mid-century, Art Deco was falling out of favor so management softened the Silver Grille’s look by installing banquettes (booths), painting over the grillwork and installing a gazebo over the fountain. By 1962 the restaurant’s color scheme was pink, green and red (ouch). Some Art Deco elements were restored in 1982.
Beginning in the late 1960s, however, downtown slowly ceased to be Cleveland’s preeminent shopping destination. Suburban shopping malls—replete with Bailey’s, Halle’s, Higbee’s and May Company stores—sprang up from Eastgate to Southgate to Westgate. More and more Cleveland residents relocated to the burbs, and a car ride to the mall largely usurped a train or bus trip to downtown. Nonetheless, the Silver Grille remained in business until late 1989 when the Higbee’s Public Square store downsized. Today, Higbee’s is folded invisibly into Dillard’s (albeit without a downtown store) and the Silver Grille is merely a memory adorned with melted cheese and eye-piercing BB guns.