When I was in third grade, I remember my parents being asked at a parent-teacher conference why I always talked about “hanging out at the bar.” On the one hand, growing up in the family restaurant industry is a strange concept for a kid. On the other, however, it also instilled a strong sense of tangible pride and identity in me that only comes with knowing who, where, and what values make up your genealogy. Michael’s Bar & Grill was nothing more than my second home. I don’t know what it would be like to not have Michael’s in my life, and if you ask my grandfather, neither would Toledo.
In 1938, my “papou,” Michael Yakumithis, was born on Baker Street to a Greek immigrant family. 26 years earlier, his father Emmanuel—“Michael Jackson,” as Ellis Island called him—came to the U.S. from Samos, Greece to work on the railway system. The Great Dayton Flood of 1913 occurred shortly after, and my ambitious, newly-settled great-grandfather decided to relocate to Toledo, where he met his wife. My papou told me hundreds of times about his father’s daily commute by foot to Samaria, MI, which was about a 14 mile walk. Needless to say, my family developed from a determination to establish a home and pioneer its legacy.
My great-grandfather spent the next several years working on the railroad, bouncing around from Cleveland to Chicago to Toledo to other industrial cities, but after exploring other fields, he eventually discovered actualization in the restaurant business. Once he understood there was little room for a pretty penny in maintenance occupations, he upped and launched his own business.
In 1922, my great-grandfather unveiled the former Monroe Street hotspot, the Baltimore Cafe, which relocated to a building across the street several years after it opened at its original location. According to my papou, the Baltimore’s prominence downtown was substantial upon its conception. A growing downtown meant a flourishing nightlife and a daytime crowd that thrived on the homey atmosphere and consistency of the cafe’s services, which my family has perpetuated over the years. My great-grandfather worked there by day, great-grandmother by night, earning her the superlative “tough as nails,” according to anyone in my family.
My “neh neh’s” strong nature is representative of the business en masse, which has survived decades of hardships. Aside from structural crises, including numerous instances of vehicles barreling through the confines of our quaint little family business, personal crises have hardly impacted operations. When my neh neh was diagnosed with cancer in 1948, my barely 10-year-old papou and his father commuted with her to Minnesota for her treatment, all while managing the family restaurant.
“Toledo was always home,” my papou told me, “and the restaurant was a symbol of that.”
Regardless of her ailing health, my papou said his mother helped shape the business to accommodate their realm of obligations and the restaurant’s growing night crowd.
“Our back-and-forth traveling didn’t really impact business because someone was always there. My brothers and other family members, whoever was available, worked in the absence of my parents,” he said. “It became second nature with every personal situation we encountered that might have had the potential to complicate things.”
The collaborative nature of the Baltimore’s operations endured even once my papou took over the business and had four children of his own—four little freckle-faced employees, that is.
“The boys would fight over who would go to work with me,” my papou said. “They loved going downtown and helping out.”
My dad and his brothers’ teenage years unfortunately coincided with some bad years in regard to public safety in downtown Toledo—such bad years that after migrating to the location on Monroe and Michigan a few decades earlier, my family collectively decided to reinvent the Baltimore in 1987.
“In all honesty,” he said. “I was ready to close the business completely. My family was so passionate about staying open that we closed for an entire month to plan things out logistically and configure a new business model while upholding the same standards, values, and atmosphere as before.”
In 1987, Michael’s Bar & Grill opened its doors and has been operating ever since.
Its familiar environment is perhaps what Michael’s is best known for today, nestled cozily between Toledo’s Uptown and Downtown districts. Ironically, in an age of microbreweries and avocado toast, my papou attributes the restaurant’s consistency to its success and longevity.
“In Toledo, predictability and reliability are things customers look forward to, so we have always made it our responsibility to be a space people feel comfortable in,” he said.
Eight-and-a-half decades after my great-grandfather put his stake in the ground — these 80 years included a relocation, a name change, and several vehicle-induced face lifts to the building’s front — Michael’s’ place in the Toledo community has remained unchanged, a feat in a community which holds notoriety for its businesses’ repetitious comings and goings. From one “Michael Jackson” to Michael Yakumithis, the seemingly arbitrary name fatefully given to my great-grandfather when he arrived in this country has become the foundation of our Toledo story, passed down as though it were a family heirloom — a name that brought my family to, and ultimately kept us in, the city of Toledo.