New Auburn steakhouse is full of regional flavor

There aren't many buildings in northeast Indiana that predate the Civil War, but the old Auburn City Hardware store at 203 Main St. is one of them.

Since 1859, it has been a hardware store and a fixture in the DeKalb County community.

So in 2015, local investors Rick and Vicki James purchased the building to help revive downtown Auburn in a different way.

In mid-April, the hardware store will reopen as Auburn City Steakhouse, an affordable, high-end establishment owned by third-generation Fort Wayne restaurateur Robert “Bob” Lebamoff. Bob Lebamoff

As the owner of Bottle & Bottega Wine & Paint in Fort Wayne, Lebamoff hopes his new venture in Auburn pays homage to the city's history, as well as its evolving culture.

The James family, which owns Metal Technologies, Inc. also runs the James Foundation, and restores historic buildings like the hardware store, giving Auburn's past a place in its future.

Along with Jeremiah's Brewed Awakenings coffee shop and The Deli at Sixth & Main, the Auburn City Steakhouse is their latest project, and for Lebamoff, it presents a new opportunity, as well.

Since his grandparents migrated to northeast Indiana from Macedonia, his family has owned a long line of local restaurants in Fort Wayne, including The Paramount Grill, Ted and Tom's, and The Elegant Farmer.

He plans to continue his family's legacy by using his father's recipe for prime rib and his grandfather’s recipe for Greek salad at the steakhouse.

And while his restaurant will be a fusion of cultures in some ways, he hopes it also helps the Auburn community retain the local-first mindset that makes it special.

Lebamoff sat down with Input Fort Wayne to tell us more about his new steakhouse, and its role in Auburn’s ongoing revival.

The old Auburn City Hardware store originally opened in 1859.

IFW: As a Fort Wayne restaurant owner, how did you get involved in an Auburn project?

BL:
Rick and Vicki had a vision of what they wanted the building to be like to honor the Auburn community, and then I stepped in from the restaurant operational side.

I got involved about a year ago, and when I told Rick and Vicki about my vision for the restaurant, and they liked it, so we hit it off from the beginning.

We started working on this concept of bringing a prime rib steakhouse to the downtown area to continue the vision they have for Auburn, and it’s been a great partnership.

The steakhouse will feature a Davis & James Lounge as a salute to the James family and Joseph Davis, who built the original hardware store.

IFW: Rick and Vicki run the James Foundation, which has largely contributed to the evolving culture of downtown Auburn. Tell us more about them.

BL: They are a true Auburn couple.

Rick was born and raised in Auburn. He’s a DeKalb High School graduate, and Vicki grew up outside Auburn, but not far.

They were both raised there, and they remember what the downtown looked like when they were kids, and they want to try to revitalize it and help their community that they love so dearly.

There’s no better way to do that than taking it one building at a time and finding local entrepreneurs to start businesses.

They’re committed to making a mark on downtown Auburn, and I know they have plans of doing more after this one, too.

IFW: As an outsider to the Auburn area, what is it like?

BL: From the outside looking in, I’m extremely impressed by the close-knit community that Auburn has, and the passion the downtown business owners and entrepreneurs have for bringing downtown back to a level that everyone can be proud of.

From the people I talk to, most are lifelong residents. They went to DeKalb High School. They either work in Auburn or have a business in Auburn, and they love the city.

They like that rural community feel, and they have hometown pride. That's the cool thing about Auburn.

They’re looking to our steakhouse to be one more business that will bring people downtown, and it’s amazing.

They’re connecting us with local business chambers, and they couldn’t wait to get us involved in DABA, the Downtown Auburn Business District.

They want us to be involved as much as we can to help their community grow.

It’s not necessarily like that in Fort Wayne where you have a new business that opens, and you might not even know about it for a few months.

We started our Facebook page about six weeks ago, and we already have more than 2,200 likes, and we haven’t even promoted it yet.

A rendering of the future Auburn City Steakhouse dining room.

IFW: Your father Thomas Lebamoff was a Fort Wayne restaurateur for more than 40 years. He owned Ted and Tom's North and South, the Yankee Drummer, Lambro's, and The Elegant Farmer Restaurant. Tell us about your family’s history in the regional restaurant industry.

BL: My dad spent his entire career in the restaurant business. After he got out of the army, he went to work for my grandfather and then went to work on his own entrepreneurial, independent restaurants.

Most notably for Fort Wayne people, he started the Ted and Tom’s restaurant. It was him and my uncle’s. Then the Elegant Farmer was his fine dining restaurant, as well, so I was a restaurant kid going up.

Dad would take me to Ted and Tom’s and hand me a broom, and say, ‘Organize this back room while I get my paperwork done, and I’ll cook you a hamburger.’

I remember that being a cool thing to do.

A lot of people know my grandfather from his restaurant The Paramount Grill, as well. It was located on Fairfield Avenue in what is now Wunderkammer Art Gallery.

I remember going there, too, because my mother used to take us to see our grandfather, and there was a 50-cent bookstore next to the restaurant where I bought Baseball Digest when I was a kid.

It’s fun to remember those times and be part of that industry and now be a third generation stepping out on my own and having my own restaurant.

Wine and prime rib are two main features on the menu.

IFW: Tell us about your other work around Fort Wayne.

BL: My other Fort Wayne business is Bottle & Bottega, and we have a food element there, as well.

For the past couple of years, we’ve been doing prime rib date nights and corporate events to keep that food service angle alive.

My passion is trying to differentiate our product from others in the industry, and not many wine and paint shops do full dinners, so we’re making it a full date night experience.

I was an IPFW associate professor for nearly four years, as well.

IFW: How do you see the Auburn City Steakhouse fulfilling a need in the Auburn community?

BL: It seems like Auburn has been starved for a fine dining restaurant that’s affordable.

We’re going to be a casual, elegant steakhouse. It’s not going to be dark and stuffy and dim. There’s a lot of windows, so it’s going to be bright, loud, and active.

I want a celebration energy. I want people to come in and enjoy themselves and the experience. I want them to appreciate the architectural renewal of the building, and know the James family invested their time and money to make it unique.

We're going to have a wine cellar where we can rent wine lockers to our guests. We’ve partnered with the Satek family wineries, and we’re going to have our own private-label American red wine exclusively for us.

Those are some of the "wow" factors I hope the Auburn community appreciates about us.

Where it’s interesting, I think, is that we also have a Fort Wayne market, particularly in the DuPont Road area out north.

Fort Wayne people tend to think if you drive to Auburn it’s like leaving the country, even though it’s easier to drive from DuPont to Auburn than DuPont to Jefferson Pointe. It’s only a 15- or 20-minute drive.

The future entrance of the Auburn City Steakhouse.

IFW: As an entrepreneur in northeast Indiana, what are some of the challenges you face?

BL: I think there’s a lot of small business entrepreneurs that stake their claim, put up their own money, and put a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into it, and it just doesn’t get recognized.

Sometimes I think that the chain restaurants overshadow the local families, like the Casaburo family of Casa Restaurants or the Schindler family of Bandidos.

Those folks live here, and raise their children here, and have a vested interest in this region.

Sometimes that gets overlooked in favor of outside resources and money.

Personally, I rarely find myself dining or shopping at chains. I want to support local people because I know how difficult it is to turn the lights on and make a living on these dreams.

Fort Wayne was like that when my dad got started. My dad’s a first-generation citizen here from Macedonia, and my grandparents came from the old country.

What they knew was, “Come to America, and live the dream.”

The dream wasn’t to work for a chain; the dream was to do it yourself. That was instilled in me, and Auburn has a lot of people who think like that, too.

The James family owns Metal Technologies, and the live just down the road from it.

Read more articles by Kara Hackett.

Kara is a Fort Wayne native, passionate about her hometown and its ongoing revival. As Managing Editor of Input Fort Wayne, she enjoys writing about interesting people and ideas in northeast Indiana. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @karahackett.
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