Drinks + Food + Riverfront views: The Deck’s simple recipe wins every summer in Fort Wayne

Ben Hall sits by a window inside Don Hall’s Gas House on a hot Friday afternoon in July, overlooking his adjoining business, The Deck along the St. Mary’s River.

It’s about 2:30 p.m., a time when most dining establishments experience a mid-afternoon lull. He’s wearing a t-shirt and cargo pants, running errands for the Gas House, as a few staff members putter around its kitchen. Ben Hall

But outside, The Deck is nearly full. Twenty- and 30-somethings in sunglasses and Hawaiian shirts huddle around its hut-like bar or lounge on colorful shipping pallet furniture in its parking lot-turned-patio. 

Ben shakes his head in wonder.

In recent years, The Deck has become a fixture in Fort Wayne’s summer scene with its sneaky strong Purple Hazes served in glistening Ball jars and its Chicago Burgers and Burrito Americanos (which are worth the hour-long wait it takes to capture a table). But when it comes to what makes The Deck special, Ben assumes it has to do with more than the menu. 

Ashleen Sharma, left, and Riddhi Patel enjoy a drink together at The Deck.
The Deck is one of the first—and still among the only—places you can enjoy drinking and dining on the riverfront Downtown. 

“People used to say about the river, it’s smelly, it’s brown. Who would want to sit by it?” Ben says. “But you know, it’s generally not very smelly, and yeah, it’s not clear. But it’s still a waterway, and I’m not sure the psychology behind it, but people are drawn to water—particularly if you’re not living in a coastal community.”

The Deck, 305 E. Superior St.
Throughout the course of a week, Ben estimates his team at The Deck serves about 7,000-8,000 guests, drinking, dining, or both. 

“Many of them aren’t even sitting along the river,” Ben says. “They’re technically in our parking lot, but somehow, that’s close enough. You’re surrounded by trees and flowers, so it doesn’t feel like a parking lot, I guess.”

Ben finds it all somewhat funny himself. He’s worked for the family business since he was an eight-year-old, peeling shrimp in 1982 on Saturday mornings at the Hall’s Factory on Coldwater. He knows The Deck is probably a far cry from what his grandfather envisioned when he opened Don Hall’s Original Drive-In and diner at Quimby Village in 1946. Don opened the Gas House Downtown about 10 years later in 1958 to replicate his favorite white-glove steak establishment and saloon in Chicago.

An old menu at Don Hall's Old Gas House, 305 E. Superior.The Deck still has a taste of Hall’s classic American menu, and six out of eight of Ben’s own children work there in the summertime, so the family legacy continues. 

Just the other week, a staff member came up to Ben with a question as he was watching crowds congregate at the Deck—a swarm of people shoulder-to-shoulder, some wearing leis, most sipping $9 fruity drinks.

Do you suppose your grandfather would be proud of this?

“I think so,” Ben says. “Everything I've ever been told about grandpa is that he was a lot of things, but he was very much a businessman. So I think he'd be on board with it.”

The Deck evolved into being about 20 years ago, in the early 2000s, around the time Ben took over the family business. It’s a time he considers Downtown’s “dark days,” which lasted roughly from 1985 to 2005, when most of the city left the urban core at rush hour, drove home to the suburbs, and didn’t come back.

“When we started down here in 2002, summers were none,” Ben says. “There was nothing going on Downtown. You could go down to Calhoun Street on a Saturday afternoon, and you could blow a cannon down the street, and not hit two people.”

Exterior at Don Hall's Old Gas House, 305 E. Superior.To bring in more business at the Gas House, he and his father, the previous owner, sketched plans on a napkin for a modest flat deck behind their building. They thought waterfront dining might be a way to keep customers Downtown on weeknights. When they brought their plans before the City, they learned they couldn’t just build a deck on a floodplain without having an architect design it with the proper criteria.

“That’s why it looks as good as it does now, with the gazebo and all,” Ben says. “If it was up to us, it would have been much simpler.”

But even with its fancy design, The Deck didn’t become an immediate hit. For one, Ben says they didn’t do much marketing. They also didn’t have a bar outside in the beginning.  

“We just had a buffet of all-you-can-eat catfish and barbecue ribs that we would serve, and we would fill the gazebo with buffet tables because we didn't really have enough guests to fill it then. I think it was $10 per plate on Friday nights in 2005 when we first started.”

A sign at The Deck, 305 E. Superior.It was around 2007 when The Deck started hitting its stride and added its bar, Ben says. By the time the Gas House and The Deck did a remodel in 2009, it was generating traction. The Deck has since expanded twice, adding more seating in its parking lot and extending along the river’s edge toward the Spy Run Bridge.

This year, a sign went up in July at The Deck’s bar, claiming it officially sold more than 1 million of its Purple Haze drinks. Ben laughs.

“I wish that were the case,” he says. “The Purple Haze count, season-to-date through the end of July (about 12 weeks), is about 13,000.” 

The Purple Haze drink at The Deck, 305 E. Superior.So there’s still room to grow.

As riverfront development continues at Promenade Park and beyond, Ben knows The Deck is not likely to remain the only bar Downtown with waterfront dining. There will be more patios and tropical drinks and places to pull up your kayak right onto the banks. He wouldn’t even be so bold as to say his family business was a precursor to growth along the river. Instead, he’ll tell you, in many ways, The Deck was—and continues to be—a happy accident.

“A blind squirrel finds their nut every now and then,” Ben says.

Read more articles by Kara Hackett.

Kara Hackett is a Fort Wayne native fascinated by what's next for northeast Indiana how it relates to other up-and-coming places around the world. After working briefly in New York City and Indianapolis, she moved back to her hometown where she has discovered interesting people, projects, and innovations shaping the future of this place—and has been writing about them ever since. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @karahackett.