Route 66 travelers who get a wild hair might want to try lunch at the Wild Hare Café in Elkhart. This unique café has been feeding travelers since May 1, 2004. It is located within and throughout Horsefeathers Antiques and Gift Shop, where diners can also shop for collectibles, jewelry, Route 66 memorabilia and more.
The brick building, which was originally built as a bank and has since housed a variety of businesses, features multiple rooms that have all been converted for dining and shopping. Two tables are located in separate rooms that were originally bank vaults. “It was quite a grand place, apparently,” owner Andrea Niehaus remarks. Parts of the bank can still be seen today in the original marble floor, foyer, windows and doors.
Niehaus’ many years in sales and antiques sparked her desire to start a new business. “I’ve always been in retail, in antiques and gifts and housewares, women’s fashions and that kind of thing. But I wanted to own my own building,” she says. “So, I had a good look around, and I loved Elkhart. I thought it had a warmth and a picturesque type of energy.” She waited a while for the opportunity, but eventually it arrived in the form of a phone call communicating that the American Legion was selling its building. She jumped on it and opened Horsefeathers Antique Shop. “I knew I wanted to do something in food, but I started with antiques and gifts the first two years, got that settled in, and then started the café.”
Although she was new to the restaurant business, Niehaus says she has many friends who owned small restaurants, cafés and tea rooms, and she knew this is what she wanted to do. She got together with her husband and sister, and they started making some of their old family recipes. It was an instant success. “It was keeping pace with the business that was the challenge, because it took off so fast,” she says.
The Wild Hare was previously open for dinner hours as well, but the popularity of the café combined with the inability to find enough staff proved too much. Currently, it is only open Wednesday through Sunday for lunch.
Diners will find the café right in the heart of Elkhart along Route 66. “Being on Route 66 is interesting because we have people coming from all over the world,” says Niehaus. According to their visitor logbook, diners from more than 40 countries have visited the Wild Hare. The café also attracts plenty of loyal local customers. “The same people have been coming here for years and years and years,” Niehaus shares.
The menu is not what you would find in most restaurants. Traditional family recipes make up the list of old-fashioned comfort foods that diners can enjoy fresh, from soups and sandwiches to salads and daily desserts. Niehaus makes everything from scratch, including the hare-shaped cookies that top each dessert. “It’s the only place you have hare on your pie,” one of the waitresses comments, as she delivers peanut butter pie to the table.
Some favorite dishes include the salad sampler (a plate featuring all the salads available on the menu), the panini plate (ham or turkey, grilled on artisan bread with peppers, onions, cheese and sauce), and the quiche of the day. “Probably the number one favorite is the turkey cranberry melt,” Niehaus says. Although it is normally only a special on certain days, Niehaus says they can make it whether it’s on the daily specials board or not.
Those looking for a more substantial dining experience can order the weekly Sunday special, available 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. for $15.99. While the full menu is also available, Niehaus says the specials provide “a nice, hot, proper meal on a Sunday.”
What makes the place unique is the personal touch throughout. Much of the artwork for sale in the shop is created by local artists. Niehaus herself painted most of the interior walls. Trees, flowers, characters and animals (especially hares) woven into the green background provide an ancient forest feel.
Surrounded by the tranquil paintings and antiques, Niehaus says, “It is a well-rounded, full experience. Even if they just walk through, I know a lot of people have said, ‘Gosh, it’s like being back in my mother’s house,’ or ‘I remember this in my grandmother’s house.’” She strives to combine art with old-fashioned, homemade dining to give guests a unique, comforting experience.