About The Beach Cafe

Longtime Miller Beach restaurant reopens with new owners

By Lu Ann Franklin Times Correspondent, from the NWI Times

GARY | A new era in family dining has dawned in Miller Beach with the reopening May 29 of The Beach Café.

New owners Marash and Aga Nikolaj brought back the bar and grill at 903 N. Shelby Road two years after it was shuttered.

It's been a nine-month journey for the husband and wife, Albanian immigrants from Yugoslavia who have lived in the region since the 1990s and raised five children who now are 15 to 23 years old.

The couple's daughter, Marija, came from Detroit to work during the reopening. Sons Joseph, Mark, Tommy and Nick work at every position from hosts to dishwashers and table bussers. Joseph Nikolaj even shut down his own business — Joe's Auto Sales in Lake Station — to help his parents get the restaurant ready.

The Nikolajs closed on the two-story building in October. They and their four sons spent every day renovating the restaurant, which had been part of the Miller neighborhood since the 1940s.

Originally called Smitty's Beach Café in honor of the owners Ernest and Ida Smith, The Beach Café enjoyed success under several proprietors, said Gene Ayers, a longtime Realtor in Miller.

Joe and Josie Hayduk and Joe Kovalik bought the restaurant in 1962. They ran the eatery for 26 years.

"My daughter celebrated her first birthday there," said Josie Hayduk, of Valparaiso, who lived above the restaurant for a number of years. Today that space has been renovated into a banquet facility.

When the two Joes retired, the café was sold to Doug Wymer, who hosted a grand opening in February 1990 and ran it for more than 10 years. When the final owner lost his liquor license, it was the death knell for the landmark restaurant. 

This new incarnation of The Beach Café has a Tuscan feel with warm ochre-colored walls, rust-brown Italian tile floors, wood, brick and stone. Black booths and dark wood tables seat up to 170 diners. There is a family dining room and a bar area.

The staff of 10 eventually will grow to 20, said manager Dean Cattorini, who lives in the neighborhood. Cattorini brings experience managing restaurants.

"He walked in off the street and I hired him on the spot as the manager," said Aga Nikolaj, who does all the cooking at her new restaurant. "I had a feeling."

The Beach Café's family-friendly theme is reflected in the menu, which includes a children's menu.

"We have everything from barbecued ribs to grilled cheese," Cattorini said.

Carrying on the restaurant's long tradition of seafood dishes, Aga Nikolaj creates a variety of fresh fish menu items including the signature boned and buttered lake perch.

"We welcome our customers from the neighborhood and from everywhere," Aga Nikolaj said. "We really appreciate the neighborhood support. People have come in to thank us for reopening."

Ayers said The Beach Café is a tradition in the Miller Beach area, and its reopening has been eagerly anticipated.

"The Miller Beach residents are quite excited," Ayers said. "We wish them much success."