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Owner Talks History of the Popular Rochester Restaurant

Writer / Angela Cornell
Photographer / Jubilee Edgell

Evergreen. It’s the tree that symbolizes the Christmas season. Its scent is known to have calming properties. When planted in a row, they make a stalwart wind block against prairie gusts. But for Rochester natives, Evergreen is a downtown restaurant that has been a part of local culture as far back as anyone can remember.

In 1934, Evergreen opened as a restaurant for the first time and quickly became the hang-out of choice for the teenagers.

“The school was just three blocks away, so this was where the kids came before school and had breakfast if mom and dad worked. This was the place they would come after all the sporting events,” says owner Ruth Gunter. “They come back in and tell me stories of when they went to school. This is where they met their wife, and stuff like that. Or ‘Mom and Dad would come in on Fridays and pay my bill.’”

By the 1970s, the diner was due for a change. The head cook bought the place, continuing it under the same name until the Gunters purchased it in 2013, thanks to a comment made by their youngest child.

“He said, ‘Mom, I don’t know why you guys keep wasting your money, because you can cook anything better than we can buy in any restaurant,’” Gunter recalls.

Sometime after that conversation, the Gunters discovered that Evergreen was up for sale.

“We were thinking of changing the name,” Gunter says. “Then when our daughter came home from Indy and we asked her about changing the name, she said, ‘No you can’t change it because everyone is going to say, “Let’s go down to that restaurant that used to be Evergreen.’”

For Gunter, owning an upscale restaurant was the next step in her career. She had been working in restaurants, many of which had been high-end, for most of her adult life. However, opening a fine dining restaurant in a small, country town like Rochester was a gutsy move by everyone’s estimation.

“I thought it would go, but I didn’t think it would go over this well,” she says. When the restaurant opened, Gunter wanted a business that would keep herself and a few employees happy. Fate, however, had different ideas.

In an ironic twist, Evergreen grew quickly — thanks to their location. Now that they’ve been open for six years, the restaurant draws people from a 70-mile radius on a regular basis. Occasionally, they are also a venue for reunions.

“We’ve had people from Ohio, Illinois, Southern Indiana, and Michigan. This is the restaurant they picked,” Gunter adds.

Beyond a perfect location, Evergreen also has a perfect menu that stays fresh by changing every season with special menus on the holidays.

“Fresh fish is what we ended up being known for,” Gunter says. “We truly do fresh fish — it’s not frozen. All of the same fish they get in Chicago, I have here.”

To add to that, the fish comes into Evergreen whole and it is filleted in-house. “Most of our fish is 8 oz., so it’s a nice sized portion,” she adds.

Another thing that sets Evergreen apart is that they understand allergies.

“Once you start it fresh, then you can change it per what the customer needs,” Gunter says.

They are even willing to accommodate extreme allergies.

“I do have someone who comes in here and she says this is the only restaurant that she can eat at because usually she heads off to the hospital after eating,” Gunter says. “She has that severe of an allergy. She knows she can call and let us know that she’s coming in. So we let the kitchen know, ‘Hey, when she gets here, you’re going to have to use a brand new spatula, you’re going to have to clean that grill off where you’re cooking her food and make sure there’s nothing on it.’”

For Gunter, Evergreen isn’t just a way to make a living in a small community. It’s a way to maintain the philosophy of excellence she and her husband developed together.

“Once I taste the best, my guests just don’t have to settle for less,” Gunter says.

That goes for everything: the individual ingredients, their award-winning steam-baked six-layer cakes, their catering and their friendly service.

For Gunter, it’s a matter of course. “People love food and when it’s good, people will drive for it,” she says.

Evergreen is located at 530 Main St., Rochester. For more information, visit them online at evergreeneatery.com or give them a call at 574-223-3837.

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