BY ELISABETH ANDREWS
Michael Cassady’s Uptown Café combines Cajun-Creole cooking with the swinging sophistication of a 1940’s jazz bar and the global ambience of a soccer pub. But for all its worldly charm, the Uptown is the creation of a homegrown Hoosier who’s been running his family business in Bloomington for 35 years.
Cassady, 61, always had an interest in cooking. With Italian relatives on one side of his family and a food-loving grandpa on the other, he learned the basic kitchen skills that allowed him to work as a cook while attending Indiana University. A political science major, he graduated without a plan for his future.
“I thought I’d maybe go to law school or something,” he recalls. While he considered his options, he continued cooking around Bloomington with the now-famous Rosa Rajkovic. Then, in 1976, a Bloomington friend convinced the 26-year-old Cassady to open a restaurant. The pair purchased a 30-seat “hole in the wall” on North Walnut for $11,000 and dubbed it the Uptown Café.
The first Uptown was a diner, serving made-to-order breakfast fare. As the business matured, so did the American palate, Cassady recalls. “This was right at the time when food was starting to take off and there was a new respect for chefs and restaurants,” he says. Mesmerized by shows like Justin Wilson’s Louisiana Cookin’ on PBS, Cassady yearned to attend culinary school, but by this time he had a bustling business. Instead he purchased a VHS series from the California Culinary Academy and taught himself how to braise, sauté, and blacken.
By the time the Uptown moved to its present location on East Kirkwood in 1984, Cassady was ready to transform the restaurant into “an American neighborhood-bistro-style café,” he says. Meanwhile, partly through his exposure to world cuisines and cultures, Cassady developed a love for soccer to rival his passion for food. Though he’s never played the sport, he helped ignite the soccer scene in Bloomington, serving as president of the Monroe County Youth Soccer program and Cutters Soccer Club and managing a men’s team called the Uptown Football Club.
Cassady’s wife Crystal now handles bookkeeping for the restaurant, and two of their six sons work with them on a full-time basis. Asked if he has any regrets about forgoing a law career for his family business, Cassady says, “I like lawyers and I use them, but I love the vibrancy of people and history and wine and agriculture and how food brings all those elements together.”