Saturday, March 22, 2008

The Mother Road

We hit the open road today, off to pick up a purchase in Plainfield, Illinois, but had other adventures in mind as well.
Being pretty familiar with Route 66 from Dwight heading south, we decided to pick up the route in Dwight and head north for a change.
We kicked off our Route 66 leg of the trip by stopping at the Route 66 Java Stop, a newer addition in Dwight, IL, built using a couple of former shipping containers.
We've driven by several times on holidays, only to find the place closed. Today we were in luck.
Five minutes later, with coffees and some yummy oatmeal muffins in hand, we hit the highway.

Once in Plainfield, we saw a nice business district filled with historic buildings, so we stopped to poke around.
We went to Miller's Old Fashioned Butcher Shop and bought a large, homemade frozen chicken pot pie. Should make a nice dinner for Monday night.

We drove by the Polk-a-Dot Drive In in Braidwood, a 50s-style drive in, but will have to save that stop for another time, as we had plans in mind for dinner.

We pulled in to the Riviera Restaurant in Gardner shortly after they began serving dinner.
Built in 1928, this was a favorite haunt of Al Capone and was known as a gangster hangout. Gambling and alcohol were secretly offered here during prohibition.
We made our way to the basement restaurant and took a seat. This almost seemed like dining in Grandma's farmhouse basement, on plastic patio furniture with vinyl table cloths, complete with battleship gray painted concrete floors and low ceilings.
The patio furniture is a newer addition, due to the occasional invasion of water from the nearby river. It's easier to move around, and can withstand the elements.
We placed our order, chicken breasts with poppyseed gravy for me, and prime rib for my husband.
We watched the waitress clip the order sheet to a string on a pulley, and send it on its way to the kitchen.
Our salad course arrived via dumbwaiter, mine cole slaw, which seemed homemade with it's milky dressing sprinkled with dill, topping a nice array of chopped veggies and cabbages. These were accompanied by a basket of crackers and some Italian bread, served with a nice pimento spread.
We soon found out that the gentleman who came down the stairs and sat at a table next to us is one of the owners, Bob Kraft. He regaled us with some stories of visitors he's met from far and wide, including Brazil and Russia.
Our meals arrived. My chicken was piping hot, topped with a milk-style gravy peppered with poppyseeds.
My husband's prime rib was tender enough to be cut with a fork, served with a cup of au jus and a side of horseradish.
Both meals were served with some artfully arranged small fruit or vegetable plates.
While waiting for a slice of strawberry rhubarb pie, another waitress gave us a tour of some of the hidden treasures and hideaways in the building, and the bartender told me I had to check out the ladies' room, so I headed in.
The, er, throne, is perched upon a trio of concrete steps, graced with an iron hand rail. Once you start up the stairs, you have to start hunching over as your head quickly approaches the basement ceiling. She explained that the toilets are set up like this due to flooding from time to time.
When I got back to the table, the pie had arrived, served warm and delicious.
All of this and a few drinks set us back a grand total of $36, including a 20% tip.
We bid our farewell to the friendly crew, and headed out to the backyard for some pictures of the streetcar diner that is located on the property.
The Illinois Route 66 Association rescued it from destruction and have been involved in the preservation.
Over a hundred years old, the streetcar was horse drawn at one time, originally operated by the Kankakee Transit System. In 1932 George Kaldem purchased it and moved it to Gardner, converting it to a basic roadside diner.
The diner closed in 1939, and over the years it saw many uses, from a summer cottage to a children’s playhouse, even a rental property for workers at the Joliet Arsenal in W.W. II.
In 1955 Gordon Gunderson, who had married the original owner of the Riviera's daughter, purchased the streetcar, and the streetcar was moved to its present location behind the Riviera.
The streetcar is open so guests can step in and appreciate the character of this gem, from the arched wooden ceiling to the original streetcar bell.

Before we hit I-55 to start heading home, we drove through Gardner once more and took a peek at the historic two celled jail, circa 1906.
I imagine a few patrons of the Riviera roadhouse spent some time cooling their heels in these quarters.

Route 66 Java Stop
502 W Mazon Ave
, IL 60420

Riviera Restaurant
5650 Highway 53 S,
Gardner, IL 60424

City Jail
302 N. Center
Gardner, IL 60424

September, 2009 — According to information posted on Roadside America's site, the Riviera Roadhouse was put up for sale earlier in 2009, sold and later received a shut down letter from the city. The restaurant is currently closed.

June, 2010 — More bad news for the Riviera Roadhouse, which has now suffered a fire:,0,1689188.story

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Destination: Maple Syrup Open House

We set off today in search of the Maple Syrup Open House at the Forest Glen Preserve in Westville, Illinois.
Last year we went to the maple syrup fest in Colchester, Illinois and had a fun time, but this year their fest conflicted with another event, so we decided to check this one out.

On our way there, we saw a sign on I-74 for the historic Mansfield General Store, and decided to detour and check it out.
Of course it turns out the general store is closed on Sundays, but we got out to peer in the windows of the neat building.
Nearing 100 years of operation, this store looks to be a little bit of everything to this town, with video rentals, groceries, cigarettes and some ice cream shop chairs and tables in the front window, with a sign boasting 24 flavors of soft serve.

Our next destination was the nature preserve, established in 1968. The roads leading in to where the pancake and sausage meal were held were winding and lined with trees, many of them sugar maples with bags or buckets of sap attacked to their trunks.
Coming into the parking lot, we were a little shocked at the crowd and amount of cars in the parking lot. This event was much larger than the Colchester fest.
We arrived at the building at about 2 p.m., and found a line of people still waiting to sample the pancakes and maple syrup, with serving ending at 4 p.m. Peering in the windows, StfRon could see that the line wound around a few more times before meeting up with the ticket table, so we went to look at the sugar bush, where the sap was being boiled off for maple syrup.
After that, we headed to a cabin on the property, where costumed volunteers were sitting in rockers tending to a fire and visiting with the guests. They offered us cookies and sassafras tea, and we sampled both, then stopped off in the maple syrup sales area. I was hoping for maple candy or maple fudge, but there was none to be found.

We decided to go look for some food in the Danville area.
We saw Schroeder's Drive-In, which was a possibility, but we decided to see what else was around.

As we crested a small hill, we spotted a retro looking donut shop sign, so we decided to check it out. When we saw how cool the Royal Donut building looked, too, we couldn't just drive on by.
Royal Donut has been serving up deliciousness since 1973.
Walking in, the first treat to tempt StfRon was something called an angel bite, a square donut filled with cream icing, iced in chocolate and topped with another dollop of the cream icing. He sampled it right away, was sold on them, and ordered two more to go.
I went with a Bavarian cream, and we also tossed in a glazed one for good measure.
There were also danishes and muffins available, and one case filled with some great looking pies.
Royal Donut also claims to be the first donut shop to use Nextra, the "heart healthy shortening." Hmm, maybe I should have some more donuts...they're healthy, right?

Back in search of more of a meal, we ended up at Schroeder's Drive-In, a former Burger Chef restaurant.
The restaurant, opened in 1960, is graced with a really cool retro sign. The inside looks like a fast food burger restaurant, where you order at the counter and sit at booths to enjoy your meal.
The dining room is decorated with a lot of war plane photos, propellers, other historical photos and there is also a section of Burger Chef memorabilia near the bathroom hall.
We each ordered a burger, and shared an order of onion rings. The food was hot and hit the spot for a quick meal.

On the way back home, I decided to sample one of the angel bites from Royal Donut. Oh, my! It was heavenly, and I'm not really a big donut fan. The entire pastry tasted fresh and different than any I've had before.
I also sampled my Bavarian cream donut and again found it to be extraordinarily good. It also seemed very fresh, and the powdered sugar had a nice sugary grittiness, not too powdery.
If we're ever within a half hour of the place again, I'm sure we'll be stocking up!

Mansfield General Store
107 Jefferson
Mansfield, IL 61854

Forest Glen Preserve
20301 E 900 North Rd
Westville, IL 61883

Royal Donut
911 N Vermilion St,
Danville, IL 61832

Schroeder's Drive-In
432 N Gilbert St
Danville, IL 61832