Sky Full of Bacon

Here were the restaurants within walking distance of our motel in Springfield: Applebee’s, IHOP, Outback, Red Lobster, Panera, Long John Silver’s, Bob Evans, Jimmy John’s, Smokey Bones, Hooters, Cheddar’s, and Carlos O’Kelly’s.

In other words, at first glance you might think a visit to Springfield is a journey into deepest Generica. But in fact Springfield has a surprisingly healthy (well, in one sense of the term, anyway) local food culture, and given that it boasts several of the state’s major tourist attractions, the person who finds himself there anyway can certainly eat interestingly, if not exactly well, there.

The occasion was a history long weekend for ourselves and the kids. Within a couple of days we managed to see Lincoln’s log cabin days in the rustic, WPA-era reconstruction in New Salem, trace his life and presidency at the high tech, Disneyfied (but quite captivating) Abraham Lincoln Museum, see his tomb in the classically grandiose, Gilded Age memorial at Oak Ridge cemetery, and walk through his rather overdecorated Victorian home (as so often, it’s the most modest and homey historical site that gives you the real lump in the throat, as you think… that’s the desk where he sat and wrote his side of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, that’s the house he said goodbye to as he went off to become the Lincoln of history).

Oh, and we saw Frank Lloyd Wright’s Dana-Thomas House, an odd man out in an otherwise Lincolncentric weekend (though there is the connection of Lincoln Logs), but absolutely worth the tour for one of Wright’s most exquisite, Arts-and-Crafts-meets-Shinto-temple spiritual architecture experiences. And on the way back, we visited Cahokia, once the largest city in North America (this was about 1200 A.D.), and still an impressive mound of earth which manages to evoke, despite encroachment by modernity on every side, what a thriving mesoamerican village on the outskirts of East St. Louis might have been like.

But the mention of spiritual experiences naturally will bring to mind the fact that Springfield is the birthplace of the corn dog, so let me turn now to food. Things we ate in Springfield:

Gabatoni’s— Saputo’s is the Italian place people usually talk about, and some place called Vic’s usually scores highest for pizza in local polls, but this also received high marks, so we gave it a try. It’s a perfect south-side Vito & Nick’s-type pizza place, undisturbed 60s-style Eyetalian decor,

very good cracker-crust thin pizza,

and waitstaff that treats you like you’ve been coming in since you were a kid. Part of the reason I suspect that they treat you that way is because they’re largely undiscovered by out of towners, so be among the first– and treat ‘em nicely back.

300 E Laurel St
Springfield, IL 62703
(217) 522-0371

Mel-O-Cream— Some months back I had an outstanding seasonal-local-donut experience at the Greater Midwest Foodways Alliance presentation on midwestern sweets; one of the talks was on Sweetwater Donuts in Kalamazoo, and the highlight by far of the assortment brought down for us to try was donut holes made with bits of real Michigan cherries. I had no expectation that Mel-O-Cream, which noted donutologist Vital Info long ago had ranked as merely a middling donut mini-chain, would offer an experience to rival that– but then I saw peach donuts on offer, and grabbed the three they had as quickly as I could. Real peach chunks in season in cake donut batter— maybe Mel-O-Cream only goes from good to great for a few short weeks each summer when these peach donuts are in season, but if you have a chance, this is a donut almost worth the drive on its own.

(Various locations, which Cathy2 indefatigably catalogued here. Note that they’re open 6 to noon only.)

Cozy Dog— Inventor of the corn dog, I agree that this center for Route 66 fandom could use a dog that didn’t, as JeffB observed, taste so much of liquid smoke and chemicals, but it’s still pretty fine anyway.

But as Vital Info noted, this is also a first-rate old school burger place, slapping fresh meat on the grill and cooking up fresh-cut fries; I took his advice and had the greasy all-meat chili on the burger and it was a first-rate dogwagon meal unchanged from 75 years ago.

2935 S 6th St
Springfield, IL 62703
(217) 525-1992

Coney Island— Speaking of chili from 75 years ago, this spot downtown has a great old “Since 1919” sign; the interior, alas, is redone, but the food seems unchanged, and here too a dog with all-meat chili and onions on it seemed like a perfectly preserved silent-movie-era meal.

219 S 5th St
Springfield, IL 62701
(217) 528-1193

Sgt. Pepper’s Cafe— I have to admit that the “horseshoe,” Springfield’s local specialty consisting of meat of your choice on toast, covered in French fries and a sharp cheddar sauce (traditionally tinged with mustard), sounded like bad drunk food to me. I had planned to accidentally forget to try one, but a comedy of errors trying to find a place that was actually open for lunch on Sunday put us at this Beatle-themed place where nothing sounded all that great. So I decided, might as well try one. And you know what? It was horrifying. It was a nightmarish culinary clusterfark of glop, rapidly cooling and setting like epoxy on my plate faster than I could have shoveled it into an undiscerning, alcoholically insensate mouth. Really, the vilest thing I have had his year, I have more sense than that even when I’m drunk, and yet people were eating it in the cold light of day.

Oh, but you didn’t have it at D’Arcy’s Pint, you say, or whatever place you think has the good ones. I grant you that Sgt. Pepper’s may have been a bad one, but nothing about what I had suggests that a good one is even possible. And if it is, someone else will be the one to discover it, not me.

3141 Baker Dr
Springfield, IL 62703
(217) 525-5939

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G Wiv and D4v3 post at LTHForum about a generic Greek chicken place that has just opened in Rogers Park. This reminds me of my own recent, easily forgotten experience at such a place, which raises the question— why are all these Greek burger/chicken places in business if they’re all C-pluses at best?

Stanley’s Market on Elston, famous for the great signs of Stanley on a flying watermelon (one of the signs recently blew down and was replaced, but the other survives), and well worth a stop for value-priced fruit (some good quality, not so good, but smart shoppers can do all right there), some years ago spawned a burger/chicken place across the street.

It’s reasonably attractive, in a generic kind of way, nice bathrooms if you need such in that part of the world, but it’s exactly like every other Greek burger/chicken place. Maybe the chicken’s better, but the burger is the epitome of the kind of carelessly made food that these places specialize in. A frozen burger patty that tastes of barnyard more than beef. 8 times as much starchy white bun as beef, and three times as much iceberg lettuce and styrofoam tomato, between them extinguishing both the flavor and the temperature of the meat. Frozen fries, more starchy styrofoam.

But it’s all served on china, so you know it’s a class joint. Restaurant china, the kind you could play basketball with and not so much as chip it.

Places like this exist all over the city. To my mind they’ve crowded out the possibility of better burger joints run by displaced Okies (like in California) or old Germans (like in Milwaukee). Some of these joints at least have character (White Palace Grill), a very few rise above the pack foodwise (Dengeo’s in Skokie), but mostly they define an entire subset of diner dining which is mediocre enough to seriously make you appreciate fast food chains for the few things they do right by.

To me they’re the white noise on our dining scene, everywhere, mildly annoying but not rising to the level of offensiveness— because how can you get interested enough to be angry about something that has never once stirred the passions of the people who make it?

Stanley’s Grille
1543 N Elston Ave
Chicago, IL 60622

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One of the more popular things a few years back at Green City Market were the hamburgers made from farmer-vendor meat and grilled by cooks from Campagnola/Bistro Campagne. Eventually, though, Campagnola chef Michael Altenberg shut down the burger operation in order to concentrate on the opening of Crust.

I learned today, though, that Sunday Dinner/Eat Green Foods (which I’ve never paid that much attention to and am not entirely sure what they offer) is cooking up burgers again. They’re a real Green City collaboration, too— Bennison’s makes the buns, Brunkow cheese is on top, the meat is Heartland’s terrific Piedmontese beef, and there are some greens on it which I assume did not come from Costco. Being a GCM special, it’s expensive— $9 for the cheeseburger, $8 for the hamburger, both of them kind of on the small side (if fat)— but it is, in the immortal words of Samuel Jackson, a real tasty burger! Certainly more satisfying to me than the not-all-that-exciting Epic burger. And you can’t argue with how directly your princely sum is being shared among the real producers without any middlemen, at least.

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