It’s another Saturday evening in the normally quiet southeastern Illinois community of Equality, but there is a large congregation of people in the small downtown area — a line dozens of people long, waiting their turn to get inside.
These people have come not for a celebrity meet-and-greet or even some sort of giveaway. Coming from all over Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky and other states and arriving in cars and trucks, on motorcycles and even tour buses, they are waiting to eat at The Red Onion, a café in the Gallatin County town of about 600.
Friday nights are the same way, as are Sundays. People flock to the restaurant for a taste of traditional Midwestern fare and some more “exotic” dishes, brought back to southern Illinois by the restaurant’s owner, Lee Nugent, who bought the restaurant about eight years ago as he neared the end of a career in steel construction.
“I traveled across the country for 30-plus years, and so I’d visited a lot of places all across the United States and brought back ideas,” he says, admitting that during his travels, food was his hobby.
“I’m not a big chain restaurant type of person. I like to get off of the beaten path and find independent places,” he says, acknowledging he always looked for the restaurants with a high population of pickup trucks in the parking lot. “Of course, traveling, I had to eat out all of the time. I’d find places with a niche and I’d remember that.”
Those recollections and a focus on quality has become the hallmark of The Red Onion. He shared several examples.
“I was in New Orleans and a friend took us out for catfish. I noticed a larger percentage of the tables had the same dish, called fish chips — not fish and chips, but fish chips,” he says. For The Red Onion’s version, catfish filets are sliced thin and hand-breaded. “We fry them up crispy and put them on a pile of fries and serve them with hush puppies.”
Another “souvenir” from Nugent’s travels is Calabash chicken — chicken breast tenders marinated for hours in herbs and buttermilk then fried in a dusting of flour. The entree, named after a North Carolina town, is accompanied by a garlic Parmesan sauce.
The restaurant is perhaps best known, however, for its certified Angus steaks, 2-inch thick pork chops, barbecue ribs and The Red Onion Royal — a monster burger featuring 10 ounces of ground ribeye, topped with sliced prime rib, chow and a house-made sauce. It was inspired by a restaurant in Wisconsin.
If diners are still hungry after all of that, there are “Cutie Pies,” individual chocolate or coconut meringue pies made completely from scratch. “We sell thousands of them every year,” Nugent says.
Sherri and Gary Lane are fans of the pies. They make the 10-minute drive from their home just down the road in Junction, Ill., regularly for dinner. “Sometimes we have to sit out front for 30 to 45 minutes to come in, but we don’t mind,” Sherri says.
The menu at The Red Onion is wide-ranging and consistent — except for Sundays.
“We put our menus away and we print a new one every Sunday for a homestyle meal with our fried chicken. It’s something we take special care of; it’s a 24-hour process to get that chicken ready to fry for Sunday. We’ll do a small percentage of our regular menu as far as steaks and salmon and chops, but mostly on Sunday it’s all about the chicken and house-made casseroles that are popular side choices,” he explains.
Once they get inside, the Lanes and other customers enjoy two large walls adorned with photos. One features images of nearby Garden of the Gods Recreation Area and other parts of the Shawnee National Forest. The other wall highlights the once thriving coal mines scattered throughout the region.
Still, getting inside sometimes can be a challenge, harkening back to the origin of the restaurant’s name. “The red onion” was the required password to get into a Prohibition-era speakeasy just a few doors down from the restaurant. Today, code words are not necessary, but you might have to wait for a table.
“It’s worth it,” the Lanes say.