The first thing I noticed when I walked in the door was the table of older folks, one who wore bibbed overalls perusing a newspaper, but not missing a beat in the conversation happening over cups of coffee. They were “regulars” – you could tell by the comfort they had with each other, and with the waitress as she refilled their cups. When I asked what I should order one said, “Biscuits and gravy, but it’s all good.” This is what a rural diner is all about – good friends, good conversation and great food.
I don’t know about you, but I get very tired of eating at the numerous restaurants that seem to pop up anywhere in the vicinity of a mall. I crave homemade – the golden-brown, hand breaded tenderloins that spill out over the bun (and sometimes the entire plate), the glorious smell of freshly-baked yeast rolls or mouth-watering chicken and noodles. And don’t get me started on the desserts!
Whether it’s breakfast, lunch or dinner, many off-the-beaten path diners have some of the best food around and all you need to do is ask. Word-of-mouth is usually their best advertising because you won’t stumble upon many of them. Some may be located in small towns or unincorporated areas across the country. You are unlikely to find them just off the interstate or major highway. You have to be willing to take the time and seek them out.
The food is usually abundant, very reasonably-priced and made with love by the hands of someone who takes great pride in creating good food. If you go, be sure to take cash – most don’t take plastic. Here are six of the diners I visited across the state. The next time you head out for a leisurely drive or if work takes you nearby, it is well worth your while to check one out.
On the banks of a branch of the Spoon River sits Bernadotte Café. This is one of the smallest townships in Fulton County, but the café has a loyal following. Regulars can be found sitting at their favorite table and, depending on the time of day, may be enjoying the biscuits and gravy or one of owner Mickey Callear’s many specials. She and her mother prepare delicious home-cooked food. That, and possibly a bit of gossip, is what keeps folks coming back, and sometimes even twice a day.
Callear prides herself on her made-from-scratch menu items at very reasonable prices. From hand-breaded pork tenderloins the size of a dinner plate, to the popular catfish, real mashed potatoes, pies and yeast rolls, you won’t find anything from a pre-packaged mix.
The café sits next to a small park and multiple hummingbird feeders hang outside the windows. You can sit and watch them dart from feeder to feeder as you enjoy your meal.
Most of her customers are like family to her, and like family you may occasionally find one of them out back shucking the corn she got from a local farmer. Several of them even offered to help her when the restaurant was flooded in 2013. She speaks highly of the linemen from Spoon River Electric Cooperative because of their willingness to get her meter moved and to turn power on or off whenever she needed to get in to do repairs. A construction worker by trade, Callear handled the rebuilding to get the restaurant open as soon as possible.
Because of that “family,” Bernadotte Cafe is open all holidays. Callear wants folks without families to have a good home cooked traditional holiday meal and quite a few will make reservations. Large groups are served family-style and if it is really busy, it’s not unusual for someone to offer seats at their table to complete strangers.
“If someone doesn’t like something, I want to know,” says Callear. “I only put out what I’ve tasted and only use what comes in looking good. If I won’t eat it, I don’t expect anyone else to.”
* Bottoms Up Bar and Grill
Since July 2009, Kristi and Jason Thies have been running Bottoms Up Bar and Grill in rural Jacob. It’s well-known by the locals and students from Southern Illinois University-Carbondale for its Wednesday night fried chicken special – $3 for a half and $6 for a whole chicken. They start frying chicken at 4 p.m., but be prepared to wait, especially if it’s busy. Every order is cooked fresh. Side dishes are $1 and beer is $1.25 which draws in the “after six crowd.”
There is a debate on just how many total chickens they have cooked on a particular Wednesday night, but it’s upward of 500. That night the fryers were finally turned off at 10:15 p.m. The grill has a special that runs Tuesday thru Saturday. It varies from tacos to wings to fish and steaks. The décor isn’t anything special but the food makes up for it.
Bottoms Up is especially busy when the weather is nice. It has an outdoor seating area, and it’s not uncommon to see quite a few motorcycles and a large crowd. Outside events often bring in large groups, especially when it’s time for the June Levee Fest or when the town of Jacob holds its old tractor parade when according to Kristi, is when the Mississippi Bottoms “really shine.”
* Hazel Dell Bakery
Ask anyone in the area what Hazel Dell Bakery does best and you will hear about the cinnamon rolls and pies, which are made fresh daily. The cinnamon rolls are saucer-size and owner Kathy Smith slathers them with vanilla glaze. You’ve got to try them!
Smith makes two kinds of pie each day (one is always the ever-popular coconut cream), along with a cobbler and cinnamon rolls. And, friend Janice Decker helps cook the breakfast and lunch items which include a special each day.
When Smith started the bakery 15 years ago, she only did baking. At the time, her mother raised buffalo and she decided to make buffalo burgers for lunch, which morphed into plate lunch specials. Smith also caters, and she welcomes special orders, including homemade dinner rolls or pies for holidays or family dinners.
It’s not uncommon for her to send cinnamon rolls down to Norris Electric Cooperative when there’s been an outage. She says she knows everyone there has been working long hours, and it’s the least she can do to thank them.
It’s not often you find a restaurant surrounded by corn fields, out in the middle of nowhere, that is run by two chefs trained at famed culinary institute, Le Cordon Bleu. Owners and chefs Nicholas and Lindsay Bohn bought the Iroquois County business two years ago from his family who owned it since the 1960s. Nicholas was busing tables and washing dishes at the age of 12, and by 14 or 15 years old he was the lead cook. “The thought of cooking for a living never really entered my mind when I was growing up,” he says. “I went to college but just couldn’t find anything I really wanted to do, so I went to culinary school and ended up back here.”
The restaurant is the only place of business in the small hamlet of L’Erable, but considering there are only about 20 houses in this burb, and across the street from the church, you should have no trouble finding it. The décor hasn’t changed much since the ‘60s. The dark paneling and shelves of tchotchkes are just part of the experience, along with some regular “characters.” The Bohns would like to make some updates but don’t plan to take away the charm.
It’s not often you are going to find Parmesan-Crusted Ribeye or Caribbean Jerk Mahi Mahi on the menu of a rural establishment. “It can be surprising to customers when they pull up for the first time to this place that looks like a ‘dive,’” says Lindsay. “Then they come in and try the food and are impressed.”
Steaks and prime rib are customer favorites, and every weekend they do an “off-menu” special. They have a Mexican theme on Wednesdays and pub food on Thursdays, but when Friday and Saturday roll around they have nicer meals. The popular salad bar contains a build-your-own salad, eight to 10 from-scratch pasta and anti-pasta salads and two soups. And on the first weekend of every month the local favorite, gizzards and gravy soup, is available.
The Bohns keep in tune with their customers and know that many of them come for the “old favorites” of chicken livers, frog legs and corn fritters. “Some people don’t want to try different things, they want their old favorites. We’ve made some changes, but you have to keep your classic stuff,” says Lindsay. “Some folks don’t even want a menu, they just want to know what the specials are. It’s a chance for us to get people to think outside the box and try something they haven’t eaten before – that’s what makes us happy!”
Mike’s Place in Liberty, southeast of Quincy on Highway 104, is known far and wide for the “mile-high meringue” on its cream pies. After much contemplation, I tried the coconut cream pie with the 5-inch tall meringue. The peaks of the meringue were golden brown and the filling was creamy and delicious. They definitely know how to do pie!
Established in June 1988, Mike Brinkmeyer bought the building which had set empty for several years, with the intention of operating a restaurant for two years. But things have a way of changing. He and his wife Colleen, and son Rob, provide homemade food “just like Grandma used to make,” says Mike. He is typically there most of the day and Rob comes in in the afternoon to cook.
The pies are made fresh daily. Every afternoon Colleen makes pie crust the old-fashioned way (with lard) and a variety of fruit pies. The next morning Mike bakes the fruit pies and makes the cream pies with his well-known meringue, along with fresh strawberry pie.
They have a group of “regulars” that often come in for two meals a day, and it’s not unusual for customers from as far away as St. Louis or Peoria to make the trip. There are several motorcycle groups and horse riders that come in, usually on a Sunday. Mike has one customer that comes in every week and buys seven pieces of pie to get him through until the next week.
There are a variety of daily specials including freshly made bread. On Fridays, the homemade German potato salad, catfish and frog legs are very popular. Every Sunday a “Thanksgiving” dinner, which includes turkey, roast duck, homemade noodles, regular or oyster dressing and a variety of other meats and vegetables is available.
According to Mike, “We’re known for good food and being very economical. If you leave here hungry, it’s your own fault!”
Originally a grocery store, it was built in 1912 and was a gathering place for farmers to go for lunch. In 1982, Helen and Roy Lee Tuttle bought the store and created a restaurant, which is known far and wide for its Moonburger. On an average day, they sell 150-200 hamburgers, but you’d better get there early because they turn the grills off at 12:30. If you aren’t in line you are out of luck!
When you enter the store it’s like stepping back into time. It is dimly lit with tin ceilings, and old wooden shelves line each wall. You head back to the glass-front meat case and place your order. It’s nothing fancy, just a big burger with your choice of condiments. There are other sandwiches available such as hot dogs, pork burger, cold-cuts or grilled tenderloins. While you are waiting for your order, you can choose from a variety of chips and sodas and have a seat on one of the wooden church pews that line the walls. And, it’s an honor system here. You walk up to the register and tell Helen what you are having and pay. Be sure to bring cash, no credit or debit cards are accepted.
This is a popular place for the locals and biker clubs – if they get anywhere near it, they make plans to stop. Eleven years ago the Tuttles started the Moonshine Run, held each April, which draws folks from all over, including motorcycle clubs. This past April they sold 3,061 burgers. So, have they ever run out of food that day? “I can’t worry about it,” replies Helen. “When we run out, we run out. We try our best and that’s it. Last year we ran out of bacon and quarters to make change. This year we ran out of cheese – we needed three more slices.”
“It’s a nice day and fun to do, but it’s a lot of work,” she says. “It seems like it’s over in a minute and it’s almost too much for all of us. But we’ll keep doing it.”