We got a late start out of St. Louis, so after only an hour’s driving, we were ready for lunch. We usually drive the back roads and avoid the interstates, but this time we opted to take the faster I-55, hoping to arrive by early evening at the home of our dear friends Steve and Joyce Miller who live in Wheaton IL, a lovely suburb of Chicago.
Those of you familiar with interstates know that your food options are usually of the fast variety: McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway, A&W, Taco Bell, DQ and the like. However, as we approached Litchfield, IL, along with the regulars, another name caught our eye: The Ariston Cafe, family dining since 1924. Now that sounded promising! Imagine our surprise when the picturesque restaurant turned out to be in the National Register of Historic Places and happened to be located along the old Route 66.
We entered the lovely brick building and felt like we stepped back in time. The wait staff was super friendly and plentiful and although the place was packed, we were seated immediately. The owners, Nick and Paul Adam —father and son— walked around the large dining room, chatting with the scores of regulars, ensuring everyone’s enjoyment. An easy task, considering that the food was fresh, homemade, and delicious.
When we left, Paul handed us a souvenir postcard and magnet and asked us to sign their guest book, making us feel very special. This is a true family restaurant, where quality and customer satisfaction are the Adam family’s middle name.
Renewed, we hit the road for Wheaton. I don’t know if we mentioned this, but our friend Steve Miller used to be a chef. Correction. Is a chef. When we arrived, he was putting the finishing touches on our evening repast: grilled copper river salmon, broiled in Marsala lemon sauce served with couscous and for dessert, fresh figs topped with lemon gelato, dusted with cinnamon and raw sugar. The next morning he had rich French roast coffee brewed and waiting, then whipped up a delicious frittata filled with veggies, meats and cheeses.
Each day was equally fantastic. One night a London broil grilled to perfection, another night homemade pizza, which much to Manny’s delight was better than any restaurant we’ve been to. One warm evening, Steve decided on a big salad with leftover London broil and blue cheese dressed with a homemade vinaigrette, whipped up on the spot by his lovely wife and dear friend, Joyce.
Every morning we awoke to another treat: one day huevos a la Mexicana with delicious corn tortillas, another day French toast with crisp bacon.
Thinking myself a good cook, I was humbled in chef Steve’s presence. Besides the caliber of his cooking and his attention to presentation, what impresses me the most about Steve is the ease and casualness with which he prepares his meals. He seems to decide at the moment what he will make, then pulls all the ingredients needed from a well-stocked fridge, freezer and pantry, and effortlessly puts the meal together. I can barely do one dinner party without planning for days in advance and fretting the entire time until the meal is complete.
Since Chicago is such an important Blues City, we hoped to catch a couple of clubs while we were there. Unfortunately, Chicago is not a very RV friendly city. There are no campgrounds within at least an hour’s drive and all the Walmarts are NO OVERNIGHT PARKING allowed. It is not a very automobile friendly city either. According to our friends, there are so many signs with vague restrictions, it is almost impossible to park without getting a ticket. Fortunately the Millers live very close to the train station, and we cruised right into the Ogilvie Transportation Center of Chicago.
We came to town anxious to see Jimmy Burns, an old time singer, songwriter and guitar player and good friend of Bill Talbot, owner of the Shack Up Inn in Clarksdale, Mississippi, where we stayed. Jimmy grew up on the Talbot family plantation, and his father was the inspiration for the Morgan Freeman character in Driving Miss Daisy. We had promised Bill that we’d deliver a note and a hug to his old pal. Luckily Jimmy was playing that Thursday night at B.L.U.E.S. on Halstead. Voted best Blues bar on the Northside, B.L.U.E.S. is a great venue: small and intimate, not a bad seat in the house, a local bar feeling. Jimmy was fantastic, authentic and approachable. At 71, he still plays a mean guitar, and the crowd could hardly sit still as he rocked on; even the mannequins were shimmyin’ and shakin’.
During the break, Manny delivered Bill’s note. He was rewarded with one of Jimmy’s huge grins, a big warm hug and the story of two boys, one black and one white, growing up as friends on a plantation in the 1950s deep South.
The next night we headed to Buddy Guy’s club, Legends. Because we had such fond memories of Buddy’s electrifying concert a few years ago at the Keswick Theatre, a local concert hall near our home, we couldn’t wait to see his club. Were we disappointed! This place felt like it was designed for the tourists: a “pack ’em in, they’ll never be back” kind of place. A $20 cover charge with no guarantee of a seat. The four of us cruised the place like vultures and swooped down to grab a table.
Usually, when Manny explains about our blog and his desire to film the performance, the musicians are thrilled at the opportunity for more exposure. Not here. The minute Manny took out his camera, the video police pounced on him with a threat of expulsion if he continued. As it turns out, it didn’t really matter, as both acts that night were not the best. Charlie Brown, the opener, has a Las Vegas type act, loud and showy. The main act was Sugar Blue, an accomplished harmonica player, who might have been good —had we been able to hear him, the sound was so bad. His band totally overpowered his playing. See for yourself:
So the best part of Chicago turned out to be about friends. Jimmy Burns and Bill Talbot, who forged an unusual childhood bond over 60 years ago that is still alive today.
Joyce and Steve Miller, college friends of Manny’s from over 40 years ago, whose friendship we rekindled on our first trip with Serena in 2010. They graciously shared their beautiful home with us for an entire week and even after all that time, we were sorry to leave. Each time we visit, our fondness for each other grows. We miss them. I wish we lived closer.
And there were new friends too on this trip. Linda and Rich Morris, who we met at Four Mile Creek State Park in NY two years ago, our Sprinter RVs having brought us together. We’ve kept in touch, and we gladly accepted their warm invitation to visit with them at their luxurious summer home on Lake Geneva in Wisconsin. We spent an entire afternoon relaxing, as we cruised around the beautiful lake, getting to know each other better.
It is fitting at the unofficial end of the first part of our adventure, our musical odyssey, to share time with friends old and new. Someone once sent an email with words of wisdom: People come into your life for a reason, a season, or a lifetime. For many —including us— sometimes it’s all three!