Route 66 in the News

Dining With the Locals on Illinois 66

2006-07-13 23:28:24

HAMEL, Ill. - When traveling Route 66 you often come to a fork in the road. The place will be a respite where the regulars zig while the rest of the world zags, a place like Scotty's Route 66 Restaurant & Bar, Old Route 66 and Highway 140 in Downstate Hamel. So you stop. And you eat.

You can't miss Scotty's. It's across the old highway from four working grain silos that are at least 75 years old. Scotty's serves a fantastic "Scotty's Special," consisting of bacon, ham, turkey, American and Swiss cheeses, lettuce and tomato served with a triple deck of toasted sourdough bread. (I held the mayo; $5). Biscuits and gravy are breakfast staples. Coffee is just 50 cents. Tourists dance on the bar at night. You travel back in time.

The yellow brick establishment opened in 1937 as the Tourist Haven, a roadhouse with six upstairs sleeping rooms where Al Capone and his gang allegedly crashed on a trip to St. Louis. "They may have been here," current owner Jim Allen said with a sly smile. "But they didn't sign the register." The Tourist Haven then morphed into the Village Inn, Earnie's Restaurant and now Scotty's.

Scotty's is named after the middle son of Jim Allen, 63, and his wife Pat, 59. They've owned the property since 2001 when they left Monterey, Calif., to retire in Southern Illinois. It usually works the other way around. The Allens had previously visited one of their sons in nearby Edwardsville, but they had never been to Hamel (pop. 600) until they purchased the restaurant.

"When we bought it, it was in bad shape," Pat said during Scotty's recent SummerFest celebration that featured the Karaoke Outlaws. "We cater to a lot of farmers and truck drivers. The green carpeting had gotten cruddy from people's boots and stuff. So we went with the old black and white checkerboard theme like you always saw on Route 66. All of us who work here and family did all the remodeling. We laid the floor. We put in the new ceiling." Jim built a folk art "Old Route 66 Golf Links" miniature golf course directly south of the roadhouse.

The eateries along the Mother Road are full of similar entrepreneurial spirit. If you play your cards right, you could have a huge omelet breakfast at Lou Mitchell's, open since 1923 at 565 W. Jackson near the beginning of Route 66 (312-939-4400), stop for chicken at Dell Rhea's Chicken Basket, 645 Joliet Rd. in Willowbrook (630-325-0780), grab a slice of cherry pie at the Old Log Cabin on a ribbon of Route 66 just north of Pontiac (815-842-2908), stretch your legs and dance at Scotty's (618-633-2228) and have dessert at Ted Drewes Frozen Custard, 6726 Chippewa St. (Old Route 66) in St. Louis (314-481-2652).

During a recent trip down Route 66 to St. Louis I saved room for the excellent Cardinal Sin Sundae (small, $2.37), a legendary Drewes concrete with tart cherries and hot fudge. A concrete is basically a shake so thick that it can be turned upside down without falling out of the cup. The concrete was conjured up in 1929 by Ted Drewes Sr.

"People get one-on-one service in these places," said John Miller, president of the Route 66 Association of Illinois. "They ask where you're from, they ask where you're going. It's very friendly and that makes for a memorable stop. It's like an extended family where everybody knows everybody else. Last summer my wife and I spent a whole day traveling Route 66 in Illinois and every stop had to be somewhere to eat. And it's all comfort food."

America is only beginning to recognize the legendary cuisine down Route 66. Earlier this year Scotty's was inducted into the Route 66 Hall of Fame. In May, three Illinois Route 66 restaurants were added to the National Register of Historic Places: Lou Mitchell's, Dell Rhea's and the eternally adorable Ariston Cafe in Downstate Litchfield. These places are gems.

Rising operation and food costs have brought down other Route 66 culinary landmarks like the Red Cedar Inn in Pacific, Mo., the Club Cafe (with the smiling roadside "Fat Man") in Santa Rosa, N.M., and Red's Giant Hamburg in Springfield, Mo. Julia Chaney, the beloved widow of Sheldon "Red" Chaney, died in May at age 91. Red's had the first drive-thru window in America. Red's was popularized in song in 1982 by the rock band the Morells.

So get your licks on 66 while you can.

The Ariston is the longest-running restaurant along the nearly 2,000 miles of Route 66. The restaurant opened in 1924 up the road on Route 4 in Carlinville. In 1935 founder Pete Adam built his new Ariston on South Old Route 66 (217-324-2023) in Litchfield, about an hour north of St. Louis. The restaurant now seats 200, including an adjacent banquet room. The walnut booths and tables are from 1935, as is a 30-foot walnut back bar trimmed out in bird's eye maple. "The National Register is a great tribute to my parents," said second generation owner Nick Adam. "Just like Lou Mitchell's, it is something for a Greek immigrant to establish a restaurant that would survive all these years."

The Ariston menu incorporates a world of influences, including cannelloni ($9.95, stuffed with beef, pork, spinach and Romano cheese, Mexican chili ($3.50 for a large bowl, beans cooked separately) and one of the most popular selections, the prime rib of beef served on a hoagie with au jus ($10.95). The Ariston beer menu has been expanded to include Anchor Steam, Fuller's 1845 Ale and spicy O'Fallon Pumpkin Ale. A red neon sign above the bar declares: "Remember --- Where Good Food Is Served." The Ariston is a Route 66 landmark where locals still get dressed up for a Sunday afternoon lunch or dinner.

The Old Log Cabin in Pontiac is more informal. It's a good place to jump start a '66 road trip with coffee and conversation. Owner Brad Trainor makes the apple and cherry pies ($1.35 a slice), three pounds of Crisco at a time. He creates the pie crust from scratch. Locals have tapped into the Old Log Cabins Thursday night (5-8 p.m.) meatloaf special, served with salad, mashed potatoes and gravy drippings from the roast ($6.25). The Old Log Cabin passes the litmus test for any American diner -- it is popular with the local police force.

The 40-seat diner's interior is framed by dark knotty pine car siding that goes back to 1926, when the restaurant was built by brothers Joe and Victor Selotti. When Route 66 was rerouted in the 1930s, the tiny cabin was jacked up on telephone poles and rolled around so it faced the new road. Notable diners at the Old Log Cabin have included Chicago born-cowboy singer Rex Allen Jr. and Cajun-country sinter Billy "Crash" Craddock, who had a hit with "If I Could Write A Song as Beautiful As You."

With apologies to the White Fence Farm in Joliet, Dell Rhea's has the most beautiful chicken on Route 66. Dell Rhea's is in a shrubby valley that can be seen from I-55. The Chicken Basket opened in the summer of 1946 next door to its original location, which was merely a gas station with a lunch counter.

An immaculate red, white and blue neon sign that says "Dell Rhea's Chicken Basket" has stood in the same spot since 1963. The late Dell Rhea was an executive director of the Chicago Convention Bureau and was instrumental in bringing the 1933 World's Exposition to Chicago. The restaurant is now owned by his son Pat.

The recipe for the golden brown chicken with light breadcrumb coating was handed down in neighborly fashion, in the days before e-mail and text messages. In the 1930s two women from a local farm noticed how original owner Irv Kolarik was doing brisk business because of Route 66. They offered to teach Irv how to cook fried chicken if he would buy their eggs and chicken. The timeless recipe was born. The chicken became so popular that the Blue Bird Bus Co. designated the restaurant as a stop on its Route 66 line from Chicago to Los Angeles. Like the Ariston, Dell Rhea's has become a popular destination for families in the southwestern suburbs.

Scotty's also is attempting to pump up the family angle further on down the road in Hamel. Pat Allen said, "We're trying to make it as family oriented as we can. It's always going to be a bar at night. Last summer a group of retired people came through on a Route 66 bus trip. A 78-year-old lady wanted to dance on the bar. So we pulled a chair up to the bar and helped her up. She had a wonderful time." There's 15 bar stools along the bar should someone actually choose to sit down for a longneck beer ($1.50 on Mondays). Scotty's also features a Sunday afternoon chicken special consisting of three pieces of chicken, fries and coleslaw for $5. The chicken is very moist and the Allens deploy a secret country marinate on the bird.

The journey into Hamel marked an unusual turn for the Allens. Jim looked out over the Illinois plains and said, "I still miss the sound of the surf. I was a beach bum growing up in Pismo Beach." His wife added, "He never knows what direction he's going if the ocean isn't on the left." They met in 1981 while they were stationed at U.S. Air Force headquarters in Ramstein, Germany. Pat recalled, "Terrorists had bombed the headquarters building in Ramstein. The next day was my first day on the job (as secretary). Our office was in the basement. All the toilets were in the hallway and all the windows were out of the building." Jim was an administrator with an operations office. After he retired from the Air Force they settled in Hamel. "The decision to move here wasn't that hard," Pat said. "California has gotten so astronomically expensive. And we love it here. We've made a lot of good friends."

Jim added, "When we took over and folks heard we were from California, it was like, 'Oh, what are they going to do? Turn it into a yuppie lounge?' We said, 'No, this is your bar and restaurant.' And in fact we found out that it isn't ours. It is theirs." The Allens quickly understood the personal charms of dining along Route 66 and toasting the places where people still connect with each other.

~Dave Hoekstra,



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