Adventures in Good Eating
By late June, we—that is, Todd Coleman, SAVEUR's food editor, and James Oseland, the editor-in-chief—had been planning our trip for months and were finally ready to hit the road. The plan? To drive from Chicago to New York in a wide-ranging arc, stopping at restaurants, diners, taverns, and inns that had been featured in a famous series of culinary guidebooks from the 1930s, '40s, '50s, and '60s and had managed to stay in operation ever since. The books—remarkable compendiums of American eats published annually from 1936 until 1962—belonged to the once famous but now largely forgotten Adventures in Good Eating series published by the pioneering travel guide writer and cake mix mogul Duncan Hines. We knew that Hines (see The Man and the Mix) and the editors of the guidebook series he founded had helped revolutionize the way Americans ate on the road before the age of the interstate, and we were seized with the urge to follow in Hines's tire treads. What better way to connect with a fast-fading America, with that part of our culinary landscape that has resisted mass-scale homogenization? And what a great excuse to eat a lot of honest, good food. The idea (all due credit to Todd, who came up with it) appealed both to our sense of nostalgia and to our wanderlust; it also proved difficult to execute: even after narrowing the field by selecting just a single volume from each of the four decades the series was published, we had a list of hundreds of tantalizing possibilities, from the Beaumont Inn, an elegant-sounding country-ham-and-biscuits restaurant in Harrodsburg, Kentucky (from the 1938 edition), to a Lebanon, Ohio, stalwart called the Golden Lamb, which, the 1957 edition noted, once fed such illustrious guests as John Quincy Adams and Charles Dickens. But, as we set about researching these establishments, we were disappointed to find that nearly all had long since closed. And the majority of those that were still in business seemed to have retained little of their original character aside from the business's name. Felicitously, that left us with a pretty manageable selection of restaurants: about a half dozen of them, lying along a route that zigzagged across Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, West Virginia, and New York. Here is the true and unvarnished account of our journey.
Sunday (Day 1) We fly into Chicago's O'Hare airport in the afternoon and rent a car. The airport rental agency offers a veritable playground of choices. Standing before the massive, gleaming fleet, we pick a gray minivan, which, we concluded after much deliberation, was the modern-day descendant of the wood-paneled station wagon.
Our first stop is the 86-year-old Klas Restaurant in Cicero, the town, just outside Chicago, that was Al Capone's gangland fiefdom during Prohibition. The 1962 edition of Adventures in Good Eating describes Klas as having "colorful European architecture and interior design". When you're driving down Cermak Road, you can't miss it; it's a real-life gingerbread house. An ornate sign posted on the exterior reads HOUSE OF HAPPINESS. We go inside and are met by Bob Biddle, one of the owners. He is earnest and friendly, with a big Midwestern smile. (He's from Reno, Nevada, we later learn.) Cicero was once home to a thriving Czech community, he tells us. Looking around, we notice that the dining room is all but vacant. "We're trying to get the Czech immigrants to come back," says Biddle. "We do a lot of funeral banquets."
Biddle leads us to our table. The menu includes a mix of Bohemian and American specialties, such as beef goulash and barbecued chicken. The kids' section reads, "For the Beginners of Fine Dining." We order the liver dumpling soup and a host of other dishes. The soup is as beautiful as it is delicious: a tangle of thin noodles in a deeply flavored broth, with liver dumplings as big as a kid's fist. Later, Biddle takes us on a tour. The place has a decidedly eerie feel. Antler chandeliers cast a yellowish glow over dusty bric-a-brac and painted wooden European folk art. Biddle hands us some old slot machine coins that he found hidden behind a wall in a pouch. This place has its secrets. "The upstairs is haunted," he says.
Monday (Day 2) In the early morning, we leave Chicago and head east, to Indiana. We exit Interstate 80 onto southbound U.S. Highway 421. Farmland rolls away from us on both sides of the road. We come to a crossroads and take a right onto U.S. Highway 30, entering the city of Valparaiso and landing smack-dab in a jungle of box stores and chain restaurants. We're looking for a place called Strongbow Inn. According to the address we have, it's supposed to be right here. We see a Burger King. There's a Bob Evans. Across the street is a Wal-Mart. Finally, we spot the place—right in front of us, dwarfed by the towering signage of its neighbors.
At the front of the restaurant we are confronted with a large cement turkey. "Chicken is a bad word around here," says the manager, Barb Raschke, when we walk inside. She's worked here for 33 years; when she started, the restaurant was called the Strongbow Turkey Inn. Prior to that it was a turkey farm. "We raised our last batch of turkeys in 1981," says Raschke. As we look over the menu, turkey does seem to be the name of the game. We order pretty much everything turkey-related on offer. The turkey noodle soup has thick, light-as-air house-made noodles. The turkey pie arrives under a fancy metal cloche, beneath which lies a crisp round of pastry splashed with gravy and adorned with a single, diamond-shaped piece of diced red pepper. There are also fried turkey livers smothered with caramelized onions and framed with a triangular formation of crisp bacon. "Enjoy!" says Angela, our waitress.
Later that afternoon, we get back on U.S. Highway 30 and head east and then south, past windswept corn and soybean fields, grain silos, and the detritus of old farms. We stay the night in Lafayette, Indiana.