August 21, 2007

Scrambled SAKE- Our Visit to Springfield

We enjoyed a recent family getaway to Springfield. Yes, I actually said enjoy and Springfield in the same sentence! Unlike our disastrous earlier attempt to introduce the boys to the Land of Lincoln, this trip was fun! This time we headed downstate with grandma, grandpa, and my brother’s family, which made a big difference. And we got to see cool new sites, like the Lincoln Museum (read a related Chicago Parent mag. travel review here).

We were 11 in all, 6 adults and 5 kids. Dining as such a large group, we were not as concerned with excellent food as we were with simply getting everyone served the food they ordered in a reasonable amount of time (i.e. under 20-30 minutes). Sadly, several of these restaurants were not able to do this. Some did rise to the challenge, though.

Here’s a round-up of restaurants to keep in mind when you head to our state capital.

DAY 1
After visiting Abe Lincoln’s home during our first day we were hot and tired. A park ranger suggested we walk over the The Livery to eat a family-friendly dinner. We walked a few steamy blocks only to find it was closed. We stopped into the place next door, Robbie's, but decided it wasn’t right for us. The hostess very graciously directed us to a nearby restaurant that might better meet our needs. In retrospect Robbie’s would have been fine. I still feel guilty that we didn’t give them a try, so maybe you will and then let me know what you think.

Augie's Front Burner, right across from the Old Capitol, was not the restaurant we were sent to, but it's where we ended up after wandering inthe hot weather. Of course, we were even more tired, hot, hungry and probably a bit “ripe” by the time we walked in the door. Augie’s is a casual restaurant with upscale food, food that earned them Springfield’s fine dining award in 2006. Our waiter took great care of our large party and rushed the kids’ meals. We encountered a slight bump when buttered noodles were served with (gasp) parsley flakes on top, but everyone survived. This was the best meal of our trip. Sorry, I don’t remember what we actually ate-I was on vacation, after all, and didn’t have my notebook handy.

DAY 2
After a great morning at the Lincoln Museum we walked a few blocks to Cafe Brio. Their Mexican/Middle Eastern vibe is a refreshing addition to the Old Capitol area, but not a great place for kids or a large group, based on our experience. They don’t have printed kids menus or any distractions (other than the waitstaff with their piercings and multi-colored hair) to keep the young ‘uns busy while waiting for the meals…and we waited a looooong time.

After tiring afternoon running about town- we visited the new capitol, the old capitol, and Lincoln’s tomb- we relaxed at our hotel and then headed to the nearby O’Charley’s for dinner. O’Charley’s is a 230-strong chain with units from Minnesota down to the Gulf coast. Think Bennigan's with less “flair.” Kids eat free and we learned that many adults do, too when the service is poor. I was practically asleep by the time my food arrived, so I don't have many comments here. I do recall, though, that Pikachu was delighted to order Baked Cheetos as a side dish for his popcorn shrimp.

DAY 3
We finally made it to The Livery for lunch. If you want to know why Americans are so overweight, pop into this restaurant and get a clue. Their specialty is the Horseshoe. Take a hamburger, top it with fries and cover it with melted cheese and you've got a Horseshoe. I’m not sure if they were joking when they told us the Horseshoe is a local tradition, but we felt obligated to try it. If you’re intrigued, go with the Ponyshoe, a smaller version. They also serve real homemade soup. Good stuff, it hit the spot even on a hot day. I suspect their milkshakes are also top-notch, but I couldn't handle that and a Ponyshoe. The fast, friendly service steeped in local culture makes The Livery worth a visit.

Our last family dining stop was Monical's Pizza, another place near our hotel (a Hampton Inn and Suites—loved it!) on the outskirts of town. There are close to 60 Monical’s throughout Central Illinois, with several in Indiana and one in Wisconsin. They did a great job of seating and serving us efficiently. Each child received a multi-page kids menu with activities and crayons to keep 'em busy. Monical’s also provided little tabletop booklets full of brainteasers to keep adults occupied while waiting for a pan pizza. (Giordano’s and Edwardo’s, are you listening?) Even so, we stuck with quicker cooking ultra thin and crisp pizza. It didn't have much sauce, but I guess that's their style. We rounded off our meal with two family-size salads topped with their house dressing. Our waitress brought the dressing on the side in squirt bottles, so even the kids could top off the salads on their own. We likey.


DAY 4
We stopped at the Illinois State Fair before heading home. Like the food, I was hot and fried after a few hours. Fried food is expected at a fair, corndogs, too, but the fair provided an unprecedented number of foods in the “on-a-stick genre.” Shrimp? Pizza? Eggs? Who knew such a thing was possible?

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