Woodstock Lunch Run

Rain

It had been a spur-of-the-moment thing. There had been rain in the forecast for July 3 for most of the week leading up to that day, so I made no plans for any outdoor activities other than to hang close to home, maybe mow my weeds and do a little bit of grilling out if the weather permitted. But as of July 2, the rain chances predicted for the 3rd had diminished. So I reached out to my friend Ann and we began tossing around ideas for a short lunch run. As Ann and I sometimes do, we figured on meeting near the Illinois/Wisconsin border and then taking my bike out for a run to Woodstock, Illinois.

You can imagine my surprise when with no rain expected for the day, I noticed my motorcycle and I getting wet beneath a band of dark gray clouds somewhere between O’Hare International Airport and Kenosha. I made a mental note to thank my favorite meteorologist and pressed on, figuring that any rain I encountered would be short-lived. Even though Mother Nature continued to spit on me after I met up with Ann, a quick check of the updated local forecast revealed that dry conditions would prevail in less than half an hour. So we lingered a bit and then headed west.

Me n Ann

I am pleased to report that the revised forecast remained true. The gloomy, drippy, gray clouds dissipated as they moved on and gave way to brilliant blue skies and friendly, white, fluffy clouds. With my favorite pillion rider behind me, we motored down Green Bay Road to Illinois 173 and headed west, past the Chain O’Lakes area and into McHenry County. We turned south on Greenwood Road and picked up Illinois 120 into Woodstock. The pavement dried out as we rolled along, music pouring forth from the bike’s sound system. I couldn’t help but smile.

 

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Once in Woodstock we stopped for gas and then headed toward the town square. We enjoyed lunch at D.C. Cobb’s, a delightful restaurant and bar located right on the town square. The staff is friendly, the prices are reasonable and the food is good. Come hungry, though, as the portions are fairly large.

Until this day, my only exposure to the city of Woodstock had been while passing through on Illinois 47, to or from Wisconsin. Let me tell you, I had been missing out. The McHenry Couty Seat since 1843 (then called Centerville), Woodstock has a beautiful and historic downtown area featuring a classic town square and two registered landmarks. One is the majestic Woodstock Opera House, which is still used as an entertainment venue today. The other is the Old McHenry County Courthouse, which is now home to various commercial tenants.

Woodstock is also well-known as the location where the movie Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray, was filmed. I can’t tell you exactly how Woodstock, Illinois was chosen to play the part of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, but I can tell you that Woodstock is still playing that up to this day (see http://www.woodstockgroundhog.org/).  Ann and I enjoyed visiting a few of the more memorable locations that were used in this movie.

By mid-afternoon, we were headed back to our original meeting point. By that time the day had grown more beautiful than ever and part of me had wished it didn’t have to end so soon. We said our goodbyes and then headed for our respective homes.

It had been an awesome day for something Ann and I threw together at the last minute. But I have come to realize that some of the most awesome rides I’ve taken started out exactly that way. Thanks for hanging with me.

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A Nice Little Burger Run

Miss Scarlett and Me

This burger run was nearly called on account of rain. It had been an on again, off again thing all week long, as the weather forecast flipped from partly sunny to a 30% chance of rain to a 70% chance of rain and then back to a 30% chance before settling on “mostly cloudy with rain toward evening” by the time today actually arrived. That was good enough for my friend Ann and me, who had been itching to go riding together since last November. As circumstances had it, Saturday had been the far better day, weather-wise, but Sunday was our only mutually available day for riding. It isn’t always easy when riding companions live over 100 miles apart, but then I’ve never been intimidated by distances. And so we watched the weather forecast evolve daily until today, when our story begins.

Kenosha, Wisconsin has proven to be roughly equidistant between Ann’s home and my own. When the days are shorter, as is the case in early spring and late fall, we sometimes arrange to meet and begin our riding from there. Today we met up at 11:00 AM in a large parking lot just off Interstate 94, beneath an endless canopy of steel gray clouds. The ambient temperature was 52 degrees and climbing. We would have felt much warmer at that temperature had the sun been shining, but as is the case with most things in life, one must play the hand that has been dealt. We had been dealt a cold start to our morning and the promise of rain before suppertime, so we planned a short run centered around lunch and a walk. Not being strangers to riding, Ann and I both arrived dressed in layers for warmth and adjustability. Within minutes, we were on the bike—my full dresser Victory Vision Tour, affectionately named Miss Scarlett—and headed for the unlikely destination of Burlington, Wisconsin, home of one Fred’s World’s Best Burgers, also known as Fred’s Parkview.

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I have to admit, having married a girl from Kenosha, I’ve been visiting and traveling this region for decades. Over the course of all those years, I’d always known where Burlington was, but never knew much about this community, nor had I ever felt compelled to go there. Until now. Boasting the “World’s Best Burgers,” this establishment known as Fred’s sits on the northeast corner of Milwaukee Avenue and North Pine Street in downtown Burlington. The founder and owner of Fred’s is a woodworker by the name of Fred Mabson, who used his craft to create a unique atmosphere in which to enjoy this family-friendly eating and drinking establishment. As soon as we stepped through the doors, Ann and I were surrounded by tastefully finished knotty pine and a lot of smiling faces. Their corner location is rather large on the inside, with a fair number of dining tables filling two rooms. We had arrived shortly after noon and, in addition to some seats at the bar, there was exactly one table open, which we immediately grabbed for our own.

As Ann and I approached from the outside, and having never been there before, I had assumed Fred’s was a corner bar that served a pretty good burger. But once inside, I saw a higher percentage of tables filled than of bar stools. I also saw families—you know, the kind with kids—as well as friends, all eating, drinking, talking, laughing and otherwise having themselves quite a time on an early Sunday afternoon. In short, Fred’s is the kind of place where one can feel good just by stepping inside. And then there’s the food.

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As you might expect, Fred’s menu focuses on their burgers, but looking beyond that for a moment, this little place has got a pretty extensive menu! We opted to keep it simple, with a couple of cheeseburgers. Ann got the quarter-pound version, while I opted for the half-pound burger. Our toppings differed, but our experiences were quite similar. What comes to the table is a fresh, hand-made burger, cooked to your liking, served on a fresh, buttered and grilled bun and topped with equally fresh ingredients. The homemade fries are curly cut; the homemade chips are ribbon cut. It’s all very tasty and it would take a number of visits in order for me to try everything that I’d like to try off of that menu. So you see, there’s an awful lot going on inside that corner establishment in downtown Burlington.

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As is usually the case, Ann and I wanted to take a walk after we had finished our lunch. In many instances, this has involved riding to another location, usually a park or state forest destination, where we could walk off our meal and enjoy the scenery. On this particular trip, all we had to do was cross the street a few times in order to visit three riverfront parks. First, we walked through Echo Veterans Memorial Park on Echo Lake. Then we crossed over to Riverside Park, which runs along the Fox River for quite a while. Before we had gone too far, we crossed a footbridge into Wehmhoff Jucker Park, on the opposite bank of the Fox, before heading back to the parking lot where we had left Miss Scarlett.

At that point, I began to notice that the cloud cover had gradually grown darker toward the west. That suppertime rain threat should still have been hours away, but something told me it was time to carry Ann back to her car, and quickly. After all, I had promised her a day free from rain or snow. Although it never rained on us as we sped back toward Kenosha, the sky did spit on us a few times. So once I had gotten Ann back to her car, we quickly said our goodbyes before she headed north and I high-tailed it back to Illinois.

It had been a glass-half-full kind of day. Sure, I could have moaned about how short our burger run had been, or about how Mother Nature had robbed Ann and me of another hour or two of walking/riding time. Nah. Given that it was only April 2, we were lucky to have gotten the bike out at al. Besides that, we had discovered a really neat lunch stop that I’m sure we will revisit someday. And so rather than moan or complain, Ann and I will enjoy the memories of another great little run, all while planning our next one.

Life is good. Thanks for hanging with me.

I Look for Places like This

nicks

I grew up in Blue Island, Illinois. I went to college in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. When I came of drinking age, which would have been 1979 in Wisconsin and 1982 in Illinois, both of these cities were dotted with neighborhood bars, taverns, pubs, saloons, or whatever you would call them. Each had a personality of its own that would be difficult to explain to one not familiar with this sort of establishment. As drinking venues go, I have always preferred those to their larger, noisier counterparts. But more than that, some of these places were special to me.

I speak of neighborhood bars, because I am by and large a city mouse, but should point out that small town bars seem to have the same flavor as these—only there aren’t nearly as many to choose from. Back when I lived and drank in Blue Island, for example, that city had a population of just over 20,000 people. Not a terribly large community by some standards, but there were many bars there, not just on the main thoroughfares, but in the residential areas—the neighborhoods—themselves. Each was a place quite unique unto itself, quite different from all the others. Many of these establishments have gone away since that time, but you get the idea.

When you find a good one, you know so, because it resonates with you somewhere deep within. Case in point, my personal favorite in the Blue Island of my day was a place called the Backstage, on the corner of Vermont Street and Hoyne Avenue. Get this, my favorite neighborhood bar wasn’t even in my neighborhood. Ha! The place was awesome. It had atmosphere. The Backstage was the kind of place where people could meet and talk and have fun, without being bothered. The owner kept a nice place, something I learned to appreciate over time. But alas, it’s long gone now. That property isn’t even a bar anymore, And truth be told, there are fewer places like this in that town… maybe elsewhere, too.

Milwaukee, circa 1983, the last year I lived there as a student at Marquette University. Back then I could walk two blocks in any direction from my apartment and hit at least one bar,  usually way more than one. The whole city seemed to be full of them. My personal favorite, that year? I had two. Very near my apartment was the Harp & Shamrock on West Wells Street. Although the place still stands, I’m sure the original proprietor Bernie Conway is now long gone. What a character he was! Bernie kept a clean place, where one would always feel safe, as long as you were not a vagrant or otherwise undesirable sort, in the owner’s estimation (let me leave it at that). He had a large bartender named Tom, who also doubled as the bouncer, and a large German Shepherd named Duke, who slept behind the bar, helping the patrons feel safe, I guess. In 1983 the Harp & Shamrock was a throwback bar, in every sense of the word, yet I loved that place. It was there that I first kissed the girl who would become my wife, despite the fact that at the time, she was already engaged to marry another—that’s a long, sordid story for another time.

My second favorite exists only as a memory now, Wimpy’s Hunt Club, way over on the east side of the city, a stone’s throw from Milwaukee’s old Oriental Theater. Now this place had class. Owned by one Wilbert “Wimpy” Kotas (I knew him only as Wimpy), a silver-haired gentleman who usually wore a crisp, white dress shirt behind the bar. Up on the wall behind him hung a beautiful painting (maybe it was a print, I no longer recall) of a classic fox hunt scene. Opposite the bar was a row of old-fashioned horseshoe booths. The jukebox was loaded with Frank Sinatra, Perry Como and such. No beer on tap, only bottled. This was a clean, quiet, classy place. I only took certain friends there and was very sad the night I returned, just a few years later, and found it gone.

Some additional years after that, while having dinner in Chicago, I learned from a business acquaintance who had lived above that very bar when he was first married (small world indeed) that Wimpy had been murdered one morning after closing up the bar. While walking home, he encountered two men fighting. I’m sure Wimpy’s barkeeper instincts kicked in, he moved in to stop the fight, and was stabbed to death. This apparently happened in 1984, just one year after I had graduated and left Milwaukee. As happy as I had been to meet somebody who had known Wimpy’s Hunt Club, I was stunned by this news.

the-mirror

Now fast forward to 2016. Bars like I just described are somewhat hard to come by in the sprawl of exurbia, where I live. Sports bars are a dime a dozen out here—they open and disappear with predictable regularity out my way, because let’s face it, how many large, noisy sports bars can any community support. But I found a place this year. I found a place that rivals the kind of establishments I just described to you.

I don’t know if Lemont, Illinois is big enough to have neighborhoods, but I’ll tell you this: Lemont has a hell of a bar. Let me tell you about Nick’s Tavern. I’ve only been there twice, so far, but I can already tell you one thing: I like this place. It has everything I look for in a drinking establishment.

signs

Here you will not find dozens of tappers, nor a ten-page menu, nor giant TV screens glaring at you from every direction. And that’s okay by me. If I want any of that, I’ll go to a mega sports bar, the kind I can find in just about every city and village within the greater Chicagoland metropolitan area. They’re all alike and on most days, as far as I’m concerned, you can have them. Just give me a place like Nick’s.

register

Give me a place with a bit of history, and maybe some good stories to go along with that history. A place where I am made to feel welcome the minute I step through that door. Nick’s Tavern is that kind of place. The wood paneling and somewhat weathered-looking wooden bar give the place a warm atmosphere. Certain touches, like the old cash register on display in one corner and the stamped metal tile ceiling, tell you that this place has been around for a while. The bartenders greet people as they arrive and seem genuinely glad to see everyone, even me. The regulars are greeted by name.

cathy-at-baratmospherethe-bar

People are eating, drinking, talking, laughing… and it just makes me smile to see and hear all this. The first time I went there, I brought my wife and we both liked it. The second time, I brought a friend who had grown up with me in Blue Island, and who had also drank quite heavily with me back in the day. The following day he texted me, “If Nick’s was in between our houses, I would make that our our usual meeting place. I like that place.”

To which I could only reply, “Me, too!” I invited my friend Ed to come out and see Nick’s because I had already known he was going to like it there. When you drink together for as long as Ed and I have been drinking together, you get to know each others preferences.

burger

I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk a little bit about the food. They make a very good burger at Nick’s, but come hungry. The full-on Nickburger is a one-pounder and the smaller Little Nickburger, which I get, is still half a pound of ground beef. Believe me, it’s fresh and tasty. They also do Italian beef, chicken sandwiches and more, but so far I haven’t gotten past the burger. No fries here, only chips.

I should also mention that Nick’s is a a cash-only proposition. What can I tell you, it’s a classic small bar.

But you know what? That’s just the way I like it. You’ll find Nick’s Tavern right on Main Street in downtown Lemont. Check it out. And as always, thanks for hanging with me.