Guest Column: Exploring nostalgic cuisine in Rockford

With all the chain restaurants Rockford has, it’s a nice trip down memory lane to recall the past establishments that graced the Forest City. So many now gone, so many irreplaceable. They evoke images of friends, gatherings and social events that today would be unreachable once again. We all have certain soft spots for the places we can no longer book a reservation, anticipating arrival of a special dinner. An old Rockford phone directory could read like headstones in a restaurant cemetery. What area of town to begin? What type of aromas emanating from kitchens? Favorite waitress/bartender? Do people even know what “conversation friendly” means?

The quiet enclosure of The Grotto, with its dim, if not dark atmosphere, gave way to a special night. Di Augustino’s, with its white linens and Italian aromas accompanying Mike Williamson while he tickled the ivories. Definitely, conversation friendly. Then it became Michael’s, nice. The Pink Pony sits empty like a pastel sea shell on a cement dune, where once it was the haven of a cool mix of business locals. Good lunches, dinners and service.

Ross’ had a piano man and the now-forgotten relish trays. If you were lucky enough, you could snag a booth by the piano and the bar, all the while enjoying the prime rib you’d waited for all week (with a “normal” martini). Jacks or Better created the feel for Rat Pack music over great food and wine.

In an extremely different way, The Track Inn was very conversation friendly. Everyone talked to one another! And usually they talked about the chicken noodle soup and the fish fry. Or crops, or weather or sports. Truly a place to miss. So sorry if you never got to frequent.

Maybe you’re lucky enough to recall the Mandarin Gardens? With peacock chairs in the window, Asian flute music, ladies in kimonos and curtains on the booths? I was very young, and it was very special. I only ever got to eat fried shrimp, but on Dad and Mom’s budget, that was pretty luxurious. Thank you. There was Ding Ho’s, too! As seniors at East High, we’d skip school and discuss the problems of our very small world over tea and fried rice. I wonder if the teachers ever smelled that glorious aroma clinging to our clothes in sixth hour?

The Ground Round. Now, that’s a memory. Peanut shells and popcorn all over the floor. The popcorn almost drowning out the smell of the huge burgers. Always the Stooges, Little Rascals or Laurel & Hardy on the movie screen. Never a lunch I could finish.

Remembering the Twin Oaks always makes me laugh. While the young people at Sports Page are munching on wings and pizza, I remember fries and cokes and listening to Vern Ott at the Piano Bar. (We weren’t allowed to sit there, of course, but the friendships we built were the same as those that led us to tea and fried rice.) If you enter the door at Sports Page from the east, you’ll recall the butcher smells of Broadway Certified and the Italian olives in the case.

There was the Jenny Lind Tea Room. A wonderful cook who taught me to love blue cheese worked there. The rooms spoke of years past. A time when tea and scones were truly the highlight of the day. I remember volunteering there, wearing long skirts and aprons, cursing them if I were in a hurry.

I was a true regular at the A-Frame, sitting outside under the umbrellas and munching fruit and cheese served on a wooden cutting board. The winter gave way to Shrimp Bisque and hearty ham and cheese sandwiches. Nice glasses of rose’ would round out the afternoon.

The Mayflower needs no explaining. Its rich history of friendships and Book Binder Soup pretty much says it all. A common ground for all who appreciate good food, good service and the ambiance that many restaurants never could compare to. (Good wishes to the new owners of the Mayflower.) Flowers by Connie had the same airs, but for the ladies at lunch, it provided a perfect emporium for the finer things in life. An afternoon to forget the reality of a blue-collar town with blue-collar lifestyles, begging its patrons to relax and smell the roses. Hats and gloves encouraged.

I suppose I could make mention of the wonderful neighborhood taverns that have now quietly closed their doors. Places that when you mention them, you had better explain where it used to be. Like the Anchor Inn, for instance. No grinder better anywhere.

I know I have left some out and with no disrespect. I just don’t think there is enough space for all the history of cuisine we all miss sometimes. From dining out, to buying Certified’s Italian olives, the Forest City has much for us to recall. Thanks for coming along with me. Memories are better shared.

Deborah K. Bonzi is a Rockford resident.

From the Dec. 21-27, 2005, issue

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