Hanging Out In Rockford: A personal journey—part 19

Frank Schier and I both lived to see the failure of the boondoggle that was initially called The Main Event. Indeed, the whole history of downtown over the last 25 years is a story of false starts and missed opportunities. The Main Event reared its ugly head again and again, first as Oscar’s, and then as the Metropolitan. It finally melted into oblivion and is now the convention and visitors’ center, a much more appropriate use of a government-owned property.

Shortly after The Main Event, we were subjected to the Le Bistro Café. Again, an entity was created without much meaningful investment on the part of its owners or much thought on the part of the City Council. When things started to go sour, they could just throw their hands in the air and walk away without too much personal consequence.

When my son graduated from Boylan, I wanted to see what the Le Bistro Café was all about, so we went there the afternoon of his graduation. When we entered the place, my heart sank. It was really cute. This was my new competition. I thought that Rockford would like its newness better than the worn character of an old downtown building. Rockford is not too big on character sometimes.

We ordered our food and, much to my relief, it was all automatic. Nothing was served that didn’t come out of some restaurant supplier’s freezer. I breathed a huge sigh of relief. The meal was so diner- awful that my son said, “That was terrible, Dad, you shouldn’t pay for it.” I said, “No, it was in some ways wonderful, and I didn’t mind paying at all.” At least I wouldn’t have to worry about them competing with me on food.

A few days later, however, we were empty for happy hour. I mean, there was no one in our place. I wondered what was up. I loaded a bunch of my staff in the car, and we took a ride past the new restaurant. The entire outside garden overlooking the river was packed. The attraction was 50-cent margaritas. I went back to my restaurant to hunker down and do some thinking. I wasn’t going to let this beat me.

I started putting out food with happy hour. The first day I had a smoked salmon. Word hadn’t gotten around yet, so there weren’t too many people there, just one lady who kept saying “smoked salmon” over and over in a shrill falsetto. The lack of customers was really getting to me. I finally walked over to her and told her that if she said smoked salmon one more time I was going to ask her to leave. She quit saying it.

The food with happy hour thing really worked for us, and business came back in spades. Scores of downtown people grew up eating the happy hour food at the Irish Rose. We had different items every day of the week, from hot dogs to pizza. It was a way that many poor, artistic, young people survived. Soon, the Le Bistro went the way of all downtown implants. Later, it became an Italian restaurant that was really quite good, but its bad start prevented that rendition’s success. Now it is the headquarters for Ramp.

Then something really exciting happened. A group headed by a then-young Sunil Puri and Bill Johannes (the architect) decided to put a hotel behind the East Side Inn directly across the street. It was to be a Raddison. My heart leapt, I was going to be a millionaire.

More next week.

Mike Leifheit’s “Hanging Out In Rockford” reviews locally-owned restaurants, businesses and Rockford life. These columns are available on his Web site, IrishRoseRockford.com. Leifheit is owner of the Irish Rose restaurant in the downtown River District.

From the July 20-26, 2005, issue

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