Hanging out in Rockford: Lunch with Chet

Hanging out in Rockford: Lunch with Chet

By Mike Leifheit, Columnist

On a Wednesday morning I am at Octane to have coffee. As I leave, I run into Chet Epperson, a Rockford police officer. He suggests I accompany him to lunch at the University Club. I tell him that I have been threatened in the past with lunch at the (formerly) men’s club by Ken Ritz and more recently Brian Lynch (when John Branyan was cooking there; they are close friends), but no one’s actually come through on the deal, so sure, I’ll go. He suggests a Monday. I wisely give him my cell number and ask him to call that day.

When he calls Monday, I have forgotten, but immediately recover and say yes. (What a treat to have lunch at this famous old club.) We agree to meet at noon. I’m actually on time for a change (although I push it, as usual). It is 11:59 when I pull into the parking lot of the University Club. I walk in and find my way to the back. The last time I was here, Larry Morrissey was running for mayor. The last time I was here, Chad and Michelle emptied out their personal wine collection to help Larry raise money. The last time I was here, I got a great bottle of Cabernet.

I wander into the dining room and look at the crowd, straining to see Chet, but I cannot see him. I catch the waitress’s attention (her name is Kelly). She says, “What do you want, Mike?” I say, “I’m meeting Chet for lunch.” “Maybe he went upstairs to the office,” she says.” I turn and walk back toward the front. There he is (in full uniform). He always looks happy. How does he do that?

We find our way to the far end of the dining room, and I immediately know why Chet wanted to sit here. There is a beautiful view of the river, and sun streams into the old clubroom through sparkling windows. He ambles verbally through the room and reels off names of the patrons. Some of the wealthiest and most influential people in the city are here. Many are seated at a table reserved for single patrons. I haven’t seen a singles table since California.

At the head of this table is Laird Lambert, and he tips his head to me. After we sit awhile, I manage to catch Rolf Thienemann’s eye, and he says hi. He had been looking curiously at me. I suspect he remembered me but couldn’t place me. Mark Fuehrer (Fran Kral) is sitting at another table closer to the entrance, and he says hi to us. Later, after lunch, Chet shows me the bar, and Peter Olson is having a drink. I’ve known Pete for years, and we reminisce about his old place (The A-Frame Restaurant).

Chet and I order two soups just so we can try them, a beef barley and a cream of chicken. Chris Holden, the chef (formerly of Bacchus), shows up at the table just to hang out. He asks what I am going to have, and I immediately say the salad niscoise. Only I mispronounce it. I say it neeswaws, but he pretends not to notice. Then I catch myself and say it the right way, neeshwa, and we talk about how people butcher the pronunciation of the dish.

The first time I ever had a salad niscoise was in Madison, Wis., at a wonderful restaurant called The Bakers’ Oven. They had another restaurant in the basement called the Ovens of Brittany. I was so impressed by the vinaigrette dressing that I asked if I could have the recipe. They brought the actual recipe card from the kitchen. I still make this dressing to this very day.

Niscoise is the same the world over. Blanched green beans, cold boiled potatoes, and tuna tossed with good olives. Here the tuna is in the form of a tuna salad, and that works really well. The dressing is a balsamic vinegar base, and the sweetness contrasts with the tuna salad. Not what I expected, but it works. The olives are excellent.

While Chet and I eat, we talk. Then he takes me on a tour of the whole place from the spotless kitchen to the private meeting rooms upstairs. What a wonderful old building. They can handle weddings of up to 150 inside. In the summer that expands to 250. There is a $550 initiation, and the dues are about $1,000 a year. Pretty cheap, about the same as my cable television bill. And if you are under 36, cut that in half (they are trying to bring in younger members).

After everything, we stand and look at the roster of members in the lobby. From Chuck Howard to Carl Dargene, some of the heaviest hitters in the city are listed. If you are a young man or woman trying to make your way in this city, I don’t think you could find a better place to start.

Owner of the Irish Rose (Rockford) and Irish Rose North (Rockton) restaurants, Mike Leifheit’s “Hanging Out In Rockford” reviews locally-owned restaurants, businesses and Rockford life. These columns are also available on his Web site: IrishRoseRockford.com and featured on the Chris Bowman Show, WNTA talk radio AM 1330.

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