I am at Gerlindes Water Street Cafe having lunch while I take a break from installing a new compressor in the air conditioning unit on the roof of the Irish Rose. I am covered with dirt but I know that Gerlinde will be slow at this time of the day. For the second time in two days I bump into Jim Vitale. The day before he was in with a gentleman friend at the Irish rose to have soft-shell crabs for lunch. Today he is with another man having lunch on Gerlindes outside patio. He remarks that my motorcycle could bring me up to his end of town. I say I could bring my friend Elisha.
I go inside to have lunch. Gerlinde and I both are curious about what brings him to our part of town. Could it be business we wonder? Whats he up to? says Gerlinde. I dont know, I reply. Could there be a downtown hotel in the offing? Only time will tell. This certainly would be outstanding news for downtown.
The next day, I have to go to the market and I forget all about it, but Friday comes and Elisha and I are hanging out. I tell her about Jim coming in for lunch and his challenge about the motorcycle being able to negotiate the way to his end of town. We decide to take him at his word. Besides, Elisha wants to party a bit before her nasal surgery on Monday. But we take her Cabrio convertible instead of the motorcycle. (Now running wonderfully, thanks to the folks at Mikes Automotive. They installed the second starter for free. That is why this place has such a wonderful reputation.) We stop at Gerlindes before we go, just to say hi.
We walk in to Cliffbreakers and get a seat at the bar. The place isnt too busy when we get there, but it begins to fill rapidly. The PA system crackles out the names of patrons waiting for their tables. Elisha has a Miller Lite, I opt for a glass of Fetzer Merlot. We look at the appetizer menu and order the crab slammers. An older man sits next to Elisha at the bar, and we strike up a conversation with him. He is a retired businessman and has been coming to Jims restaurants for years.
I sit there, and suddenly I realize that I am a victim of the Jim Vitale smooze program. As much as I might not wish to admit it, I am impatiently awaiting his arrival (but not so much that I have them announce my presence). I wait quietly, knowing he will show up eventually. Elisha likes the crab slammers, but then she acknowledges that she likes anything that combines crab and cream cheese. Then suddenly, Jim is on the scene.
He says that he wants to make us soft-shell crabs so I can see how his compare with mine. Of course, we are thrilled. He walks over to the bartender and tells her that our tab is on him. I protest after he leaves, but she says he is her boss and that she has to do what he tells her. He returns after a bit with four live soft-shell crabs on a plate. He pokes them to provoke movement and thereby demonstrate their alive freshness.
When the crabs arrive, Jim offers me a glass of red wine that he has previously opened. He tells me it cost between $200 and $300. (Unfortunately I cannot remember the name, but the wine was wonderful.) Then he pops a bottle of white, a Pinot Grigio I think to accompany the crabs. We are in soft-shell, Pinot Grigio heaven. The crabs are in drawn butter with Worchester sauce and Tobasco Sauce (I think), and I say to him that it must be a recipe from New Orleans. He says he cannot help it, he lived there for12 years. The soft-shells are delicious; we eat every bit of them.
Then, after introducing us to various local luminaries including at least one judge, he asks Elisha if she and I would like a tour of the facility. Of course, we say yes, and he leads us down the hallway past all the banquet rooms teaming with business. He takes us through the hotel lobby and shows us his personal office (packed with the most beautiful outrageously expensive antiques of course).
Then he shows us Rockford Register Star articles on the wall about the special suites he has and asks if we would like to see one of them. We are delighted. He knocks on the door of the suite where, evidently, some personal friends are staying. A man graciously lets us in. The antiques are amazing. Everything is hand carved. (The mattress is even antique, filled with straw.) It is amazing that he has accomplished all of this in Rockford. If a company wanted to impress a special guest, here would be the place to start.
We wander about the suite drinking wine and talking. I walk over to look at the beautiful view of the river. Then I turn to Elisha and say that I think we need to be going. She agrees. Jim tries to convince us to stay, but I have big plans for the next day and insist. We thank him for his generosity. On the way out, I stop at the bar and tip the bartenders generously (I am in the business), and then we drive back in the cool night air in the convertible. The Irish Rose is buzzing on this wonderful summer night. My new air conditioner is running nicely. Looks like it will be a good summer after all.
Owner of the Irish Rose (Rockford) and Irish Rose North (Rockton) restaurants, Mike Leifheits 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 WNTA talk radio AM 1330.