Hanging Out in Rockford: On a clear day you can see the Mississippi—part one

On a slow Friday, I leave to wander down to Big Cities Lounge for a cocktail. I have been doing this for my escape from the restaurant ever since Deb closed to remodel Little Italy. I have to travel through that stretch of East State Street that Nino Gardona the owner refers to as Beirut. I have to say, I see what he means, although that probably reflects some preconceptions on both our parts, Beirut is probably a lot better. It seems like the city is taking forever to repair this stretch of water main while all of downtown loses money and suffers.

Nino says that the crew repairing the mains is only working four days a week. That’s on good weeks when they aren’t rained out. We both reflect on the fact that we are all losing money so someone doesn’t have to pay overtime. Seems like awfully false economy. I wonder how much is being lost in sales tax revenues? In any event, it would seem that the financial well-being of your merchants should be a lot more important than saving a few bucks on overtime.

On the way back, I wander into the brand new Mexican restaurant that has been constructed in the old Ross’s space. I meet the new owner, Arturo. I first heard about this newest addition to downtown from Steve Zimmerman, the night he stopped by to celebrate the purchase of his new office building on East State Street, not that far from the Irish Rose. He represented the guy. The transformation is amazing. Arturo left nothing to chance; it is a total gut and rehab. It now looks like a certain kind of restaurant I see in Mexico. The kitchen is open line and will be totally visible to the customers. It will be wonderful to have two brand new, home-owned ethnic restaurants within a block of the Irish Rose. Arturo points to the closed street, to Beirut, to the gaping holes, and shrugs his shoulders. I shrug my shoulders too.

A few days later, I am at Taco Loco, and Rudy Campos, the son of Blanca, the owner, walks up to where I am sitting. Rudy is representing me in the sale of my Rockton restaurant. ( I am trying to sell it to raise cash to participate in the new development on North Main Street where the Kmart used to be. It would be a 4300-square foot stand-alone restaurant, and the first new stand-alone building of my restaurant career.) His new firm is called Rockford Real Estate Partners and is located on South Main. Rudy buys me a Carta Blanca and sits down to talk with me. He asks whether he can advertise my restaurant in the Mexican community. No problem, I tell him, I wrote about wanting to sell it in my column last week.

Rudy asks how business is, and I tell him about the problems due to the street closure. He tells me that he sold the Ross’s building to Arturo and that they never told him (Arturo) about the street closing. Now the guy is sitting there with a brand new restaurant unable to open the doors. It’s notable that they have promised to have it open by On The Waterfront, but then that’s the city’s business. We wouldn’t want to interfere with that.

The following Friday, perplexed and disturbed by all of this, I decide to blow the day off. Well, not exactly, but I decide to take advantage of the slow weekends to go look at a couple of antique bars for the proposed new restaurant. Up to this point, I had not been able to take the time. I call my friend Jon Agustsson, to see whether he wants to go with me. He does and gives me instructions to his mother’s house. Then we head across town on Spring Creek, then Auburn all the way to the west side of the city.

We stop at John Schiro’s for lunch. John spots us outside and comes back in to wait on us. He shows me a Rockford Register Star article by their “Dining Out Guy” and says that I must have been there when the article was written. He describes the party in the article to me, and he’s right, Elisha and I were sitting at the bar talking to Byron when Greg was there. Too bad we didn’t see him. Jon has an Italian beef, and I have some chicken wings. I have the first of several cocktails for the day, a gin and tonic. This is a comfortable bar. John and I commiserate on the art of choosing your customers. You have to decide how your business will be. You cannot let anyone else decide that for you.

Then Jon and I are off to the great west. We stop in Elizabeth for a cocktail. We say we are on our way to Savanna Antiques. Judy, the owner of the little bar in Elizabeth, says to say hi to Jerry. It seems like everyone in this part of the world knows Jerry. We head farther west and then turn south along this side of the Mississippi, passing through Harmony. I tell Jon that the antique bar in my Rockton restaurant came out of a little building we pass. We arrive in Savanna, and wander into the Iron Horse Social Club, Jerry’s new adventure. The place is amazing. There are more than 120 feet of antique bars along the walls. Jerry appears, looking like Jerry Garcia on a good day. More next week.

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 WNTA talk radio AM 1330.

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