Hanging out in Rockford: What is your definition of success?

Hanging out in Rockford: What is your definition of success?

By Mike Leifheit, Columnist

I like coffee, really strong coffee. On the mornings I go to the market, I stop at Brewmasters near Fairview and East State. The rest of the week, since the closing of the Water Street Café, I have been journeying across the river to Octane to get my morning jolt. I get the giant bowl cup with one or two shots of espresso added. One of these caffeine bombs is generally all it takes to start my day.

I am presiding over one of these coffee monsters and a freshly baked muffin when Michelle Minnick stops to chat. I complain to her about the daily newspaper. I can’t seem to read this thing without getting upset. I have tried to give it up totally, but when you own a business in a community, you have to follow the news at least in a cursory fashion. What has me upset today is another negative comment about downtown. There is one almost every day.

There is an abiding notion that there is something wrong with downtown Rockford (or the River District, as we have chosen to rename it). Every day in the media, in some way or another, someone is ready to fix it. A person who has just arrived here from somewhere else (and for that reason probably doesn’t know that much about it one way or another) parrots the mantra of necessary downtown renewal. I say that it is the only part of this godforsaken burg that I would ever choose to live in. Michelle is not as hard on Rockford in general, but she agrees that downtown is the best this city has to offer.

Over the course of conversation, we come to the mutual conclusion that downtown’s biggest problem is one of perception. The perception is lagging behind the reality of change that has occurred the last 20 or so years. We discuss the options available to effect a change of perception and decide on a plan of action. More to come on that front.

Saturday night, after cooking at my little restaurant in Rockton (in another downtown that is self-renewing), I head back to the mother ship. I am supposed to meet my friend Izzy at the Rose at 9 p.m. It’s a little early, and I need to kill some time, so I drive around trying to decide what to do. I saw Nino Gardona at Little Italy last week, and I haven’t been to Big Cities for a while so I head over to his bar. Nino is behind the bar, and I get a club soda and a bag of Ol’ Salty’s. Sort of not drinking but lousing up my diet to make up for it.

Nino gets to talking about the old days. He says he has been in this location for 19 years, and I say, “Has it been that long since San Francisco Razzmajazz?” Then we talk about Uncle Nick, and I tell the story of how my son Drew and I ate here the last day it was Acropolis. We had just come back from California and had no idea that Nick was closing Rockford’s only Greek restaurant; we just happened to be there on the very last day.

That sets me thinking about all the restaurants I have seen open and close in the 20-plus years I have been downtown. The Flamingo (the reopened Flamingo, under Ray Clark); Carl Harr’s; The Main Event (Later Oscar’s and Metropolitan); all the different variations of the restaurant in Stewart Square (too numerous to mention, but one of them did include Mary’s Market); the Mexican restaurant that replaced the Flamingo (I can’t remember the name, but its owner had five other Mexican restaurants and his name was Al). And lest we forget, Le Bistro, the French restaurant that wasn’t even a little bit French. Oh, yes, and then there was the fabled San Francisco Razzmajazz, plus a host of others.

What’s the point of all of this, you say, and how does it connect to coffee and muffins? What could it possibly have to do with Nino Gardona? The point is that this is the first time we have had a core group of restaurants and bars start up and survive. Nino has been there 19 years, Little Italy more than 20. Me, too! And even the newcomers, like Bacchus, Paragon, Octane, all have been here more than five years. The new newcomers like Kryptonite are doing fabulously (I love their advertisement that says, “Why are all the cool things downtown?”).

Downtown is more than 85 percent rented out. That tops any mall in the area, hands down. WHAT IS YOUR DEFINITION OF SUCCESS, AND WHEN DO YOU REALIZE THERE IS NOTHING TO FIX?

I go back to the Rose; no Izzy, maybe she changed her mind. I am hungry, so I head up to Little Italy and order a pizza (thin crust, well done) from Julie and then share it with Jessy, one of my waitresses who just happens to be there. Walking west from Little Italy, the little flag atop the Faust is finally blowing north. I hope this is a sign of impending spring. God, I am sick of winter. Once in the Rose, I head upstairs to bed. I don’t find out that Izzy was there until the following day.

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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