Hanging Out in Rockford: Old hats, stone eagles and copper pots—part one

By Mike Leifheit


I am sitting at my stool by the little bar when my phone rings. I am engaged in conversation with a customer, so I push the button to quiet it. When I look later, the listing of missed calls says Susie Kaufman. Susie is, for the past few years, a neighbor, and used to be the head of the art department at Rock Valley College. She remodeled the hay loft next to what used to be Crank Shaft Grinding into a wonderful loft apartment.

I call her back, and say, “Hi, this is Mike, you called me.” She replies that she has a felt hat that needs repair. Susie has a collection of literally thousands of hats from all over the world. Realizing she has probably made a mistake in dialing, I offer that I could probably cook her a dinner, but that hat repair is somewhat out of my domain. Then, she realizes it is another Mike she had in mind, but we still have a nice chat.

On a Saturday night, Elise is sitting at the bar. I ask if she is working, and she says no. I say we should go up to Cliffbreakers and have a couple of drinks. She says she would like to go to Giuseppe’s for some pasta because it is her favorite Italian food in the city. I am up for it, and as it is her birthday week, after a couple of glasses of wine, we set out for the North End.

It is very early when we get to Cliffbreakers, and we park right near the door. That strikes me as very unusual, but I then realize it is before the banquet crowd has begun to arrive. We go inside to the bar, and order drinks. I am trying to get Elise drunk. I think she is funny when she gets tipsy. We are pretty good friends.

We haven’t been sitting at the bar very long when Philippe makes an appearance. Then, before we know it, we are bombarded with appetizers (the best of which is the lamb shank sliders, as Philippe describes them—wonderful, slow-braised lamb shank on soft, squishy white baby hamburger buns, absolutely scrumptious). But it is way too much food, as we still plan on going to Giuseppe’s.

Jimmy shows up for the onslaught of appetizers, and I ask him if I can stop out to see the new place he is building in the former Cheddar’s location on East State Street. He is very gracious, and tells me to stop by on Monday. Elise and I are still going to have pasta, so after tasting everything, we have the bar staff bag it up to take back to the Irish Rose wait crew. We make our way to Giuseppe’s, where she orders us lasagna, ravioli and tortellini, which we also cannot finish and wind up having to take back to the Rose.

Monday comes, and other things take precedence over being able to see Jimmy’s new place (The Stone Eagle Bar). Late that night, I call Philippe’s cell phone and ask him to apologize to Jimmy for my not showing up as I had promised. Philippe promises to pass my apology along to Jim. I make a mental note to make special time the following week to follow through on the visit. I have been watching the construction for some time, and I am really curious to see what is going on inside what used to be Cheddar’s.

The following Monday, I arise early and do my Monday morning work. I really want to see what is going on, and I am cautiously sure Jimmy will be there again. (Actually, Sunday afternoon, in anticipation, I drive out to the east side and walk around the outside of the new bar. Even on Sunday, there is a crew painting the outside. Jimmy is evidently in a hurry to get his new place open.) I ask Katy if she will make the bank deposit. I want to get there while there is still a chance of seeing Jimmy. I don’t know how he does it all, building a new restaurant/bar and simultaneously operating one of the largest banquet hotel facilities in the area. The guy has the constitution of a lion. I know how hard this business is, and I am totally impressed.

More next week.

Mike Leifheit’s “Hanging Out In Rockford” reviews locally-owned restaurants, businesses and Rockford life. Leifheit is owner of the Irish Rose restaurant in the downtown River District.

From the November 18-24, 2009 issue

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