Hanging Out in Rockford: The third time around is the charm

By Mike Leifheit


I remember walking down by the river, down where the little bridge runs under the big bridge (down behind Susie Kaufmann’s place; down where a woman and I paid the price to get in On The Waterfront, rather than walk around the whole downtown, and I felt good that I had arrived at a place in life when I could make a decision like that). But this night, I wasn’t so sure. I wasn’t so clear and direct in my thinking. I was thinking about how I had already spent $10,000, and I could still turn around.

I probably should have. I probably shouldn’t have proceeded with my plan to open another restaurant in Rockton, Ill. But it seemed like such a good idea. (Sometimes, even now, it seems like a good idea. When I got it back this latest time, I thought and thought about ideas to open it up again. I thought about sausages, and I really got into the idea. I made sausages at the Irish Rose, and I had sausage dinners, and they became ever more popular. I thought about the profit margins possible, and I talked to Jonathon about it.)

But there are only so many times you can bend your pick on a given project. Sometimes there is a time when you have to walk away. Not that I haven’t tried to do this before, but then it came back. It went away and became the Celtic Thistle. Then, it came back again.

I found it in a dilapidated state. The front door was broken. The back was, too. Only two fluorescents in the kitchen worked (out of eight). One lonely kitchen cooler worked on a somewhat kind-of basis, but even its fan rattled loosely. The wood-fired kitchen exhaust system was filthy and had been completely dismantled. It took days and thousands of hard-earned dollars to put it all back in shape.

I was heartbroken. I have always loved that little restaurant. I remember the good times, I remember the joy of using the wood-fired brick oven that Alan Scott of Petaluma-Marshall, Calif., built and the beautiful pizzas it made. I remember Alan and his helper falling asleep on the lawn in front of the ice cream store in Rockton when we were building the oven and the Rockton police stopping by to question them. I remember the nights when we were full to capacity. I remember the nights when I would cook up there with José and Maria.

It’s funny when you put your heart into something. It is forever a part of you. I put myself into the State and Madison building when I had the old Rock River Café there. I can still remember that building in exquisite detail. I remember how I always wanted to put the upstairs windows back the way they were intended. I remember my joy when Dave and Ken did that.

But there is a time to do that, and there is a time to move on. I’ve been wrong before, but this time I think it’s right. I have leased my little restaurant in Rockton to a couple. They were running another bar just down the street. I have had a chance to see a little of how they work. I’ve gotten to know them a little, too. They seem like pretty good people to me. They definitely have a really good following.

Norte/Irish Rose Rockton is in for a rebirth. It is going to be an Irish pub. Somehow, that seems fitting. It is coming back as Minnihan’s. Tom and Michelle, who have been running the Village Pub for the last few years, are taking over my little Rockton place. Yes, they are going to use the beautiful wood-fired oven and make great pizzas. Yes, they are going to grill steaks over the wood-fired grill. I really couldn’t be happier. I think my little restaurant is in good hands.

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 Feb. 3-9, 2010 issue

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