Drivin' and tryin'
We hit the open road in search of the best eats within three hours of Chicago.
White Fence Farm (11700 Joliet Rd, Lemont, 630-739-1720) Fried chicken. Sweet tea. Corn fritters. Brandy ice. Did we mention that the chicken is knock-down-a-nun-to-get-it good? And that there’s a petting zoo with weird little minibreeds of goats and llamas and one of those creepy fortune-teller games from the movie Big? This place will haunt you in your sleep.
Radio Maria (119 N Walnut St, Champaign, 217-398-7729) Brick walls, wooden tables and creative food make for the best eating experience around. Globe-trek with dishes like chorizo-stuffed squid on black rice and black-bean, plantain and walnut–stuffed banana leaf. Tofu and grains abound; ditto for the hippies and hipsters who eat them.
Tallgrass (1006 S State St, Lockport, 815-838-5566)So your doctor gave you a couple months to live and you figured: The hell with it, I’m eating foie gras dipped in butter and then fried in fat. Head here, where you’ll find fine dining in a quaint Victorian home. Foie gras terrine followed by potato-crusted sweetbreads and bacon-wrapped pork tenderloin? Done.
Colonial Rose Inn (8230 S Green St, Grand Detour, 815-652-4422) For a dose of Southern hospitality, try this cozy B&B. Not much of the area has changed since it opened in 1855 (meaning you can still enjoy peace and quiet without a Wal-Mart looming on the horizon). The restaurant is straight-up old school (chicken cordon bleu, shrimp gussied up with “Pat’s sherry garlic sauce”), but the menu’s hidden gems are the hickory-smoked pork chops and barbecue baby backs, which are cooked out back.
Miller Bakery Café (555 S Lake St, Gary, 219-938-2229) Gary ain’t the Hamptons, but the food at Miller—and the overall cozy experience—is worth the trip. The relatively upscale menu won’t throw you for any loops; Miller simply does a great job at executing dishes like crispy skinned duck and seared sesame-crusted tuna with wasabi sauce.
Triple XXX Family Restaurant (2 N Salisbury St, West Lafayette, 765-743-5373) This 24-hour spot has been around since 1929, when it sold mugs of XXX brand root beer for a nickel. It became Indiana’s first drive-in during the ’50s, luring hungry drivers with 100 percent sirloin burgers. Today, the car-hops have been canned, but you’ll still get the same hand-formed burgers topped with caramelized onions, served with big, fat onion rings and, of course, icy mugs of XXX.
Trader’s Point Creamery (9101 Moore Rd, Zionsville, 317-733-1700) You may have picked up Trader’s Point’s milk at your local gourmet grocer and never realized that the creamery is a short drive away. Not only can you show up and gawk at some good ol’ teet-tugging during milking time, but the Creamery Café puts out organic lunches Wednesday through Friday along with a Friday-night dinner served on the deck, followed by dessert in the Dairy Bar.
Shapiro’s (808 S Meridian St, Indianapolis, 317-631-4041) An authentic Jewish deli in Indiana? It’s true. This haven for corned beef and pastrami lovers might even silence kvetchers who wax on about New York’s Katz’s. Some swear by the peppery pastrami, but the corned beef—piled atop the housemade rye bread—is the coup de gras that’s kept the place afloat since 1905. The cakes, pies and bagels make it tough to leave empty-handed, so bring a cooler to lug a taste of New York—er, Indiana—back home.
Gilbert’s (327 Wrigley Dr, Lake Geneva, 262-248-6680) Rarely do restaurants hit the trifecta—killer food, great location and beautiful atmosphere—like this one does. Chef Ken Hnilo’s sophisticated, seasonal food is 100 percent organic and served in a 30-room, 1870s Victorian mansion that sits on the edge of Lake Geneva. Go ahead and have another bottle of wine; an upstairs suite is available for nightly rentals.
L’Etoile (25 N Pinckney, Madison, 608-251-0500)California has Alice Waters; the Midwest has Odessa Piper. When Piper opened L’Etoile in 1976, she kickstarted a movement crafting menus purely of local ingredients. Her vision still reigns, but now chef Tory Miller has taken over, continuing to wow diners with local bounty. If you don’t have time for a sit-down meal, swing through the café for the best fast food around.
Harvest (21 N Pinckney, Madison, 608-255-6075)The organic apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. When L’Etoile’s former chef de cuisine Tami Lax branched out on her own, she only went two doors down. Her restaurant echoes L’Etoile’s organic and sustainable platform, and similarly straddles the fence between upscale and casual, which, in Madison, means you’re as likely to see jeans as you are ties and jackets.
Mickey’s Dairy Bar (1511 Monroe St, Madison, 608-256-9476) Madison locals all have the same obsession: Mickey’s manhole-size pancakes. The namesake founder, Mickey Weidman, opened the diner in 1946, and hardly anything—from the now-retro red-and-black interior to the griddled breakfast potatoes better known as “yanks”—has changed.
Brat Stop (12304 75th St, Kenosha, 262-857-2011)If you get hungry along the highway to Milwaukee, you might as well start eating as the locals do. That means big, fat, charcoal-grilled brats (and fried cheese curds for a chaser). This giant institution is packed with surly regulars pounding pints of Point and local baseball teams playing air hockey. Sit at the bar for a front-row view of the brat-master stoking the fire.
Sanford (1547 N Jackson, Milwaukee, 414-276-9608)Wipe that city-slicker smirk off your face and go sample the food of a chef who can hold his own against any of Chicago’s best. Chef-owner Sanford D’Amato is a James Beard-Best Chef Midwest recipient, heralded for his seasonal, contemporary cuisine (think lobster and morel ravioli in basil broth with hazelnuts and lobster oil). Make a reservation, but don’t worry about a jacket and tie—just don’t wear flip-flops and jean shorts to a place with $85 tasting menus.
Kopp’s Frozen Custard (5373 N Port Washington, Milwaukee, 414-961-2006) and Leon’s Frozen Custard Drive-In (3131 S 27th St, Milwaukee, 414-383-1784) Outside of politics and the Packers, not many topics get cheeseheads’ blood pumping like frozen custard. The top two custard spots, Kopp’s and Leon’s, have nearly equal amounts of loyalists, but in a cup-to-cup comparison, we declare Kopp’s the richest of the two. But Leon’s wins on atmosphere: It’s decked out in plenty of vintage neon for a real-deal poodle-skirt–era feel.