Byline: Laura Bianchi Daily Herald Correspondent
If you think Chicago has cornered the market on quirky, unusual dining concepts, grab a road map and explore these seven suburban restaurants-with-a-past.
Ever been in the slammer? Order pizza, burgers and steaks from your cell in a 19th century hoosegow known as the Jailhouse Restaurant in Woodstock, where some of the booths are 1887 jail cells from the McHenry County Courthouse.
Enjoy peekytoe crab ravioli in a beautiful 1928 funeral parlor and chapel now resurrected as One20 Ocean Place in downtown Wheaton.
Does the spirit move you? Order the fennel-crusted rack of lamb at 18 Esperienza! in St. Charles and tell mom you spent the night in church, that is, the former 1851 St. Patrick's Catholic Church.
While chain restaurants and fast-food joints eat the lion's share of restaurant revenues today, this much smaller genre of restaurants in historic buildings remains consistently robust.
"I don't know how often historic spaces become available, but when they do, there is always strong interest," said Colleen McShane, president of the Illinois Restaurant Association. "I can tell because of how quickly a restaurant will go in."
Ambience plays a major role in iconic restaurants, said McShane.
"It adds personality and character to the place, it intrigues people," she said. "Everybody loves history."
Grist for a steak joint
A case in point, Jason's Steakhouse at Gray's Mill, is located in a 152-year-old stone grist mill along the Fox River in Montgomery, just 2 1/2 miles from Aurora's Paramount Theater and minutes from the Hollywood Casino riverboat.
Chef/partner Jason Tsoris, whose credentials include the Harry Caray's restaurant chain and Prairie in Chicago, chose this icon "because it has a lot of history. We knew people would be curious to see the architectural design.
"The customers are just in awe that it is still standing."
Entered into the National Register of Historic Places, this imposing five-story stone structure retains all the atmosphere of the old flour mill. None of the original walls, floors or ceilings have been covered.
It was built by Daniel S. Gray, one of Montgomery's founding fathers, and his son-in-law, Vine A. Watkins.
In the first-floor bar and lounge, look for the indentation in the wood-beam ceiling where the old mill wheel once operated. In the main dining room, the exposed stone walls, 15- to 16-foot ceiling, enormous wood support beams and original wood floor create an atmosphere that can't be reproduced. Even the damp river air adds to the old mill aura.
Tsoris' specialty is serving steaks, chops, chicken and seafood. For starters try his baked Sonoma goat cheese and tomatoes or stir- fried wild mushrooms.
Tsoris swears the old place is haunted by the spirit of Daniel S. Gray, who hanged himself on the fifth floor.
"Things fall off the shelves all the time," he says.
211 N. River St., Montgomery; (630) 801-1492
Well, the jury's out on that argument, but it's hard to deny that dining in historic places can be as much fun as a batch of 90- proof moonshine, particularly in the county jail.
Owned for 10 years by Steve Nelson of Crystal Lake, the Jailhouse Restaurant is part of the noble 1857 McHenry County Court House. The classic brick structure on Woodstock's historic town square was designed by John Mills Van Osdel, a prominent Chicago architect.
Among its most famous prisoners was Socialist leader Eugene V. Deb, jailed there after the Pullman strikes of the late 1800s. In 1972 it came close to being demolished, but was saved from the wrecking ball by two local residents who spearheaded its renovation. In 1992 scenes from the movie "Groundhog Day" were filmed in the Jailhouse bar and the Woodstock town …