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Thursday, May 20, 2004 06:49 am

The basics — and then some

The patio at Cecil’s is the perfect place to dine when it’s warm
Photo by Nick Steinkamp

Cecil's Bar and Grill is, as its name suggests, a neighborhood bar that serves basic food: burgers, appetizers, pizza. Like many similar establishments that serve a dual purpose, it offers customers a place to down a cold brew after work and also serves up lunch and late-night food -- and does it well.

The restaurant is owned by Phil Tanner, who purchased it in 1993, when it was called Biggie and Bubba's. After remodeling the corner building, Tanner reopened it as Cecil's in March 1994. (The business was briefly known as Phil's First Street Bar and Grill, but Tanner switched back to the original name earlier this year.) Tanner has also owned two other local bar/restaurants: the Sportsman's Lounge and Frannie's.

The inside of the restaurant is filled with a variety of Tanner's collectibles, ranging from advertising mirrors and old photos of TV stars to sports memorabilia and Three Stooges figurines. The knickknacks give the eatery a warm, Cheers-type atmosphere, complete with a large three-sided bar. During warm weather, a large, inviting outdoor patio area is the perfect place to dine.

Tanner says the eatery does most of its business during lunch hours. "We serve a lot of state employees, the medical community, and people who work around here," he says. "People have a limited amount of time to eat lunch and we have limited space, so we try to produce food quickly."

The establishment is also a popular place for an early dinner or a round of appetizers and drinks after work; local band elevator shoe plays from 5:30-8 p.m. on the first Thursday of each month as an added incentive.

Tanner calls the menu "American casual" and says it's nothing fancy. But that's the beauty of it: Some bars focus on the beverage side of the equation and serve food that tastes like an afterthought, but Cecil's delivers well on the "grill" part of its billing. The food is far better than the average bar food, and it's served up in a friendly atmosphere.

Appetizers include standard offerings: Buffalo wings, cheese fries, chips and salsa, toasted ravioli. On a recent visit we started our meal with an order of mozzarella sticks, tasty breaded logs of cheese fried just long enough to cause the cheese to melt. Some appetizers, such as potato skins, chicken fingers, super nachos, and quesadillas, are available only after 2 p.m.

The salad selection includes a taco salad, a lettuce salad, a chicken Caesar, and a chef salad. I ordered the taco salad, which is a house specialty. The crispy, airy tortilla shell was filled with lettuce, mozzarella and Cheddar cheeses, plus chopped onions, peppers, tomatoes, and jalapeños. The salad, which can be ordered with beef or chicken, is served with sour cream and homemade salsa. The shell was delicious: light and sturdy enough to hold the contents but not greasy or overly fried. The fresh ingredients blended nicely, and I especially liked the jalapeños on top, which gave the salad a nice bit of heat.

My dining companion ordered the basic hamburger, 6 ounces of ground sirloin served on a toasted kaiser roll with lettuce, tomato, onion, and pickle. Like a homemade burger you might make at home on the grill, it was ample, thick, and fresh-tasting. Burgers can also be ordered with bacon and Cheddar or mozzarella and marinara sauce. In addition to burgers, Cecil's menu features such sandwiches as grilled chicken breast, Buffalo chicken, a chicken club, a meatball sandwich, French dip, and walleye. Sandwiches come with a side dish, such as coleslaw, French fries, soup, or veggies and dip. We chose the slaw, which was excellent. Crisp and slightly sweet, it held just the right amount of dressing -- enough to coat the shredded cabbage but not enough to overpower it or make it mushy.

Because this is Springfield, there are pony shoes on the menu: ham, turkey, Buffalo chicken, and bacon and tomato. A table of diners sitting next to us were enjoying their roast-beef versions and deemed them delicious.

Specialty pizzas are also available. Options include a supreme with sausage, pepperoni, onion, and pepper; a Margherita, with mozzarella, fresh basil, Roma tomatoes, and tomato sauce; and vegetable and quattro fromaggio, featuring mozzarella, Cheddar, provolone, and Parmesan cheeses blended over a tomato sauce. You can also build your own pizza; Cecil's offers a nice variety of options, including bacon, chicken, turkey, pineapple, jalapeños, pepperocini, peppers, and olives.

I'm looking forward to returning to Cecil's and trying one of these interesting pies while dining on the patio.

Cecil's is located at 530 N. First St. (First and Carpenter), 217-525-1818. Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Mon.-Tue., 11 a.m.-1 a.m. Wed.-Fri. Right now the restaurant is closed on Saturdays for minor remodeling, but it will reopen in the near future, with Saturday hours of 5 p.m.-1 a.m. Order from the regular menu 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Mon.-Fri.; pizza is available 9 p.m.-midnight Wed.-Fri. Carryout, drive-thru, and delivery are available.

Making the cut

A Web site focusing on Illinois high-school sports also gives fans tips on where to eat when they travel to events around the state.

The site, www.illinoishighschoolsports.com, features news, player profiles, and other information on high-school sports. A new feature, at www.illinoishighschoolsports.com/food/food.html, lists restaurants recommended by members of the sports Web site. Visitors can click on a map of Illinois and read reviews from each region of the state.

Several Springfield restaurants have made the list of recommendations. Central Illinois establishments given high marks by readers include D'Arcy's Pint, Imo's Pizza, Cecil's Bar and Grill, Mario's, The Office Sports Bar & Grill, and the Subway in Cantrall.

The Illinois High School Sports Web site has about 700 registered members who share info based around high school sports in Illinois. The restaurant guide is one of the site's newest features, says Chad Schloemann, IHSS Webmaster. "Many members travel around the state attending high school sporting events and this was our answer to frequent questions about where to eat when you are in different areas of the state," he says.

-- Penny Zimmerman-Wills 

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