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Thursday, Sept. 16, 2004 02:04 am

At Robbie’s, everything about lunch was perfect

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Photo by Nick Steinkamp

Like many things in downtown Springfield, Robbie's has a Lincoln connection.

Located on the Old State Capitol Plaza, the restaurant is housed in a building that began life in 1855 as a dry-goods store owned by Mary Todd Lincoln's brother-in-law. Through the years, the building has seen several changes -- it was even a dress shop from 1962-72. But it's been Robbie's since 1980 and now is known as much for its good food and Friday-night jazz as for its connection to the 16th president.

My friend Julie and I took advantage of a recent sunny day by dining at one of Robbie's outdoor tables overlooking the plaza. As a band played down the street, Mike Manning sketched a picture in the brick courtyard in front of us. Everything about the lunch was perfect. Sure, the beautiful weather and surroundings and the chance to catch up with a friend helped, but much of the credit goes to Robbie's food.

Sandwiched between the Holy Land Diner and the Springfield Chamber of Commerce building, Robbie's is an unassuming spot. Inside, black-and-white photos adorn the brick walls, and ornate wooden antique architectural pieces such as mantels and a wine rack add a great punch of interest.

The menu, which includes soups, salads, sandwiches, and desserts, may seem basic, but it holds some interesting choices that you won't find anywhere else: for instance, the Weird Sarah, which is billed as an open-faced roast-beef "salwich" topped with lettuce, spinach, and ranch dressing. Though it sounded interesting, it just seemed too weird. Other selections include a chicken-fajita wrap, chopped club, BLT, crab croissant, and French dip. Then there are the "simple" sandwiches, such as tuna salad and ham, which are served on your choice of wheat, white, or two kinds of rye. But even the simple-sandwich menu includes braunschweiger, which I was delighted to see because it was a favorite of mine as a child. You don't find it in too many places.

We both chose the cheese-broccoli soup, which was possibly the best I've ever had. It was prepared just as I like it: a creamy, thick, rich cheese stock punctuated with chunks of tender broccoli. When cooler weather arrives, Robbie's will be first on my list for a bowl of soup. I'm anxious to see whether all of their soups are this good.

I applaud our waiter. He was not efficient and friendly but also honest, admitting when I inquired about the crab croissant that it was made with imitation crab.

Julie chose the Irving -- an open-faced Reuben with pastrami, sauerkraut, Swiss cheese, and a touch of Thousand Island dressing, served with chips and a pickle -- for $6.50. It was a tasty and filling.

I opted for the Hawaiian salad, which has become one of my favorites. A large mound of mixed greens is dressed with mushrooms, large tomato wedges, a slice of pineapple, red and green peppers, cheese, chunks of crispy bacon, and marinated chicken. Topped with almonds and served with a tiny cup of toasted coconut, the salad was cool, delicious blend of sweet, smoky, fresh, and tangy.

A special dish is offered each day -- for instance, chicken pot pie and salad or baked whitefish over rice with salad. This summer, the Wednesday special included a four-cheese-and-tomato frittata.

Though I generally feel that it's almost sinful (or at least too fattening) to order pie for lunch, Robbie's pies are so good that indulging is almost mandatory. I tried the coconut almond, and it was divine. The rich, creamy coconut filling was complemented perfectly by the extra crunch of almonds in the crust and a sprinkling of chocolate-dipped coconut flakes on top. Other cream pies include chocolate, lemon, banana, Key lime, and butterscotch. Robbie's also offers pumpkin, apple, pecan, and peanut-butter pies.

In addition to the regular menu, a few appetizers can be ordered during Friday jazz nights, 5:30-7:30 p.m. Bands perform during Uptown Friday Night events, sponsored by the Springfield Area Arts Council. It's a relaxing way to spend a Friday evening. You can dine on spicy chicken wings with blue-cheese dressing, cheese and fruit, nachos, or the Reggae Salsa, a unique blend of mango, black beans, peppers, and cilantro served with blue-corn chips.

Robbie's is located at 4 S. Old Capitol Plaza, 528-1901. Hours: 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Mon.-Fri., 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Sat.

A CONEY WITHOUT A SIGN

Coney Island, Springfield's second-oldest restaurant, has taken on a new address and a fresh, hip look while retaining its original charm. After moving across the street to the former Hardee's location at 219 S. Fifth St. (next to Sammy's Sports Bar) the restaurant now has bold gold and coral walls and swirly colored-glass light fixtures in addition to its old antique oak booths. But one thing's missing -- the famous neon sign spelling out the restaurant's name, which has been a downtown fixture since the 1940s (see "History Talk" column, page 34).

"Everyone looks for the sign," says Nancy Burton, who owns the place with her husband, John. A little problem involving a city ordinance banning neon signage on new buildings in the historic downtown area is keeping the sign in storage until the issue is resolved. The couple says customers have had a difficult time finding them since they reopened Coney Island in mid-August but says a temporary sign will be erected in the near future.

The couple purchased the restaurant in February. Since then, they've added homemade pies, butter cake, and other items to the tradition menu of Coney dogs and sandwiches. The Coney Special, which includes two Coney dogs, hand-cut fries, and a drink for $6, is served daily.

Coney Island's hours are 7 a.m.-2 p.m. Mon.-Sat. It will be open Sunday, Sept. 24, for breakfast during the Route 66 Festival.

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