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Thursday, July 7, 2005 02:34 am

Elegant setting, splendid food

Until recently, only guests of the Oaks, a restored 19th-century Victorian mansion turned bed & breakfast, could enjoy lunch at this hidden jewel.

The elegant building sits on a bluff overlooking Petersburg and the Sangamon River. Just driving up the winding lane through the parklike setting of oaks trees and flower gardens to the B&B entrance makes visitors feel as if they’re in for a special treat. The interior is just as impressive as the outside, with seven fireplaces; unique, ornate plasterwork on the walls and ceilings; and original interior wood shutters.

In keeping with the elegant setting, the food doesn’t disappoint. There’s the definite air of a tearoom here, with a lunch menu limited to salads and sandwiches.

When I dined at the Oaks recently with two friends, we had a difficult time choosing our meals. Though the menu is short, each item sounded splendid. So we selected several, including the fruit plate with lemon bread — a large plate of sliced watermelon, grapes, strawberries, and other seasonal fruit, served with a small dish of lemon sherbet and lemon bread. The bread was moist and flavorful — so good, it had to be homemade. We asked the waitress, and our guess was correct.

We also tried the strawberry-spinach salad, which was consisted of a large serving of fresh baby spinach leaves topped with an ample amount of sliced strawberries, green grapes, sliced almonds, and bits of bacon and served with a poppyseed dressing and lemon bread. The salad offered an explosion of flavor with each bite. The saltiness of the bacon was a nice contrast to the fruit.

We also tried the chicken-tarragon salad (a mixture of white-meat chicken with herbs, served on wheat berry bread); the smoked turkey, mozzarella, and wild blackberry sandwich; and the Mediterranean chicken salad. All were delicious, but the salad was outstanding. Marinated chicken-breast slices were tossed with fresh green beans, grape tomatoes, kalamata olives, and capers and served on a bed of lettuce with a roll. I loved this salad, but several nearby diners were enjoying the Oriental chicken salad, which they all said was delicious. It looked divine and will be my choice next time.

Other sandwiches include a grilled hamburger, a grilled portobello mushroom and Provolone cheese, and grilled chicken with pesto.

Beverages include iced tea, soda, coffee, tea, wine, and beer. We all chose the wild-berry lemonade, which was a refreshing, fruity take on the popular summertime drink. It’s a good thing refills are unlimited and free, because it was good enough for more than one glass.

The beautiful setting and tasty food make for the perfect spot for lunch. I do recommend reservations, however: We arrived about 11:30 a.m. and were lucky to get a small table by the window, but the two dining rooms quickly filled up with larger parties. By the time we left, an hour later, people were waiting in a front parlor for a table.

The room does tend to be a bit noisy, and a busy lunch hour meant that I had to ask for my check several times. But our server was friendly and efficient, and these minor inconveniences won’t keep me from returning.

The Dining Room at the Oaks is located at 510 W. Sheridan, Petersburg; 217-632-5444. Reservations are suggested for parties of six or more. Hours: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Wed.-Sat. Closed in January.

Special events

The Oaks Bed & Breakfast offers special events throughout the year, combining food, fun, and a historic atmosphere.

The “Girlfriend Getaway” includes pizza, chocolate, wine, popcorn, videos, and shopping, with options for a nail-care package, dinner, and theater tickets.

During the “Murder Mystery Weekend,” which includes a two-night stay, guests examine a “corpse,” interview suspects, stumble onto red herrings, and hunt for clues around town. The winning sleuths go home with a prize.

“Wassail Dinners,” held in December, offer music of the season, performed by local artists, in addition to a five-course gourmet meal.

“Wine Weekends” include overnight accommodations, a five-course gourmet dinner, and a tour of a local winery.

Reservations are required for these special events.

Something fishy

There’s a new place in Petersburg to get a fish dinner with all the trimmings.

Griff’s Fish Net and Specialty Sandwich Shop, located at the corner of Sangamon and Sixth streets (217-632-0084), opened in April. Hours are 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Tuesday-Saturday.

The concession stand offers walleye, catfish, and tilapia sandwiches. Dinners — featuring sliced onion, bread, hand-cut Idaho fries, and a choice of baked beans, cole slaw, or potato salad — are also offered, as are beer-battered onion rings, hush puppies, pork tenderloin, and gyros.

Floyd Griffith of Springfield owns the stand.

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