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Thursday, June 8, 2006 02:39 pm

Al fresco pleasures

Some favorite places to eat outside in the capital city

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PHOTO BY MATTHEW SCHULTZ
Years ago the only places Americans ate outdoors were in back yards, picnic areas, fairgrounds, and campsites. To eat and drink at an outdoor cafe or restaurant, you had to cross an ocean. Al fresco dining was foreign, exotic, romantic, and oh so sophisticated. That’s exactly why I was determined to experience it on my first trip to Europe, back in the early ’70s. I didn’t really care what I had; I just wanted to sit at a little table in a beautiful piazza and watch the world go by. Unfortunately, my traveling companions didn’t share my enthusiasm, especially after taking a look at the prices on the posted menus. We were all college students on limited budgets, but to me it was worth the splurge, even if it was just a cup of coffee. My friends finally took off to find a shop they’d heard about that sold discounted Dr. Scholl’s sandals, so I sat down, ordered a cup of coffee at the then-outrageous price of almost $2, and had my first al fresco experience all by myself. I had a wonderful time, and the $2 cup of coffee ultimately didn’t even seem that outrageous. There were no free refills, but neither did the waiter hassle me to leave, so for more than two hours I had a ringside seat at one of the best street scenes on the planet. Things haven’t changed much in Europe (the prices are still high, the street scene is still fabulous), but boy have they ever changed over here across the pond. Al fresco dining first showed up in big cities and trendy places such as the Napa Valley, but it did finally make its way here to central Illinois. Although too often “outdoor dining” here just means a few tables stuck outside with a view of a mall parking lot and the smells of exhaust fumes competing with the food and drink, there are some great local places to have a meal, a snack, or just a coffee while enjoying the warm weather. Here are some of the best. The block of Sixth Street between Monroe and Adams boasts six places to eat outside (seven if you count Robbie’s, around the corner on the square) and has the makings of a mini street scene all its own, especially since the opening of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. The old, mostly restored buildings and Old State Capitol Square give the area a unique ambiance. The Trout Lily Café, Z Bistro, and Andiamo! are all open for breakfast. Lunch spots include those three, plus Maldaner’s (whose flower planters make its outdoor seating area especially nice), Robbie’s, and El Presidente Burritos. Several are open late into the afternoon, which is surprisingly busy, according to Trout Lily Café owner Kate Hawkes, with people playing chess, working on their laptops, or just relaxing. Del’s Popcorn Shop offers ice cream and sweets in addition to popcorn. Maldaner’s is open for nighttime dining, and the others (with the exception of the Trout Lily Café) have evening hours on weekends. And for night owls, El Presidente Burritos is open on Friday and Saturday 10 p.m.-2 am. Hands down, the most beautiful place to eat outdoors in the area is Incredibly Delicious, located at 925 S. Seventh St. The backdrop of the elegant old mansion and the beautiful lawn and flowerbeds make it a perfect spot to enjoy breakfast pastries or lunch. The outdoor dining terrace at Pao (formerly Soirée), 2824 Plaza Dr., does look out on a parking lot, but it’s a nicely landscaped parking lot, with virtually no traffic, and the seating is especially comfortable — and, if your timing is right, you can enjoy a beautiful sunset.
Call each restaurant for hours: Andiamo!, 217-523-3262; Del’s Popcorn Shop, 217-544-0037; El Presidente Burritos, 217-544-9535; Incredibly Delicious, 217-528-8548; Maldaner’s, 217-522-4313; Pao, 217-546-4660; Robbie’s, 217-528-1901; Trout Lily Café, 217-391-0101; Z Bistro, 217-522-4049.
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