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Thursday, July 17, 2003 02:20 pm

Eastside eats

Three family restaurants serve up the home cooking

Tammy Calloway of Boyd's New Generation

Within a four-block stretch of South Grand Avenue are three spots serving up some of the best home cooking in town. You won't find all-encompassing menus, breakfast burritos, or special action figures with kids meals, but you will get plenty of warm, inviting food along with good conversation. Just like Mom's.

The Walleye Stop is the only place in town to get homemade fried green tomatoes. The red, white, and green sign in the window advertising this unusual dish is not a gimmick or a fake advertisement pilfered from a movie set. It's just one of the dishes that manager Cinda Barger inherited from her kin in southern Illinois. Now her loyal customers are calling her "Mom" or "Grandma."

The small restaurant is decorated with blue-and-white checked tablecloths, red vinyl chairs, and a large plastic fish mounted on the wall. For seven years customers have been drawn by the menu featuring breaded tenderloin, catfish, walleye, river fries, beer-battered onions rings, and Barger's buttercake. All the meat is breaded and fried.

The Walleye Stop has served thousands of dinners when catering a large event, but it's also been known to deliver a sandwich or two during a slow time of day.

"I have been a cook for years and love to cook," says Barger, who usually works 12-hour days and lives behind the restaurant. She says people have the wrong idea about the Eastside, and she's constantly struggling to clear up misconceptions. She's proud that many neighborhood establishments remain family-owned and operated. "We want to convey that the Eastside is not about violence," she says. "It's not what they see on the 6 o'clock news." Being told they could generate more business at a new location hasn't persuaded Barger or owner Michael Siebert to abandon the current spot.

Boyd's New Generation may now be under the reins of a new owner, but the food is still homemade and the atmosphere is still friendly. Tammy Calloway, the niece of former owners Annie and Albert Boyd, is now the one serving up daily lunch specials like smothered pork chops, grilled liver and onions, greens, and yams. The former owners may have retired, but their presence can still be felt: for instance, Annie's Gumbo is still on the menu, because Aunt Annie still makes the soup.

"I decided to take it over after another deal fell thorugh," says Calloway. "I'm using the same recipes. The only difference is me."

Customers can make their choices by looking over a steam table loaded with specials and side orders. Samples are handed out to those having trouble making up their minds. The decor may be simple, but customers are treated more like family members coming back for a home-cooked meal. Customers are from all walks of life--from businessmen wearing suits and ties to laborers taking a break from the noonday sun. In between friendly conversation, servers will let you know when the fresh peach cobbler gets out of the oven, and they'll patiently explain to inexperienced newcomers exactly what greens are or what's in a fried "snoot" sandwich. (Yes, it's just what it sounds like: pig nose.)

Besides the daily specials like meat loaf, jambalaya, pot roast, and rib tips, the restaurant offers walleye, catfish, fried chicken, and pork chop sandwiches; chicken noodle, beef stew, and gumbo; chicken and rib dinners; and a long list of side orders like greens and corn bread, fried okra, black-eye peas, and yams. Desserts include sweet potato pie, buttermilk pie, banana pudding, peach cobbler, and pound cake.

Across the street from the Walleye Stop is another family restaurant: Clay's Popeye's Bar-B-Que. The signs in the window--which say "Soul Food Wed" and "Chitterling Soup Today"--assure you this is no cookie-cutter chain outlet. Even though the space is large, with a cream-colored vintage tin ceiling and a massive orange counter ringed with stools, it still manages to convey the feel of a small neighborhood joint.

The main attraction here, of course, is the BBQ. Made from a 100-year-old recipe invented by Vincent "Popeye" Jones, the BBQ is dished up as sandwiches or dinners of chicken, ribs, pork, or beef. The sauce can be ordered in mild, medium, or hot. Whatever your choice, it's the tender pulled meat swimming in the slightly sweet hot sauce that has earned it many local awards. In fact, a wall is dedicated to signed pictures and notes from politicians, athletes, and businessmen who have indulged and enjoyed.

Owner Mary Clay was born and raised in Memphis, but she worked here for many years after moving to Springfield. The recipe, she says, was passed on along with the restaurant once she took over the place with her daughter, Dee. Daily lunch specials include a mountain of meat (rib tips, pork, beef) and one side order for $5.50. There is also an offering of sandwiches like fried catfish and walleye. But the best way to enjoy this local tradition is to sit at one of the stools, order the daily special, and use plenty of napkins. u

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