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Thursday, Jan. 22, 2004 02:20 pm

The portions are grand at Marcia’s

Deborah Denney of Marcia’s Grand Café
Photo by Nick Steinkamp

Deborah Denney learned how to cook while serving her country. The chef, who once fed a former president and Navy admirals, now serves up fried chicken livers in a small café. But it's all the same for Denney.

"I enjoy it," says the owner and chef of Marcia's Grand Café in Mt. Pulaski. Denney recently purchased the restaurant from Marcia Meyer, the former owner. The small town café is quite a change of pace for Denney, a Lincoln native. During her time in the service, she cooked on weekends for 1,500 people, as well as admirals and former president Gerald Ford.

"I learned how to cook in the Navy," says Denney, who later returned to Lincoln and worked at a factory for eight years before returning to the kitchen. She worked as a chef at Lincoln Christian College and Lincoln Christian Village before taking a job as a chef for Meyer in June. She purchased the restaurant a few months later.

The restaurant is located in the Pulaski House, a former tavern rich in history. The building, located on the town square and across from the courthouse, is reportedly where travelers once stayed, including Abraham Lincoln when he was practicing law. Worn wooden floors, a soaring tin ceiling, two fireplaces, and large front windows reflect its age. Walls are painted in dark red and pale green. Simple burlap valances are tacked to the tops of soaring storefront windows and used as curtains to divide the three dining rooms. Mismatched antique tables and a large neon sign, which simply says "Restaurant," all work together to create a warm atmosphere.

Since owning the restaurant, Denney has added several new items to the menu, including an Angus beef hamburger patty, Philly steak sandwich, crab cakes, baby back ribs, prime rib, and salmon. Thanks to high beef prices, she plans to replace the filet with a New York strip steak in the near future.

Marcia's Grand Café also now serves breakfast. Omelets, eggs, biscuits and gravy, and French toast are among the offerings. Lunch options include cheeseburgers, grilled Reuben, grilled chipotle chicken, portabella mushroom, Philly steak, club, tuna melt, chicken salad, and tuna salad. The deli wrap is a nice change of pace: ham or turkey wrapped in an herb garlic tortilla with lettuce, tomato, and Vidalia onion dressing. Most sandwiches are served with the café's cole slaw, chips and a pickle. I recommend the Cobb salad if you like lots of blue cheese. The plate of lettuce was piled with chicken, tomatoes, bacon, blue cheese, hard boiled eggs, and avocado. There was no skimping on the ingredients -- each bite provided a mix of the abundance of the mixture. Potato soup was a featured item of the day during my recent visit. It was flavorful and full of chunky red potatoes.

Appetizers include the basics: mozzarella sticks, grilled chicken quesadilla and fried onion tanglers (strips). I recommend trying the sweet potato fries. The most unique item on the menu is one of the best. The fried, thick slices of sweet potatoes are served with maple syrup and dusted with powdered sugar. The $1.50 side dish ($2.25 during weekend dinner hours) could almost be considered dessert.

Dinner is served only on Friday and Saturday evenings, with entrees such as pepper-encrusted filet, chopped sirloin steak smothered in sautéed onions and peppers; a grilled 10-ounce pork chop; chicken Cordon Bleu; chicken stir-fry; fried coconut shrimp and catfish and grilled salmon. Prime rib and ribs are also offered. Dinners are served with soup or salad, vegetable, choice of potato and roll. Dessert items like cream cheese brownie pie, bread pudding and cheesecake are made by waitress Vicki Anderson.

Marcia's Grand Café is located at 102 S. Washington St., Mt. Pulaski. 217-792-3200. Breakfast is served from 6:30 a.m.-10:30 a.m. Tue.-Sat.; lunch is served from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Tue.-Sat. and dinner is served 5 p.m.-9 p.m. Fri. and Sat. Homestyle fried chicken and other chef's selections are served from 11 a.m.-2 p.m. on Sundays.

The Lincoln Depot 

The Lincoln Depot has undergone several changes since being purchased by Bill and Penny McCarty in June. An expanded menu includes pasta dishes and more seafood, in addition to customer favorites like Gentleman Jack pork and pecan chicken.

Prices now range from $6.95 for fried walleye to $29.95 for a large surf and turf platter, with lobster and filet. The restaurant added wooden tables and more entrees under $10 in an attempt to create a more casual atmosphere.

"It's not quite as stuffy" now, says Bill McCarty.

Although this is the Williamsville couple's first restaurant, McCarty's father, Bob, operated McCarty's in Taylorville for 14 years before closing last summer. Some of his recipes are used at the Depot, including homemade marinara sauce used in the Key West lasagna dish, made with shrimp and crab.

The chef is Harold Johnson, formerly the cook at the Capital Teletrak in Springfield and former owner of Harold's Rib Rack. Johnson now smokes barbecue ribs, pulled pork and prime rib at the Depot for Saturday specials.

The Depot also offers catering and delivery.

There may be many new changes at the historic restaurant, but the electric train still goes around the track attached to the ceiling.

The Depot, located on Chicago Street in Lincoln, is open 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Tue.-Fri.; 4:30 p.m.-8:30 p.m. Tue.-Wed. & Thu.; 4:30 p.m.-9:30 p.m. Fri.; 11:30 a.m.- 9:30 p.m. Sat.; and 10 a.m.-1:30 p.m. Sun. All you can eat fried chicken and spaghetti is available on Sundays and a brunch buffet is served the last Sunday of each month. For information, call 217-735-3311.

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