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Thursday, May 26, 2011 07:52 am

Al fresco dining in Springfield, 2011


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It’s hard to believe that I’ve been writing this column for five years. In May 2006, totally out of the blue, I got a phone call from former IT editor Roland Klose, whom I’d never met. “Would you be interested in writing a weekly column for Illinois Times?” he asked. To say I was surprised would be putting it mildly. Former IT reporter Dusty Rhodes had recommended me. She had no idea if I could even compose a complete sentence, but did know my culinary bent and that I’d been teaching cooking classes for several years. Rhodes is a friend of my daughter Anne’s; her son Evan had been in Anne’s wedding a year earlier.

 I was surprised but also intrigued. I’d actually been toying with the idea of food writing for some time, but toying was all I’d done: I had no idea how to get anything published. So it didn’t take me long to accept. Klose and I settled on a trial period and word limit. Two hundred and sixty columns and several features later, I’m still at it – and enjoying it as much as I did at the beginning.

 One of the first things I wrote about was Springfield’s outdoor dining scene. Back in 2006, al fresco dining was relatively new to the capital city. Even so, several establishments had picturesque outdoor settings, and a genuine street scene had developed downtown along Sixth Street and around the corner on the mall in front of the Old State Capitol. Today, most of those still exist, although a few have closed. But others have opened, and the Sixth Street scene has extended. What follows is a reprise of that original 2006 column, updated and expanded for 2011.

 Years ago the only places Americans ate outdoors were in backyards, picnic areas, fairgrounds, campsites and tailgating at sports events. 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 about the food; I just wanted to sit at a little table in a beautiful piazza and watch the world go by.

But my traveling companions didn’t share my enthusiasm, especially after taking a look at the prices on the posted menus. I told them that, yes, the prices were high but also included unlimited time; servers would not be upset if we only ordered coffee or soda. And they wouldn’t hover around us impatiently, anxious to move us out so they could seat new customers. My friends weren’t convinced. We were all college students on limited budgets, but to me it was worth the splurge.

My buddies eventually took off to find a shop they’d heard about that sold discounted Dr. Scholl’s sandals. So I walked back to the most picturesque café I’d seen, ordered a cup of coffee at the then-outrageous price of $2, and had my first al fresco experience all by myself. It was wonderful; ultimately the $2 cup of coffee didn’t even seem that outrageous. There were no free refills, but, as expected, the waiter didn’t 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 – even higher than in 2006 – and the street scene is still fabulous. But, boy, has outdoor restaurant/café dining changed here across the pond. Al fresco dining first showed up in big American cities and trendy places such as the Napa Valley, but it eventually made its way 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, a pastry, or just a coffee while enjoying the warm weather.

Here’s my list of Springfield’s best:

The block of Sixth Street between Monroe and Adams and around the corner on the pedestrian mall facing the Old State Capitol boasts a number of outdoor venues. The old, mostly restored buildings and Old State Capitol Plaza give the area a unique ambiance. Robbie’s and The Feed Store face the Old State Capitol. Along Monroe Street, Café Brio recently added outdoor seating. The Trout Lily Café, Z Bistro, and Andiamo! are all open for breakfast. Lunch spots include all the above, plus Maldaner’s (whose planters make its outdoor seating area especially lovely), and the aforementioned Café Brio. Maldaner’s and Brio are open for dinner, as are some others on weekends.

Del’s Popcorn Shop offers ice cream and sweets in addition to popcorn. A bit further down Sixth Street, Coldstone Creamery faces the Old State Capitol’s east side. Pease’s has outside seating to enjoy their candies and ice cream between Washington and Jefferson with the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum and Library in sight. Some establishments stay open late into the afternoon. That time of day is surprisingly busy, according to Trout Lily Café owner Kate Hawkes, with folks playing chess, working on their laptops, or just relaxing.

“People really love eating outside,” says Hawkes. “If we’ve been too busy to get the outdoor seating set up first thing in the morning, they’ll come in and ask us when the outside tables will be ready.” Trout Lily isn’t open for dinner. Still, Hawkes says, she loves coming out of her café after a long day and seeing tables filled, lights on in the historic buildings and the bustling street scene. “Downtown has come alive again,” she says.

On the other side of the square, Augie’s Front Burner offers westside views of the Old State Capitol along with lunch and dinner. The Fifth Street block between Adams and Monroe has Bentoh’s for lunch; there are also several bars with outdoor seating, giving its street scene a different ambience from that of Sixth Street. West of the square on Adams, Café Moxo is especially lively during Farmers Markets.

Away from downtown, Ross Issac’s on MacArthur Blvd. has a fenced-in semi-enclosed outdoor dining area with an artificial fire pit in the center, helping to warm up evenings that otherwise might be too chilly to eat outside.

Pao’s outdoor dining terrace in the Gables on Springfield’s west side does look out on a parking lot, but it’s a nicely landscaped parking lot, with little traffic. The seating is especially comfortable and, if the weather and your timing is right, you may be able to enjoy a beautiful sunset. Pao is under new management, having been bought by the folks who own Indigo.

Hands down, bar none, the most beautiful place to enjoy an al fresco experience in Springfield is still Incredibly Delicious, located on S. Seventh Street. The backdrop of the historic, elegant old mansion and the beautiful landscaping and flowerbeds make it a perfect spot to enjoy breakfast pastries or lunch.

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com.

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