assortment of cupcakes is photographed at Two Girls
and a Cupcake, 723 S. Clark St., Thursday, Aug. 20,
2015, in North Utica, Ill.
20 years, Lisle and Pat Elsbury made the 80-mile drive
from their suburban Chicago home to Starved Rock State
Park, one of Illinois’ favored hiking and camping spots.
became particular fans of Duffy’s Tavern, a bar and
restaurant dating to the early 1970s that stands proudly
at the head of North Utica’s blink-and-you-miss-it
downtown. Over the years, the Elsburys joked that if Duffy’s
ever went up for sale, they’d put in a bid and move to
their favorite getaway.
when they were down for a trip in 2003, they learned that
Duffy’s was indeed for sale. Weeks later, they were
handed the keys.
much has changed at Duffy’s since then. It remains an
Irish-themed bar where shamrocks hang year-round and the
Reuben remains the signature menu item. It also remains
one of North Utica’s go-to spots, especially for
come down to hike at Starved Rock, and then they need a
place to eat and drink and relax," Lisle Elsbury
said. "That’s where we all come in."
there is quite enough to turn a visit to Starved Rock into
a full-on day trip in the Illinois Valley — from broad
views to boat rides and red wine to Reubens.
place: The Illinois Valley, a collection of towns and
natural wonders along the Illinois River.
it is: About 100 miles southwest of downtown Chicago, just
off Interstate Highway 80 (via Interstates 55, 94 and 57).
main attraction: Starved Rock State Park (www.starvedrockstatepark.org),
which is home to 18 small, lovely canyons formed by
glacial meltwater and erosion across its 2,500 acres.
there is to do: Well, Starved Rock, of course. If you
still have energy after exploring those gorgeous canyons,
there are several other worthy nearby excursions into
nature: Matthiessen State Park (http://tinyurl.com/matthiessen),
which includes a 1-mile canyon and charming little Lake
Matthiessen. There’s also Buffalo Rock State Park
(http://tinyurl.com/buffalorockstatepark), which offers
broad views of the Illinois River on a bluff that once was
an island within the river.
if you’re tuckered from traipsing through Starved Rock
and ready for some relaxation, fair enough.
Utica is small enough that it might be worth heading west
to LaSalle or east to Ottawa. LaSalle’s downtown is a
bit depressed with plenty of boarded-up storefronts along
the wide heart of downtown, First Street. Today a few food
options appeal (see below), and there are also a couple of
interesting stores worth popping into.
Cargo (737 First St.; 815-545-6656) is a massive space
full of vintage and quite reasonably priced furniture and
knickknacks, while just down the street, To Be Continued
Consignment Boutique (105 Marquette St.; tbcboutique.com)
is housed in an old bank. While it has a decent
second-hand selection, the reason it’s a must-see is the
old safe-deposit vault, which remains pristine and on
also offers an opportunity to ride a sliver of the 96-mile
I&M Canal (754 First St., http://lasallecanalboat.org),
which provided a trade route between the Great Lakes and
the Mississippi River for hundreds of years. Now it’s
mostly a historical curiosity, though in LaSalle, a
visitor can ride it on a "mule-pulled, full-size
replica canal boat (that) will take you on the same
hand-dug waterway that 19th century pioneers traveled …
(taking) you back in time to life on the American frontier
and the Illinois prairie."
Ottawa’s engine seems strong. The town of nearly 20,000
has plenty of parks, coffee shops, restaurants and a
charming, tree-shaded town square.
and drinking: Though not a culinary mecca, there’s no
need to rush back home to eat after a day at Starved Rock.
The area’s most impressive restaurant has long been
worth a visit unto itself, and paired with Starved Rock,
makes for a sublime day: Ron’s Cajun Connection (897 E.
U.S. Highway 6; www.ronscajunconnection.com).
Charles, La., native Ron McFarlain opened his restaurant
in a modest 90-year-old former single-family home in the
mid-1990s. It’s long on McFarlain’s charming Southern
banter, Cajun music drifting from the speakers and a
Louisiana bounty of boudin, blackened alligator,
jambalaya, etouffee, gumbo, red beans and rice and, well,
you get the idea. If I’m having one meal in the area,
this is it.
if in the mood for some grease and a beer — both of
which are particularly gratifying after a day of hiking
— don’t discount Duffy’s (101 Mill St.;
duffystavernandgrill.com) and that Reuben. It also has one
of the better beer lineups in the area, and occasionally
features beer-pairing dinners.
the street stands the August Hill Winery tasting room (106
Mill St.; www.augusthillwinery.com), which doubled in size
over the summer after a sleek expansion of trim black
furniture, fresh wood floors and lights that dangle above
in glass orbs. You’d sooner expect to find such sleek
sensibility in a much larger city, but here — like many
businesses — it happens to be astoundingly large due to
an abundance of affordable real estate. August Hill
specializes in sparkling wines made in the traditional
champenoise method and attracts decent crowds, I’m told,
especially during Utica’s Winter Wine Walk, which is
held the second Saturday in February.
for something sweet on your way out of the park, check out
Two Girls and a Cupcake (723 S. Clark St.; 815-667-7075),
which makes all their tempting offerings (cupcakes in the
forms of Caramel Nut Cheesecake, S’Mores and something
called "Vanilla Explosion") in house. (I went
for the Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough.)
offers a few solid dining options that include the broad
American menu that arrives on a digital tablet at Uptown
Grill (601 First St.; www.uptowngrill.com); the tapas
(pronounced "TAP-es" down here) at The Pink
Chihuahua (633 First St.; www.thepinkchihuahua.co); and
the audacious hot dog menu at The Dog House (848 First
St.; www.lasalledoghouse.com), which includes such
novelties as the San Antonio dog (guacamole, sour cream,
grilled onions and grilled peppers) and the Tampa Bay dog
(ketchup, mustard, mayo and pineapple — ugh).
surprised me: The easy charm of downtown Ottawa was an
eye-opener but so was how much I enjoyed the scrappy main
street in downtown LaSalle (which is called First Street).
With several vacant storefronts, and several others
promoting video gambling, it’s a town clearly a bit down
on its luck. But it also presents a fighting spirit, with
signs in a few storefronts that declare, "I believe
in LaSalle!" Walking up and down First Street, it’s
not hard to imagine that the street was teeming a
generation or two ago. It’s also not hard to root for it
to get back on its feet.
you choose to stay the night: The Willows (325 Clark St.;
www.thewillowshotel.net) is a boutique option in North
Utica just down the road from the park, and Starved Rock
offers its own option (including restaurant) with the
stone-and-log Starved Rock Lodge (2668 E. 873rd Road;
www.starvedrocklodge.com) within the park.