Thursday, April 28, 2011

Across the Lincoln Highway: Mill Race Inn and Galena Steak House

Another exciting chapter in our journey along the Lincoln Highway awaits! Try not to piddle.

So we left off in Geneva at the Geneva Ale House. The next day, we went back to Geneva, and ate alongside the river at the Mill Race Inn, which I've already posted about, in honor of its unfortunate closing shortly after we ate there. Hope it was nothing we said.

We hung out for the better part of the day in downtown Geneva, looking in the shops and touring through the courthouse. We got back on the road towards DeKalb, stopping at a marker and gazebo at Kishwaukee College in Malta, also the site of a "seedling mile" along the road. We pushed on through DeKalb, stopping at the historic Egyptian Theatre. We got a lucky break, just as we did in Joliet at the Rialto, and saw that it was unlocked. It was open because workers were putting the haunted house together inside. We got lots of pictures of the theatre under refurbishment, and also rubber "corpses." Sneaky!

I'm skipping a lot of our touristy photos (a LOT, so be grateful, dammit), but I had to include a couple. Because nothing gets the appetite working like a deathmask/dead body theme. Welcome.

We also arrived at the Ellwood mansion, too late, sadly, to take the official tour, but we enjoyed the museum nonetheless. It's a mansion built on the fortune made by the man who invested in barbed wire, and I'd really like to return and see the whole interior one day. There was also another original Lincoln marker on the grounds. We had thought about staying in DeKalb for the night, but walking along the main drag, DeKalb started to seem... seedy. Sorry, De. It's a university town, and the feeling, for us, just wasn't great at that moment as the sun was setting. Maybe it was the haunted house that did it, but I started to feel like the tattooed vampires were about to come out, and we were in for a "Lost Boys" type of scenario. We decided to drive until we found a place a bit more charming, and a bit less scummy. This may or may not have been the best decision.

We drove into the unknown, and outside Rochelle, we pulled into a truck stop to figure out our next move. It was night by this point. There was, I'm sure, a perfectly good Holiday Inn Express in there. I tried to hop online through the truck stop's connection in the parking lot, to see if I could score anything last minute through Priceline. It was somewhere around this time that my first ever, bona fide panic attack began.

I can't say I began to scream hysterically or anything so much fun as that. And it had nothing to do with being in unfamiliar surroundings. I've been flying without a parent since I was 15 years old, including solo to Europe when I was under 21. I love adventure. And though I've parasailed, power-hanglided, repelled off of cliffs, and had drinks with strange Europeans, I was totally convinced that I had made a terrible mistake in being in central Illinois at that moment. Even with all my experiences on a farm growing up, I just hadn't banked on the God-forsaken feeling of central Illinois at night. What were we doing out here? What was I doing with our vacation time? Why were we away from our children, just to stay in some mediocre mid-scale motels with no charm, and no luxury either? What the hell was that trucker chewing on??

My husband stayed completely calm and retained his sense of humor. He suggested that we just continue driving, though I was convinced that we would somehow drop off the face of the planet, drifting in outer space with no gasoline and nothing to eat. I wanted to turn tail and run back to Geneva, but we continued on through Rochelle, where I took this picture of a marker at a really charming, preserved filling station.

I wish I could say it got better after that, but the conditions actually got worse for a while. Just a little tip for the Lincoln Highway: if you have the option of taking the official route, as opposed to the "historic route" in the middle of the night, CHOOSE THE OFFICIAL ROUTE. We ended up on a gravel road for 20 minutes, submerged in total country blackness, while I shouted on the cell phone to my mother-in-law that she could stop laughing already, and kiss my children goodbye for me, because they would find my husband and I in two days with his arm partially gnawed off, after I attempted to eat him to survive.

We made it into Dixon. It didn't seem that there would be anywhere open to eat. We found a hotel off of Bloody Gulch Road (you can't make this stuff up, folks) which I took to be a poor omen. My worst fear at this point was not that we would starve, but that we would have to settle for Pizza Hut hot wings. This was NOT the plan. I was promised experiences with charm! Okay, no one promised me that, but that was the plan! I wanted actual cooking, not the thawing of something that came out of a bag.

We consulted our list of eateries, and found the Galena Steak House. I got out of the car, and approached a man in a grey suit who had just hung up his cell phone outside the restaurant. (Okay, he may have still been on the phone, but I was in a small panic. I mean, here is Galena's website. Look at this place! I figured smoking was still very much allowed inside any place with so much exterior paneling, and I didn't feel good about the prospective cleanliness). "Is this place any good?" I asked him. "Where are you from?" he countered. I told him what suburb we live in. He barked a laugh. "No! No it isn't!" he concluded. "You'll be quite used to food that's better than this. But at this time of night (it was after 10 pm), it's probably your best shot at anything that's open." Good enough for me. Husband parked, I gave up, and we went in, getting seated near the gentleman in the suit and his party. (Remember him, he'll come up again later.)

Fortunately for everyone, the restaurant was much better (in my humble opinion) than he suggested it would be. Our waitress was named Marilyn, I believe, and she was incredibly friendly and earthy. You know, a "lifer": the best kind of server you can get. Every dinner at the Galena comes with the buffet, which has salads (and I mean, the kind with meat in them as well as vegetables), and soup.  Chris had some very good, hearty meat ravioli.

I don't know if you're familiar with my quest for the best chicken finger on the planet, but there it was in front of me, in the middle of Dixon, in the middle of the night. You will never have a better hand-cut, hand-dipped battered chicken tender than the one at Galena Steak House, which leads me to believe that it is most likely fried in beef lard. Even the dipping sauce was perfect.

My meal, because the folks at Galena want to make sure you have enough to eat, came with a baked potato with butter and sour cream. We also ordered dessert! Which was very good, with chocolate, caramel and pecans.

So with two iced teas, two entrees, two salad bars with soup, and dessert, here is our bill:

Yep. Just over thirty bucks. We were awash in fullness, charm, experience and gratitude, and we tipped Marilyn twenty bucks for saving our lives. I wish I had gotten her picture.

Stay tuned for our exciting final chapter, including a day in Dixon, a meal over the state line, and the return of the suited gentleman...


  1. Thirty dollars!! That is crazy! Nice post, Ms. Gina!

  2. Very nice! Our fraternity in college, instead of having a formal spring dance, had an informal where we and our dates all went to Galena for the weekend. It was great.

    I've always felt the desperation and loneliness you describe when driving through Illinois at night. It's even worse in winter. You feel like you've set sail into an endless black ocean on a tiny raft with absolutely no idea where or when the next land will be sighted. Hated it. The prairie was like a void to me. I imagine the Apollo 13 astronauts had a better time.

    That meal in L.A. would have cost $4,000 btw. And that's at the Sizzler in Koreatown.

  3. David, your description is so perfect. I've always felt that in Illinois, too. Why do we live here?

    The funny thing about the Galena Steak House is, it isn't in Galena. It's in Dixon!