Monday, January 25, 2010

Hello Lamppost, Whacha Knowin'? Des Plaines Street Lights

By the end of the year, expect to see 90 new ornamental streetlights throughout the downtown area. 80% of this $1.2 million project is funded by a grant from the Illinois Transportation Enhancement Program; the remainder is funded through TIF 1. There hasn't been any official word on what these lamps will look like; in that light, let's look at the streetlights that have been used downtown in the past.

These were the first, placed on Ellinwood Street around 1915.
This is the only example of this light, which was placed outside the Gillespie Printery building on Miner street around 1913.

These attractive lights were downtown Des Plaines' standard from 1926-1956. The Spanish-style lantern atop a concrete base was modern but still fit in well with the architecture of the city, particularly the Spanish style Des Plaines Theatre and Des Plaines State Bank. Later, around 1946, some of the broken lanterns were replaced by "Acorn" style globes. These standards were all removed in 1954 as these pedestrian-scaled lights were replaced by tall highway lights.

The mercury vapor lights to the left went up soon thereafter. While they were very modern in design, they didn't do much for the sidewalk experience; just shiny poles. This type of light is for lighting the street, not the sidewalk. Inexplicably, one of these still exists at the corner of Ellinwood and Pearson. These were in turn replaced by the similar, but even taller, sodium vapor lights to the right in the mid-80s.
So in the mid-1990s the city installed many of this style light in parts of downtown. While not unattractive, this style light tries to look old-fashioned but isn't; you can see many similar lights in shopping centers across the country. Worse, the acorn tops aren't energy-efficient; light shines in all directions, adding to light pollution in the sky while doing a poor job of lighting the sidewalk. The paint on these lights is fading and the globes are discoloring.

These lights are only in Metropolitan Square. They light the street and sidewalk somewhat better than the acorns, and they're not as tall as the Cobras. But they have that fake old-style look, too.

 Then there were these, used at the C&NW stations.
 Ellinwood and Pearson
And the earliest lights of all

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Our Lost Heritage: Earle House and Rand Mill

The Earle House and Rand Mill was unquestionably the richest historical site in the city when it was lost in 1978. Today it is largely forgotten, living on mostly in the fading memories of Des Plaines citizens angry about our squandered heritage.

Here is a list of ideal historic sites; you'll probably agree any of these are places a community would value enough to name a landmark on its own merit.

-The home of one of the village's first doctors
-The home of a leading citizen, responsible for the creation of the high school, library, parks, and forest preserves
-A beautiful Queen Anne mansion with a distinctive copper dome
-The sawmill, one of the community's oldest buildings, which created the railroad ties for the railroad that was responsible for the development and growth of the town; in effect the heart and engine of the village
-A grist mill that ground farmer's grain
-A business operated by the community's first citizen and civic leader
-A park bringing together the three things most responsible for the community's growth: the river, the train, and the highway

The Rand-Earle campus was every one of these things. Was this not a History Campus? Was this not a Riverwalk? This could have been a home run of a historic site. Instead, today we are left with The Landmark, a nice condominium with a sick joke for a name.

Dr. Earle, who could "see more with one eye than most men could with two" - thus why half his face is shaded.

Dr. C. A. Earle

Dr. Clarence A. Earle was one of Des Plaines' first renaissance men, seemingly skilled at everything he tried, and he is accordingly a popular subject in local history books. Don Johnson's 1985 book "Des Plaines, Born of the Tallgrass Prairie, tells us:

"Clarence Arthur Earle was born in Colfax, Indiana, on February 4, 1862, the son of Silas and Mary Ann Hall Earle. His father died when Clarence was only twelve years old, yet despite this damaging setback, Clarence continued his secondary education, graduating at the young age of fifteen. Soon after, he embarked on a teaching career which lasted from 1877 to 1885. Still, he had never been able to suppress his desire to become a doctor and while teaching in Iroquois County in 1882, Clarence studied medicine in the office of Dr. P. Stebbing of Kankakee. Enrollment at the College of Physicians and Surgeons in Chicago followed, and by February of 1887 Clarence had obtained his coveted medical degree.

Clarence practiced medicine both as a private practitioner and as an intern [at Cook County Hospital] until 1889, when he and his wife, Helen Pearce Earle, moved to Des Plaines. By the mid-1890s [1892] Clarence's flourishing practice enabled the family to have a spacious home constructed at the northeast corner of River Road and Miner Street.

A dedicated, talented man, Dr. Earle was, in many ways, the epitome of the storied country doctor. He was also pleasantly eccentric. Some of the city's longtime residents have stated that while answering a housecall, the good doctor would simply drive his Model-A up to the front of the patient's house and then absentmindedly jump out, leaving the car standing in the middle of the street with the engine on and the keys in the ignition. The car was destined to either sit in the street for the duration of the doctor's visit or be moved by the first person who happened along. It seems everyone in Des Plaines knew how to handle the situation.

Dr. Earle's duties as a physician were not limited to his own successful practice. He acted as a medical examiner for the Chicago and North Western Railroad, the Wisconsin Central Railroad, New York Life Insurance Company, and the Northwestern Masonic Aid Association. Dr. Earle also served as a staff physician for both the Benjamin Electric Company and St. Mary's Training School. It is a fact long known, though latterly often forgotten, that this "country doctor" was also a nationally known expert on childhood diseases [due in part to his involvement at Maryville]. Dr. Clarence A. Earle's lifetime of service came abruptly to an end when he died on October 28, 1938. He was 76 years of age."

Oh, and where did he park that Model A? In Rand Mill, which he used as a garage.

The 1916 Beaudette book described him thus:

"Dr. C. A. Earle, President of the Maine High School Board, comes from an Eastern family of talented writers. He is himself a historian whose articles are much appreciated. Due to Dr. C. A. Earle's activities and interests are most of the educational advantages of Des Plaines. He is ever ready to assist and encourage the aspiring student. Dr. Earle is an acknowledged authority on any subject upon which he condescends to write. His historical data have made him well known, in and about the country. Libraries seek him for authentic facts. He has a daughter, Miss Gladys, who is teaching school, while one of the sons, Walter, is taking a pre-medic course at the Chicago University. Walter is a member of the "varsity" swimming team and took "first" in the inter-department contests last spring. Percy is finishing his high school course at the Maine and is an athlete. The oldest son, Norman, is in the Naval Service. The examinations both physically and mentally at West Point are known to be the most rigorous of any. Mr. Norman Earle gained a record at West Point of ranking
as second in general scholarship.

Dr. Earle possesses one of the finest historical literary collections in this vicinity, which he continually is increasing."

Dr. Earle earned that position in part for his work pushing for a high school to be built in Des Plaines in 1902. Earle Field, across Thacker Street, was then named for him; Central School sits there now. As an avid teetotaler, Earle Field came with the provision that alcohol never be served there.

In the same book, Earle was credited as the driving force behind the creation of the Des Plaines Public Library. The persistent Earle argued for a library for the populace of Des Plaines, a ”largely foreign sturdy industrious people who are just learning the value of an education.”

"Des Plaines Public Library is a valuable educational asset for the community. Its existence is due largely to the untiring efforts of Dr. C. A. Earle.

With a courage born of conviction that Des Plaines needed a public library, Dr. C. A. Earle, one of our most aggressive citizens, spared neither time nor energy to awaken the public to a sense of that need.

Although Carnegie Libraries were not ordinarily established in villages of this size, Dr. Earle won Mr. Carnegie's interest as well as that of the community and on May 2, 1906, the first library board was organized."

A 2007 Daily Herald article described his contributions: "Then in 1905, 50 voters in the town that then held 1,666 residents placed the issue of establishing a free public library and a tax to support it on the ballot. On April 18, the voters approved the referendum and the village board unanimously resolved to provide $500 per year every year thereafter to maintain the library.

But even before residents decided in the library's favor, Earle was writing to philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, asking him to fund its establishment.

"In February of 1904, Dr. Earle received a discouraging letter from Carnegie's personal secretary, informing him that his request ... was out of the question because Des Plaines was too small a community," said Sandra Norlin, the library's present executive director.

"Undaunted, but polite, Dr. Earle responded. He described Des Plaines as a rural village of 'largely foreign, sturdy, industrious people who are just learning the value of an education,' and, therefore, worthy of consideration," she added.

Earle received a form to fill out, but no encouragement. However, after two years and several more letters, Carnegie finally agreed.

"The commitment by Carnegie and the village's officials allowed the library to become one of many civic improvements -- including new schools, parks, sewers, lights and gas -- to create a community that would, according to Dr. Earle , 'stand without a peer among the villages to the northwest of Chicago'," Norlin said. "

Earle was perhaps the first local historian, writing many articles on history for newspapers and the Des Plaines Historical Quarterly, including one on the origins of the name "Des Plaines". Don Johnson's 1985 book tells us that "Only through his exhaustive research was the pioneer history of Des Plaines preserved for posterity." He descibed his work, saying "To me the collecting of early local history has been an intriguing pastime. I have unearthed interesting records from old attic trunks, from boxes in the lofts of outhouses, corn cribs and garages. In the quest for early local history, the word 'failure' does not exist." He tracked down the Conant Diary, kept by early settler Augustus Conant, the first man to be legally married in Maine Township in 1836, which is one of the key documents of the early history of Des Plaines. The diary was found mouldering in a Rockford garage.

An absolutely tireless progressive, Earle was a vocal advocate for creating the Forest Preserve system in 1910, which he saw as a way to protect rapidly dwindling native species. In 1913 he moved onto drafting enabling legislation for parks in small towns. In 1919 he and other local leaders met and founded the park district. In 1920 he was elected police magistrate.

And of course Earle was an important doctor; he was a member of the Chicago Medical Society and was well known for his work in preventive medicine, scarlet fever, and diphtheria. In his spare time, he was active in the Lions Club, Boy Scouts, and botany.

How fitting it was for such a prominent citizen and historian to build a prominent house on a historic site! The Earle house, built in 1892, was a Queen Anne gem, complete with a copper domed belvedere. Earle couldn't have picked a more prominent or historic site if he had tried; the very nexus of the factors that allowed Des Plaines to exist. The corner of Miner and Rand Road brought together the river, which had attracted the Native Americans to the site, the railroad, which allowed Chicago to prosper, and the roads, which would grow into highways and bring Des Plaines into the mid-20th century. Des Plaines exists largely because it brings together so many modes of transportation; what site could better express that?

Socrates Rand
"Squire" Socrates Rand is often thought of as the "father of Des Plaines" because he was among its first officials and led many of the major improvements that brought the town of Des Plaines into being out of a collection of farms. Among his many accomplishments, he laid out the route following a Native American trail for Rand Road, the principal northwestern road and United States Mail Route in 1845. He operated the first hotel. Later he served as supervisor and overseer of highways and bridges. He served as town treasurer for 20 years. Much later, Rand Park would be named for him. These are just a few of his achievements; let's take a look at the timeline of his life to better understand

1804 - Born in Franklin County, Massachusetts, working on his father's farm and Mill. Was a timber dealer and shipbuilder there and built harbors throughout NY. He attended territorial councils there, where some men told him to go to Chicago. He came to Chicago to work on the harbor in 1834 and bought 320 acres in Des Plaines the next year. He hired a well-to-do man to settle on land west of the river, which induced a band of Germans to settle there. These settlers became supporters of Rand's road building projects.
1835 - Settled on west bank; elected justice of the peace
1836 - Performed first marriage in what would become Maine Township
1837 - Opened home for Episcopal services
1838 - First school in his cheese room, taught by Harriet Rand with about 15 students
1850 - Township of Maine organized; Rand served as moderator at first meeting April 2, 1850
1850 - Married Fanny Wicker
1851 - Postmaster
1851-1852 - Illinois & Wisconsin Railroad builds sawmill with timber donated by Rand; Rand given contract to grade 4 miles of railroad between Norwood Park and Des Plaines
1854 - Job completed, the derelict mill is sold to Rand. Unable to sell the engine, he continues operating itself
1854 - First trains run
1857 - First subdivision of Maine Township, by the Illinois & Wisconsin Land Company, named "Town of Rand" for him. Des Plaines as we know it would grow around this subdivision. Residents would have considered themselves a resident of the Town of Maine, however; Town of Rand was just a name on a plat.
1860 - Provided land for first Methodist Campground, which remained at this location until 1865.
1866 - Sells farmland at corner of Miner and Lee
1868 - Donated timber for German Lutheran Church
1869 - Renamed Des Plaines to match Railroad station, which in turn was named for the river, important for filling up its tank for steam.
1876 - Moved to Chicago
1890 - Died Feb 20
1895 - Widow bought and built house where Des Plaines Theatre now stands

The Rand Mill
The property was first owned by the Thacker family, and in 1851 the Illinois and Wisconsin Railroad company purchased it and quickly erected a sawmill to cut ties for the railroad they were extending from Jefferson Park to Crystal Lake. Although it was on the river, it wasn't hydraulically powered - no water wheel here. The railroad job complete, they sold the mill to Socrates Rand in 1854, since he had worked for the railroad and its associated land development company. Unable to sell the engine, Rand continued to operate it as a saw mill until 1861, when he converted it into a grist mill for farmers to grind their grain; grist mills were de facto centers of the community. The mill closed in 1875.

Later, his grandson Robert Dooley, son of Earle's daughter Gladys, would recognize that history, boasting in an ad in 1960's Centi-Quad-O-Rama, "It was with a sense of historic destiny that Robert chose the firm's present location on Des Plaines' 125th Anniversary directly behind the home of his grandfather, Dr. Clarence Earle, one of the city's early historians whose writings furnish the basis for most of the background information available on Des Plaines. The old Earle residence was built on the original site of Rand's Mill, the community's first business and oldest landmark."

By 1970, though, Dooley had changed his tune and sought to have the Mill site rezoned for two four-story apartment buildings. Ironically, Dooley cited the nearby forest preserve - the forest preserve Earle had been responsible for creating - as a factor that would make the site good for apartments. The fledgling Des Plaines Historical Society, then headed by firefighter David Wolf, fought to preserve the Mill. Since the city government was overwhelmingly in favor of rezoning for apartments, the Historical Society fought to preserve it as much as possible; including exploration of moving it to the park next to River Road at Ashland. Neither the move nor the apartments came to pass.

There was talk of moving the Des Plaines Historical Society to the Earle House instead of moving the Kinder House. By 1974, the Bicentennial Commission, then headed by Wolf, was looking at lasting projects to commemorate the nation's bicentennial; the three ideas were: turning the old city hall into a "heritage hall" that could be used by senior citizens, youth groups and for a public information center; a bicentennial park; or preserving the Earle House and Mill. None of these came to pass. Wolf even included this plan in his platform during his unsuccessful run for mayor in 1977.
In March, 1978, after Mayor Herb Volberding refused to issue a demolition permit, Dooley said that he would demolish the mill unless the city paid him $1 million. He did not base this figure on any appraisal; this was simply his demand. He also claimed that the idea of rezoning the parcel for historic preservation was not a sincere attempt to preserve the property, but part of a long campaign by the city to harass him. He sought to demolish it saying that its deteriorating state had prevented him from receiving insurance for the past five years and wanted to develop the land eventually. He did not have anything to say about why he allowed it to deteriorate to that point. On April 3, the city council voted on a two-week demolition delay, and the Landmark Commission planned a hearing for May 24. Dooley lowered his demand price to $575,000 with the conditions that it be used only for a museum and/or park with prohibition of alcohol (in accordance with Dr. Earle's wishes) and a hearing to discuss the offer was scheduled for May 16; a hearing for National Register status was scheduled for June 15.

Then on May 14, tragedy struck. A fire broke out in a second floor bedroom of the Earle House, which had been converted into five apartments, and was believed to be caused by an overloaded electrical socket. There was no indication of arson. The fire burned for an hour and caused $50,000 in damage, which wasn't covered by insurance. Damage was mostly contained to the second floor and wasn't considered a total loss, but the 22(!) people living there were left without a home. Dooley hadn't sought to demolish the home, since the rental income was paying the taxes. Dooley withdrew the $575,000 offer and the home and mill were soon demolished.

As a coda to the story, suitcases and trunks filled with letters and documents that had been collected by Earle were discovered in the charred attic, along with collections of antique tools and medical instruments. They were salvaged by Robert Albrecht, who had demolished the house. Albrecht was disappointed that nobody had discovered the treasure before the house burned; he estimated that only a third was salvagable. Dooley said he didn't want the "junk" unless it was worth something. Albrecht planned to donate the collection to the Des Plaines Historical Society on July 4, 1980, but Dooley then demanded their return; Albrecht feared Dooley would throw them away.

The Landmark Condominums were started later in 1978.

(b&w photos from Illinois Historic Preservation Agency's HAARGIS system)

Friday, January 15, 2010

Des Plaines Realty, Toy and Hobby House, and Lombardo Shoes - 1484 and 1486 Miner

While there are forgotten gems downtown, there are also a few buildings that are best described as "Prime Redevelopment Opportunities". These are two of them: only historic in that they are barely over 50 years old, unattractive, deteriorating, out-of-scale, and on top of that they allow a view of the parking deck behind them.

They were both originally built at about the same time as the Des Plaines Theatre next door (1925). The one on the left held Des Plaines Realty for many years, into the 1980s, until it was replaced by the Capozolli law office. At some point in the 1950s it was remodeled with a "modern" look with lannon stone, plate glass, and corrugated metal. Neither the old or the new building were particularly attractive; the storefronts at Prairie and Graceland, or many of the storefronts near Cumberland, are better examples of this architectural style.

The one on the right is a little more interesting - notice in the 1925 photo the sign is advertising a restaurant and hotel for lease (it must have been a very small hotel.) It held just that (including P. & M. Snack Shop) until it was demolished in 1958 for the Lombardo's Shoes/Toy & Hobby House building, pictured under construction in the above photo. Lombardo's lasted until at least 1986, and Toy & Hobby House until at least 1984. The hobby space later housed Online Cafe, June Moon Collectibles, and a variety of political campaign offices, among other things. The shoe store housed Lucia DeBartolo Salon and, until a few weeks ago, Class Hair Salon. In 2007, the City of Des Plaines purchased this building for $350,000 in TIF funds "for future redevelopment". This allowed it to operate a FEMA Disaster Recovery office following the 2008 Hurricane Ike-related floods. Today the building stands vacant and partially hidden by an obtrusive bus stop.

These two buildings present a unique opportunity, however. If the Des Plaines Theater is rehabilitated, it will likely need more space, since its lobby and backstage are quite small; it needs more lobby space, restrooms, and concessions. If the Theatre became a performing arts center, this would give room for functions like rehearsal or "black box" space, ticketing, and access to the theatre building's second floor; if the Theatre were rehabilitated as a movie theatre, this could provide space for additional screens. There is even more space to be had behind the historic Gillespie Printery and First National Bank buildings, where a cinder-block addition now stands.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Des Plaines Turns 175

Since 1935, Des Plaines has celebrated its anniversary every 25 years, in 1935, 1960, and 1985; so this year, we are once again due to continue this tradition. It's not immediately obvious why 1835 is considered our founding date. The first settlers arrived here in 1833; Des Plaines was incorporated as a village in 1869, and the Town of Rand was incorporated in 1857. The best explanation I can find is that Socrates Rand, by any account the first real community leader, came here in 1835. So 1835 it is - stitched on our flag, celebrated as our anniversary.

It seems like an apt time, then, to look back at how we've handled this anniversary in the past.

1935 - 100 Years

Des Plaines Centennial Celebration Booklet, 1935                                                                                                                                            
Des Plaines Centennial Program

Des Plaines held a week-long jubilee celebration from Tuesday, June 25 to Sunday, June 30, 1935, thanks to the Lions club.

On opening night, despite a torrential rain, festivities opened with a parade of hundreds of cars with historical floats, with prizes for the best historical float, oldest auto (remember, this was 1935!), oldest vehicle, and more. This culminated in the coronation of the The Queen of Des Plaines, Margaret Toepper, chosen from about 60 contestants, and a contest for the best drum and bugle corps was also held. On Thursday a banquet honoring the oldest settlers was held at First Congregational Church. Friday had an old fiddlers' contest, Saturday afternoon had a pet and costume parade for children followed by a free matinee at the Des Plaines Theatre, while Saturday night had the Centennial Ball at Maine (East) High School. Sunday, Homecoming, featured special services at all churches with a huge band concert in the afternoon. There was also a daily Street of Fun, with rides, bingo, and games, and the businesses displayed antiques and had Centennial sales.

The centerpiece of this was a pantomimed historical pageant at Earle Field, presented four times, at 8:30 on the 26th, 27th, 28th, and 29th. This pageant featured five hundred people, weaving together a story of important events throughout local history.

Des Plaines Centennial Celebration Booklet, 1935                                                                                                                                            
Pageant Script

The 1935 Celebration left behind the above-linked program, a valuable document of the city's view on history in that time. It also resulted in the first Des Plaines Historical Society, which lasted less than 10 years but made valuable contributions by documenting much local history that would otherwise have been lost.


The 1960 Celebration, Centi-Quad-O-Rama, was handled by the Chamber of Commerce, which set up a 125th Anniversary Association, with numerous subcommittees.

Centi-Quad-O-Rama: Des Plaines 125th Anniversary 1835-1960                                                                                                                                            

Des Plaines again crowned a "Queen of Destiny", Margi Koehler, and set up a week of celebration, from August 23rd-28th. In many ways, the celebration mirrored 1935.

It kicked off on Monday, the 22nd, with a History Essay contest for schoolchildren. Tuesday had a Kitty Bike and Pet parade in the afternoon, and another pageant kicked off that evening at Maine East Stadium, with repeat performances on Wednesday and Friday; Thursday featured a "Water Thrill Show" at Rand Pool and a Ballroom Dance contest at Maine East Fieldhouse.

The big day, Saturday, kicked off at 10 a.m. with the exciting judging of the Beard Growing Contest (my personal favorite). Over 100,000 outside visitors were expected for this day of celebration. The centerpiece was a parade, touted as the Chicago Suburbs' "biggest ever" parade, led by the Governor and featuring 4,000 marchers among 100 units. Later came a Drum and Bugle Corps contest at Maine East Stadium. The day closed out with the 125th Anniversary Ball at the "beautiful new O'Hare Inn" (now demolished). That night, the new city flag (Yes, we do have a city flag! But it's not on the city website,) designed in a contest by resident Arthur Wetter.

The week closed out with an exhortation to attend the church of your choice; also during the week the Art Guild fair and Garden Club shows were held.

The lasting legacy of the 125th? A flag and a widely-distributed book.

1985, 150th - Sesquicentennial

This one was held September 6-15, 1985, administered by the Des Plaines Sesquicentennial Commission. A departure from the previous celebrations, SesquiFest was held at Maryville and was focused on live music, along with "games, contests, dancing, a fantastic carnival, souvenirs and commemorative items, arts and crafts show, fleamarket, business expo, food galore offered by more than 10 Des Plaines restaurateurs, free and continuous entertainment on three stages... raffle, rodeo, children's stage, petting zoo, and more... plus two gigantic, spectacular fireworks displays to rival any other." The week also featured an Up With People show at Maine West,  a parade, a High School Band show, dances, a Historical Panorama pageant program at Maine West, a foot race, a regatta at Lake Opeka, a flea market, and a golf tournament.

It also had a Miss Des Plaines pageant held in November, 1984, the Des Plaines Historical Hikes were introduced in July, and later in September were the Invitational Golf Tournament and Historical House Walk.

The legacy of the Sesquicentennial was the creation of two booklets on the history and state of Des Plaines, plus Sesquicentennial park, located at Grove Avenue and Sherman Place, near the intersection of Rand and River Roads.

2010 - The Demisemiseptcentennial (catchy name!)

Which brings us back to today. While 175 is probably considered a less significant milestone than 150 or 200 would, these past three events dictate a tradition - we should be celebrating. So far, plans for this year include a big fundraiser dinner for the Des Plaines Historical Society and a series of historical articles they are doing through the year that will appear in the Journal and be collected in a booklet at the end of the year. The clear leaders for a project like this aren't in the best positions - the Special Events Commission had its budget cut so far that there was no New Years Eve celebration this year, and is running on their escrow for the year; the historical society has to focus on making it through the year intact. But remember - we did it in 1935, in the middle of the great depression. And in 1960, we did it without the city, and the historical society didn't exist yet either. Will the many clubs, organizations, and businesses of our city band together and make something happen - and isn't this a golden opportunity for these organizations to promote themselves? The people with the right connections would have to take charge. Ex-Mayor Arredia is now Director of Government Relations at Maryville, which held the 1985 celebration; he talked about doing a New Years Eve event that didn't end up happening; how about this?

But what about leaving a lasting legacy? Wouldn't it be powerful to commemorate our 175th anniversary by finally giving long-overdue recognition and protection to our most significant places by establishing a Landmarks/Heritage Conservation Ordinance? The best way of all to honor our heritage is to make sure it still exists in the future.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Downtown Des Plaines has an Appetite - Dotombori, Pho Dung Gia, Via Roma, Sweet Remembrance, and the Sugar Bowl

Even though times are hard, it's seemingly a good time to be downtown and looking for a place to eat. Downtown's newest restaurants are bringing a lot to the table. Looking back over the last year, many positive changes have already taken place.

The latest addition is a restaurant that's been open for a while, Dung Gia, (now Pho Dung Gia) a vietnamese restaurant. The Tran family, formerly of Evanston's well-liked Annam Cafe, opened it in the Svoboda Building in late 2007. It has established a good reputation, with positive reviews all around. It has done well ever since, despite seating only 24. That changes now, as they've just taken over the adjacent store for more seating. As part of the expansion, they have replaced their back lit plastic sign with an attractive new awning. I took this picture yesterday, and looked inside; these improvements are so new, there weren't even tables in the new section yet. I also noticed that Class Hair Salon, formerly next to the Des Plaines Theatre, just opened up next door where "Cellular in Motion" was. Funny how these things pop up just after the city says it is no longer looking to demolish the building for a new police station....

Farther down Miner Street, Dotombori, a Japanese restaurant, just opened at the corner of Miner and Pearson in the C.W.M. Brown building, 1526 Miner Street, where Subway was previously located. The new owners have done a great job sprucing it up inside and out. The food is inexpensively priced and very good; I tried a variety of rolls and a noodle dish, and was surprised at its excellence. The interior is pleasant and very intimate with the windows all shaded with rice-paper, although it was a little too brightly-lit; but I was most impressed by the extremely attentive and friendly service. While I was there, the soundtrack was an unexpected but inspired selection of 1950s and 1960s American Pop music that made me think of the movie Kill Bill. This is very authentic Japanese food, and I strongly recommend trying it.

Dotombori is open for dinner 7 days a week from 5:30-9:30 p.m. Lunch is available from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday.

Downtown's most buzzed-about new restaurant, Via Roma (opened in September) at 686 Lee, is also worth a visit; they have delicious pastas and entrees with all-fresh ingredients and their prices are a steal. Fun, friendly service too - it's a restaurant with a really comfortable, hometown feel.

Lunch Hours Monday - Saturday 10:30 am - 3:00 pm
Dinner Hours Friday & Saturday 5:00 pm - 10:00 pm

And finally, Sweet Remembrance in the Masonic Temple building at Miner and Lee. This is a charming little coffeeshop, very comfortable and funky with good coffee, tea, and desserts. It's a little hard to spot, without any big signs, but it's worth finding. Sweet Remembrance has been quietly featuring a lot of events like musicians, book clubs, and the like. Another great addition to downtown.

Sugar Bowl

And of course, 2009 also saw the rebirth of an old standby, the Sugar Bowl. Now fully focused on breakfasts, the new Sugar Bowl does one thing and does it very well. The omelets are rich and fluffy, the crepes are flavorful, the portions are big, and the greasy feeling usually associated with breakfast places is absent. And the attached bar, the Miner Street Tavern, is also cozy and caters to a real cross section of people - maybe because it's the only dedicated bar downtown.
So at the beginning of 2010, Downtown Des Plaines is doing well with restaurants, and starting to shed its "culinary wasteland" reputation - what else does the new year hold?