Category Archives: Suburbs

Plan Ahead: Shop “Small Business Saturday” in a Local Downtown

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Next Saturday, after all of the crazy Black Friday shopping is over, there is a call to arms to head downtown.  (Not “The Downtown” as in the o.b.v.i.o.u.s.l.y. cool phrase for downtown Chicago to make it sound like it is the only downtown you know.)  Not THAT downtown, but head to your local Main-Street-USA downtown and support a local business owner.

Support your neighbor.

You may not have been in a small American downtown in a while, and if not, you don’t know what you’re missing.  You might only shop at Amazon, Target, Best Buy, Nordstrom’s, Kohls…or Walgreens.  (It’s probably best not to tell your beloved that you got their gift at Walgreens though.)

So this Saturday, pick a downtown.  Local if you can, but if you are visiting relatives, go to their downtown. Find a new downtown.  Head West, young man!   Jump on the UP-W and shop Oak Park or River Forest, Elmhurst, Lombard, Glen Ellyn, Wheaton, West Chicago, or Geneva.  Meet the owner and thank them for being there before they thank you for the business.  And support them with your hard earned cash; don’t just eat the free food they’re serving.  We would never want our downtowns to be ghost towns.   They are the best slice of Americana there is.

And if you really want a hometown experience, head south 1 hour over the Mason Dixon Line in Illinois (Interstate 80) to Morris. (Take your passport if you feel the need.) Morris has a fabulous downtown.  Make a day of it.  Have lunch, shop, have dinner and stay for one of the live bands that the bars or restaurants schedule on any given weekend. …55 South to 80 West, you can’t miss it.  Scroll down to see just a few (ok, more than a few) of the shops in this great little town.

American Express is even helping you out with a $25 advance to spend locally.  You just have to “like” them on Facebook and pledge to shop small and they will gift your card.

https://www.facebook.com/SmallBusinessSaturday

Now get out there and do your civic duty!  Get out of your Big Box Store rut!  No need to “Occupy Anything”.   Black Friday sounds like drudgery, but Small Business Saturday sounds like fun and you don’t even have to go at 3am.   Plan ahead…  shop small, but BUY BIG, and maybe you will find that for the rest of the year you will choose to support these stores, too.

Count the number of times I used the word “downtown” and you could be a winner.  I said “you could”, but probably not. There is actually nothing to win.

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Won’t You Be …My Neighbor

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Won’t you please,

Won’t you please…

Please won’t you be, my neighbor.

In the Chicago Tribune last weekend, there was an article about the attraction for retirees to live in a college town.  This is a secret that we have recently been privy to.  We chose Wheaton for easy Metra access for an inbound commute to Chicago for our college son, but we have been pleasantly surprised at the college atmosphere around us.  The beauty of the school is the first thing to notice.  It is a fabulous place for my 70 pound dog to walk me.  She LOVES the unbelievable amount of active, smart, taunting, college squirrels in all of these gorgeous trees. Me and my arm sockets…not so much.  The second perk is the amount of activity the college provides to the community.  This in turn is great for restaurants and business in general.

The school has a long history of excellence.  Wheaton College, known originally as Illinois Institute, was one of the first large occupiers of Wheaton, IL.  The first was the railroad…(I feel so connected).

Who wouldn’t want a neighbor that looks like this…

or this…

or this…

One of the main streets in Wheaton, Blanchard Street, was named for the first college president, Jonathan Blanchard.  He arrived just before the Civil War broke out.  Blanchard Hall, the photo below, is the original campus building.  It was patterned after buildings at Oxford University in England and was built entirely of limestone from Batavia, IL.

And one of their most recent additions is the Todd M. Beamer Student Center.

Besides the typical concerts and sporting events, the best part of a college atmosphere is how active it makes the community feel.  I was in Noodles and Company last night and there was a small group of college kids, (they looked like football players), having a Bible group.  (Not typical in most college or non-college towns.)  There is always a young person running, rolling, or walking past me.  One morning while my dog was walking me, I felt like I accidentally stepped into a 5K…but it was just the number of people up early running.

So whether you are retired or not, living in a college town definitely has it’s advantages.  To check out a beautiful campus, local history or art exhibit, concert or sporting event just take the Metra UP-W to Wheaton College.

Would you be mine?

Could you be mine?

This college is…a great neighbor.

Death by Cocoa Bean

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If you’ve gotta go, I can’t think of a more pleasant way.  I decided to “take one for the team” and register for a dessert class.  The Cocoa Bean in Geneva was referred to me by my friend, Julie, who reveres their cakes.  Each year on her birthday her sister gives her a whole cake to enjoy all by herself.  No sharing required, unless she wants to.  She does not want a new bag of the season, not a piece of jewelry, not a trip to Vegas, not even a dinner out at a five star restaurant.  She wants a cake.  A whole cake and nothing but the cake.  On second thought, I don’t want to speak for her.  I am sure she would never turn down any of those other aforementioned things, (ahem…Kyle), but this cake must be gooood.

So after hearing this, I knew I had to check it out.  While reading the website I noticed on Sunday afternoons they offer classes, so I jumped on the UP-W line and headed west to Geneva.  It is a little walk when arriving, but Geneva is so beautiful that it is not a sacrifice….and I was going to a dessert class, for heaven’s sake, I could stand to burn a few before and after.  Best surprise of the day…another French Market at the train station!  More on that in the Spring, since this was the last one of the season.

Could this weather be better? I think not. And neither did the gazillion other people enjoying 3rd Street in Geneva.  This street alone could keep this blog going indefinitely.  So many people were out and about loving the weather and the shops and restaurants.

Our class started at 12:00 in the working kitchen of the bakery. For a person like me, that was a great place to be sitting.  Surrounded by ovens, a marble slab counter, small, medium and giant mixers, and every whisk, spatula and gadget imaginable.

We dove right in with a pumpkin mousse and sponge cake roulade.

Think: dessert rolled like a giant Hostess Ho Ho. (I loved peeling and eating those when I was young…I would still love peeling and eating those if it wasn’t culinarily incorrect, which is like politically incorrect only referring to bad stuff we can no longer openly buy in a grocery store and put into our bodies without guilt…shame…and transfats…WHAT? There are no transfats in Ho Ho’s???…putting that on the grocery list for next time.)

This homemade Ho Ho was made with vanilla cake with pumpkin mousse cream filling.  Pastry Chef Paul (owner) made it two ways; layered with a chocolate ganache and also layered with raspberry. Obviously, this was the raspberry.  Dessert #1 in the stomach….this could get crazy.

Next, he made a simple pumpkin bar with homemade cream cheese frosting. Simple and common, but the techniques we learned were very helpful.  How to prevent bubbles, or dense cake, or ugly cutting.

 Dessert #2 in the stomach… Starting to worry.

Next on the list, a pecan torte in a chocolate crust.  I had to stop.  I just could not make myself take a bite of another dessert.  No matter how much the people around me raved…I had to stop.  But you don’t think I just skipped it, do you?  They said at the beginning they would give us boxes to take things home…I am always planning ahead.

Lastly, he made crème brulee in a roasted pumpkin shell.  The presentation was gorgeous, daarling.  Love learning the tricks of the trade.  Roasting the pumpkins with cinnamon and sugar, learning about real vanilla, when to use tempering, and hot water baths.  (Not with bubbles and lavender, silly, as a cooking method.)

The class was informative and filling…need to go run a 5K.   (I should have run the Hot Chocolate 5K in Chicago yesterday, but that might have defeated the purpose since there was hot chocolate,  chocolate fountains and fondue after.)

We were all sent home with boxes of goodies.  This was in the box.  Can you imagine making these thin layers??  There were croissants and pastries from the storefront, samples of what we saw Chef Paul make, a pumpkin with crème brulee, and a serious sugar high.   That won’t deter me from going again, though.  I am much tougher than that.

Their website has the schedule for the rest of the holiday season.  Mark this in your calendar for a must do, just make sure to eat lots of vegetables a for few days before.  It’s all in the training.

2 Hoots for 2 Toots

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Calling all kids or kids at heart…come in close so “they” can’t hear.  I have a really great idea for your parents or grandparents to do with you…shhh…I’ll do the talkin’….just stay quiet….and try to look cute.

If you have a kiddo who really loves trains or has never been on a train, I have a trip for you.  While I was in Elmhurst the other day there was a young couple, their little child, and grandpa heading 5 minutes to Glen Ellyn for lunch at the  2 Toots Train Whistle Grill.   I made a mental note to check it out for you.


See this map below??  Ignore this map below.  The Google location is not correct if you frequently use that method for directions.

It is straight west of the Metra stop on the north side of the tracks.  Just walk across Main Street and you are there.  It is a delicious burger joint that delivers your food on a train.  There is counter seating and booth seating and all of the tables are on the train track that encircles the restaurant.  The food is kid friendly, but tasty for grown ups too, plus there are options for vegetarians if that is what you prefer.  (There is a veggie burger, tuna salad, egg salad, Spring garden salad, grilled cheese and PB & J.)

The hand-packed hamburgers are made the old fashioned way.  They are made using Bill Kurtis’ Tallgrass Beef .  (As you may know, Bill Kurtis, CBS Anchorman and founder and Chairman of Tallgrass Beef, owns a ranch in Sedan, Kansas and raises grass fed cattle.)  The burgers and fries and delicious desserts are perfectly complimented by the 50’s music and casual family atmosphere. They are known for their burgers, but a source close to me at the counter said they have great milkshakes!  The kids can also get a train whistle in the top of their homemade cupcake, which your grown-up ears may or may not consider as a bonus.

The Ryan Family from Glen Ellyn enjoy the restaurant and appreciate that they have a fun place to take the boys right in their own hometown.  Their oldest son is able to request 2 Toots as his choice for lunch already and his parents commented that they are glad that Glen Ellyn has a vibrant downtown and are happy to support it.


The servers were genuinely friendly and paid the kids plenty of attention.  They said that it is busy almost everyday and I can attest to that.  By 12:00 on a Monday, almost all of the seats were filled.  The tables and counter are first come-first served.  The website follows if you would like to check out the menu before heading out.
http://www.2toots.com/

To make your little ones happy, just take the UP-West Metra line to Glen Ellyn.

And for my “southern” friends:

(That would be anyone south of Interstate 80 or what I like to think of as the Mason Dixon line in Illinois,…do ya’ll have accents down there?)

A great idea would be to go to Elburn by taking 47 N,  jumping on the UP-W Metra line there and taking a little ride to Glen Ellyn.   This accomplishes two things.  You and your young ones get to ride on a train and you also get to have a fun lunch.  The ride is scenic from Elburn to Geneva and then suburban through West Chicago, Winfield, Wheaton and Glen Ellyn. Of course it would be faster to drive straight to the restaurant, but that would be missing out on the train ride, duh.

If you are unfamiliar with riding the train, they announce your stops so you will know when you are getting close.  You can buy a “10 ride”  ticket if you have 5 or less in your party.  It is a little cheaper that way  OR  if you are travelling on the weekend, you can buy a “weekend pass”  and get unlimited stops on the train and get off and on as much as you want. You could continue all the way into Chicago if you want a fun-filled train day.  On a beautiful weather day, it would be a great way to enjoy it.  No parking fees, no traffic, and a good walk for your legs.  Let me know if you need any help, I would be glad to assist.  Also, I have found that the conductors on the train are extremely helpful if you ask.

Download one of my favorite apps, the QikRide App, for your phone for times…

or here is the Metra website

Ok kids, how did we do? …Let me know if they take you.  All aboard!!



Cafe Amano

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Birthday months are the best.  Yes, I said months. Not just a day, but the feeling you have when it is THE month of your birthday.  The WHOLE month. Then each time you do something fun in that month you just chalk it up to a birthday celebration.  Every time you buy something you can just think…well, this is for my birthday.

Birthdays are also a checkpoint.  It makes you think about whether or not you have accomplished what you wanted to this year or made sure you have seen friends you want to make a point of seeing. Unfortunately, the month is not long enough to see all of the friends with which I would like to catch up…that is a good problem to have…not the not-enough-time problem, but that I have more friends than I have time for.  It is like the saying “May your house be too small to hold all of your friends.”  That is the glass is half-full theory.  (Don’t focus on the size of your house, but on all of the friends that you have.)  That is the blessing…  and actually small houses are faster to clean.

My long-time friend, Trudy, and I use birthdays as an excuse to do something a little out of the ordinary/everyday together.  It is an event, not just a gift, because after all, the gift is in the time spent.  We have been doing this for years.  This time for my birthday we went to Elmhurst to Cafe Amano.  It is a great little Italian Restaurant that offers a cooking demonstration once a month.  On their website it is called a cooking class, but I say demonstration because it is really not a class where you get your hands messy cooking.  It is more like a demonstration in the dining room. Everyone is seated at tables around the dining room while Chef Marco explains what we are going to eat and how he prepares it.

The photo below is actually of the Amano Butcher and Market next door.

(This photographer took a picture of the wrong doorway, ooops! but you get the idea.  It is just as cool.)

During the demonstration, everyone is welcome to ask questions while the chef cooks and also comment on the food and food preparation.  It also sparks ideas of other dishes that people make with the ingredients.  I am sure depending on whether the group is shy or outgoing changes the atmosphere and dictates how the evening goes. We had a short discussion on pasteurization and homogenization…Trudy, the 5th grade teacher in the room, really knows her stuff.  That show  “Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader?”  should be …”So You Think You are Smarter than a 5th Grade Teacher?  HA.  No way, they know everything.”  (Hey Trudy, how was my puctuation on that?) 

Our first taste was a bean salad…hmm….be brave, Maureen…(not a bean fan)…but surprise, surprise, I really did like them.  They were tossed in apple cider vinegar and a little olive oil and sugar.


The appetizer was super simple (and not your typical pig in a blanket)…it was fresh figs stuffed with creamy Gorgonzola cheese and then wrapped in prosciutto.  It is a house specialty and the chef said he goes through many many many figs.  He even has a fig tree outside that represents his love for this fruit.

Next was a butternut squash and apple soup drizzled with Blackstrap Molasses. I died.  It was delicious and unfortunately the only recipe held back from us all night.  The Chef said it is a restaurant specialty and they don’t give that one out. I am imagining myself sneaking into the kitchen with dark glasses and a trench coat later for this one…

The salad course was next followed by chicken picatta with artichokes, shitake mushrooms, and capers in a white wine sauce which I forgot to photograph because my fork started moving before I remembered to take a photo.

And then finally BANANAS FOSTER!!  One of my favorites.

The evening is very leisurely. Don’t go if you want to eat and get out quickly.  The cost is $35 for a five course meal and includes wine, soft drinks and coffee.   They send you home with printed recipes and a full stomach.

And as always, it was really close to the Elmhurst Metra stop.

If you want to try this evening…click here…  http://www.cafeamano.com/calendar.php

If you really like cooking classes, here are two that I have loved that are not on the UP-W twain twacks…

http://www.fullerssecondfloor.com/classes/  This is above Fuller’s Ace Hardware in Hinsdale.  LOVE this place.  Nicest hardware store I’ve ever been in. If you go, you need to invite me.  Did I say I love this place?

http://www.countrygardencuisine.com/  This one is in St. Charles.  We went to a honey themed cooking class. Learned all about bees and honey and cooking with honey. Such a cute place.  It is an old farm house and has outbuildings that have been really nicely restored and maintained.

Happy Birthday to anyone in October!  I have many many friends who have birthdays during this month. Go do something out of the ordinary to celebrate!

Chow!

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Life has gotten in the way of blogging lately.  So hopefully things will return to normal and I can start taking some more train trips for you.  Ok, who am I kidding…life never returns to normal.  Normal would be weird.  Patrick, my oldest,  started college today.  I know! Late start, huh?  First day of the rest of his career.  He will walk past that French Market in Chicago everyday now.  Maybe I will get lucky and get an item delivered once in a while.

This trip is also centered around food.  Big surprise, I know.  Some days I just can’t seem to think about it enough.  I have been wanting to take another “short” trip, so today was the day.  The name of the destination on this trip was just what the doctor ordered.  It is called CHOW and it is located just south of the Elmhurst Metra station.  If you are lucky enough to live close by or you have a college student in Elmhurst, give it a whirl…or if you don’t mind a short trip of your own, it is worth it.  The people who own CHOW are genius because it is THE perfect location for a commuter stop before or after work …(or if you live in Wheaton and love food very much).

http://www.chowtogo.com/

The shop was cozy and the employees were friendly and very willing to answer questions.  I talked for a few moments to the Chef and he was personable and seemed to love his job.  The food looked seasonally spectacular and not just because I was hungry, either.  The Baked Butternut Squash stuffed with granola and dried fruit was very tempting, but I had to plan ahead for my choosy family for dinner.  I went with the Crispy Panko Chicken which would go with our spaghetti tonight for a delicious Chicken Parmesan.


Lauren, the gal assisting me, was helpful in letting me know the best way to warm the chicken to keep it crispy and just warm enough instead of recooking it since everything is ready to go.

I then had to buy the frosted almond cookies for dessert.  The creamy Pumpkin Hummus and pasta salad were my choices for lunch.  I like hummus.  I don’t usually love hummus.  I generally like it mainly because it is better for me than regular dips, but I REALLY loved this pumpkin hummus simply because it was SO good.  It tastes like a pumpkin pie dip.  I ate it with pretzel chips.

SO GOOD.

Must.get.more.

Get a load of these pictures!!

I have a thing for chalkboards.  I love them.  These were painted right on the wall.

All of this is freshly made in the store.  Even those pot pies! I was very tempted to get the roasted vegetable mix of sweet potatoes and squashes, but I stuck to the plan.  I will just have to go back.

They cater, they bake, they freeze prepared dinners …like the vegetable lasagna, salmon in puff pastry or pork tenderloin with peach compote below.

There are fresh pies to take home to bake yourself…

…and they even offer a sit down dining experience every 6 weeks.

Here is their description taken from their website…seems like a special treat to me (as if you need an excuse).

“CHOW AFTER DARK…Our latest venture! Chow ‘retail’ is transformed into Chow ‘fine dining’ for a spectacular multi-course experience. European seating accommodates up to 26 guests. Call for details and round up your friends for a truly delicious evening. Saturday evenings, every 6 weeks.”

And did I mention they bake?

Chow…it’s what’s for dinner.

The other exciting thing about my trip today is I found tons of other places to travel to in downtown Elmhurst.  Great little downtown.  I also was eavesdropping on a family waiting for the train that were going to Glen Ellyn for lunch at a train restaurant.  So many places, so little time.  I need to keep up.  Watch for another blog soon.

The Little Traveler

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I remember my mom taking me to the Little Traveler in Geneva in the 70’s when I was young.  And she remembers her mom taking her to the Little Traveler in the 50’s when she was young.  She described how they would get dressed up and go for tiny sandwiches and tea in the Atrium with her Aunt Laura.  They would shop throughout the store and throughout Geneva.  It was a big excursion.  Remember these were the days when there was no huge indoor shopping malls so you had to go from store to store outside!

My mom would take us to do the same.  Like the Brady Bunch, there were six kids in our family.  I remember sometimes I got to go alone, and sometimes we would take “the little kids”. Our family was separated into the big kids (Greg, Marcia, and Peter) and the little kids (Jan, Bobby and Cindy).  No Alice.  No second marriage.  And my dad was not an architect.  He was a farmer.

Stay with me now… Rod and Greg (Greg and Peter)  usually stayed home to hang around on the farm and to avoid shopping torture, but my mom would take me with “the little kids” …Marcie, Andy, and Monica (Jan, Bobby, and Cindy).

I vividly remember a time though, when we brought “Peter”, uhem…I mean Greg, with to buy dress pants.  Weird how memories go.  Shopping in The Junior Gentlemen.  I just remember going in and out, in and out of store after store looking for the perfect pants.  I wonder if he was picky??   I wonder if it was the pricing…I wonder if they were plaid…or if it was sidewalk sales?  I KNOW one thing, we were not shopping for me.

But one of the fondest memories was the Atrium Cafe.  I remember sitting inside, but feeling like it was a garden. There were fountains gurgling and warm light from the sun coming in, …very small tables, very small chairs and very small sandwiches.  We must all have been very small people back then.  We probably had a tuna salad, egg salad, or ham salad cut into triangles….remember when people made ham salad??? Does anyone out there still make ham salad? I am sure I had peanut butter and jelly.

So on this train trip, I asked “Carol”, I mean Mom, to go with me for some remembering.  There is a lot of history surrounding this home.  

It has been enlarged many times and the rooms are interesting in that there are different levels in the doorways from all of the additions.  It got its retail start back in the 20’s.  Here is a link so you can read all about it:

http://www.littletraveler.com/little-traveler-history

We started off with 8 minutes to go until the train arrived.  The woman in the station was so confused as to why we would be headed west…she actually said, “You can’t go that way.”  I think she just doesn’t have that many people buy a ticket to Geneva and that don’t buy a ticket to the city (Chicago).  We had to try to persuade her in under 8 minutes to let us buy a ticket.

After that confusion we were lucky enough to have had the most informative conductor on the train.  We asked if he could explain some of the best ways to buy tickets for short trips and give us some of the tricks of the trade.   He sat down and introduced us to the “rules of the tracks”.  If you are lucky enough to ride this line, hopefully you will meet Mitchell.

After landing in Geneva, we walked one block to the Little Traveler.  It was just as we remembered…EXACTLY the same, in fact.

We shopped, talked and ate at the Atrium Cafe.  

Our waiter, who had worked there since 1988, was eager to tell us about the changes in shopping habits and diners in the last 20 years.  He said he loved his job.  So far …2 for 3 on the helpful-informative-people chart.

We met many people that asked if we were mother and daughter and if we had been there before.  It seems like it must be a place that people revisit for nostalgia’s sake.

After a few purchases, (just enough that we made sure we could still limp back to the train) we decided to brave the heat and set out for more of Third Street.  The more things change, the more they stay the same…We remembered some of the old buildings and stores and found some great new ones. We had gelato at Graham’s Coffeehouse and ran into an old “young” friend by the name of Cheryl.

There are soooo many amazing-looking restaurants and shops that I will definitely be taking many more trips to Geneva.  If you haven’t been there, you should.  And if you have been to the Little Traveler before, but it has been a while, you should take a day to go back with your mom, aunt, sister or friend.   Maybe you will find that the memories will come rushing back, too.