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The tasting room at The Lone Buffalo brewery and restaurant in Ottawa, Illinois

Illinois

Illinois Local Eats: A Tasting Tour through Starved Rock Country

By: Idoia Gkikas

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  • States:
    Illinois

Surrounding Starved Rock State Park in the Illinois River Valley less than two hours from Chicago is an area known as Starved Rock Country.

Primarily known for the state park’s cascading waterfalls, dramatic sandstone walls and cool, forested valleys that stand out against the landscape of Illinois farmlands, this region also stands apart for its thriving wine, craft beer and spirits scene, with eclectic dining to please just about every palate.

Linger at the Lone Buffalo

Locally sourced ingredients – some from the restaurant’s own farm – are the star at the Lone Buffalo in Ottawa. A brewery and restaurant in one, the Lone Buffalo lives by the “slow food” motto, meaning that quality trumps speed. Whether you choose the main restaurant or more laid-back tap room, you can relax, enjoy the warm ambience and order a house-brewed Tangled Roots beer. The restaurant’s “farm-to-foam” brewery grows many of its own hops, while the huge, multi-story copper kettles that are dining room’s centerpiece attest to the beer’s freshness.

The bar at the Lone Buffalo, serving Tangled Roots Brewing Company beer and innovative bites

The bar at The Lone Buffalo, serving Tangled Roots Brewing Company beer and innovative bites
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Refined Takes on Classic Comfort Food

Also in downtown Ottawa is BASH – Burger and Sushi House, offering the unlikely pairing of two quintessential American and Japanese meals. Along with Japanese classics nigiri, sashimi, seaweed salad and sushi rolls, you’ll find twists on American munchie favorites: gourmet mac n’ cheese, build-your-own burgers and unusual sandwiches (peanut butter and jelly with bacon, anyone?).  

Just down the road in LaSalle’s quaint downtown, Uptown Grill prides itself on its extensive menu, full bar and live entertainment in a cool, modern space. Enjoy mouth-watering updates on classics such as the gorgonzola potato chips and the “adult” grilled cheese (rosemary ham, Emmental Swiss cheese, red onion jam) alongside house-aged filet mignon and the wildly popular broiled whitefish parmesan. Be sure to test out the drink-pairing feature on the touch-tablet menus.

Sampling seaweed salad, build-your-own burgers and sushi rolls at BASH, Burger and Sushi House

Sampling seaweed salad, build-your-own burgers and sushi rolls at BASH, Burger and Sushi House
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Get Bubbly with Illinois Sparkling Wine

Why should France get all the attention? Sparkling wines are produced via traditional methods right here in Starved Rock Country. Illinois Sparkling Co. makes their bubbly wines from 100 percent Illinois grapes – as it turns out, the region’s cold climate is pretty good for growing them. Try the company’s wines at the August Hill Winery tasting room in Utica. Get a table on the outdoor patio when the weather is nice. Fun fact: Michelle Obama christened the USS Illinois submarine using ISC’s Blend 786, made and named especially for the event.  

A charcuterie plate pairs well with Illinois Sparkling Co. rosé at the tasting room in North Utica

A charcuterie plate pairs well with Illinois Sparkling Co. rosé at the tasting room in North Utica
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Wine, Dine and Dance at 2 Rivers Wine Fest

For three days in June, downtown Ottawa hosts the 2 Rivers Wine Fest, a popular event featuring more than a dozen Illinois wine makers. Throughout the festival, you can also enjoy a fresh Maine lobster dinner and a great lineup of live jazz music.

While you’re in town, there’s plenty more to see. Visit the site of the first debate between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, tour the 22-room antebellum Reddick Mansion and don’t miss a visit to Starved Rock State Park.

Sampling August Hill Winery’s Raspberry Infusion wine at the 2 Rivers Wine Fest

Sampling August Hill Winery’s Raspberry Infusion wine at the 2 Rivers Wine Fest
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Getting There

Starved Rock Country is located less than two hours southwest of Chicago, Illinois. Fly in to O’Hare (ORD) or Midway (MDW) airport, both of which welcome flights from hundreds of international destinations. Greyhound Bus offers bus service between Chicago and Ottawa, one of the featured cities in Starved Rock Country. Car rentals are also available.

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