Cheers for the restaurant workers who help bring in Naperville's special events money

By Stephanie Penick

About Naperville

As I sat in the Naperville City Council chambers during the recent 2017 Special Events and Cultural Amenities workshop while presenter after presenter pitched ideas for a piece of the pie, my mind wandered to my first lunchtime restaurant experience in Naperville back in January 1993.

I had arrived at my cousin's home on New Year's Day from Chatham, New Jersey, to begin a house-hunting adventure for our family of five the following Monday. My Realtor, Joy Mulder, took me to J.B. Winberie, located then in River Square, where a number of eateries followed in that space before the current Rosebud.

Let me back up. In Chatham, we lived in a three-bedroom, Tudor-style home with one full bathroom, one half bath and one toilet in the basement laundry room. Before that two-day tour of available houses, my first visit to Naperville, Joy was recommended by my cousin. During a long-distance phone call, she asked what we wanted.

"Four bedrooms and two full bathrooms," I answered.

I could hear her smile when Joy replied, "And? Is that all?"

Over lunch, I began to understand what this city of subdivisions had to offer beyond North Central College, good schools, public safety, health care, Naper Settlement and the Riverwalk that already had attracted my attention.

By Pulaski Day, March 1, we were here. I'll spare you all the ups and downs, tears of joy and tirades of apprehension that are forever emblazoned in my memory about the move that landed us 250 miles from my folks in Muncie, Indiana, my childhood hometown.

I must admit, I'll be forever grateful to "Wayne's World." The year prior to our move, the box office hit set in a basement in Aurora, had become our kids' favorite movie. When our two sons, then 11 and 9, discovered Aurora on the map bordering Naperville, they were psyched, imagining a place full of the same wacky characters on public access TV they had grown to mimic with "Party on!"

Though our trek to find Wayne's World in Aurora on the first Sunday afternoon in our new home was met with disappointment, the kids observed the Naperville landscape, population 89,000 at the time. The city was dotted with fast food restaurant chains.

Chatham did not have a single fast-food chain. (And 24 years later, the borough of 9,000 residents still doesn't.) For a couple weeks, I used unpacking and my husband's business travels as my excuse for not cooking family dinners. Instead, we whetted our appetites with fast food and pizza, trying a different taste every evening.

As I met neighbors, they introduced me to independent restaurants, especially in downtown. The Landmark (now Jimmy's Grill), Jefferson Hill Tea Room (now Quigley's Irish Pub), Peck's Smokehouse (now Empire), Sweet Basil's and Oberweiss (behind the Landmark on Chicago Avenue).

Washington Square, known for its lemon squares, was a go-to place on Saturday evenings to experience the piano bar, and it's gone.

The Lantern was 27 years old. And Meson Sabika, the former Willoway Manor, was a mere 2.

Rascal's (where Walgreens sits on Ogden) was known for its big brick of fried onion rings. Yet, Your Neighbors (still in Hobson West) had the best ones.

Oh, how time flies. Naperville's hospitality industry now boasts more than 260 restaurants. Our three children have worked in a number of them; some still open, some closed.

Since the first discussions in 2004 about the citywide 1 percent food and beverage tax that funds the SECA grants, I've often expressed my reservations and my unpopular view that the revenue source could be piddled away without consideration for the restaurateurs who work long hours with slim margins every day to earn it.

Established in 2005 to fund city services for special events and assist eligible nonprofit organizations in their quests to create new and continued cultural experiences, the process has been tweaked for better management as it has morphed into a popular pot of generous millions in funds not imagined in the beginning.

Still, sitting there watching representatives from nonprofits make grant requests, some small and some in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, I wondered whether folks recognize and value the dedication of the local hospitality industry that successfully raises those dollars.

Restaurant ownership, management and service to create pleasurable dining experiences are ones I'll never take for granted.

Cheers to the fourth annual Naperville Restaurant Week, wrapping up Thursday, Feb. 9. The SECA workshop to review this year's final grant recommendations for city council approval begins at 9 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 18, in council chambers at the municipal center, 400 S. Eagle St.

• Stephanie Penick writes about Naperville. Her column appears monthly in Neighbor.

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