A little over a year ago, I got reacquainted with an old hometown friend, John Christensen, who happened to be in the Quad Cities for some training sessions. John is a certified gemologist and currently works as a jewelry designer/consultant at State Street Jewelers in the far western Chicago suburb of Geneva. Not long ago, John did some work for me on a piece of audio equipment that needed to have the brushed chrome finish polished and cleaned up a bit. When I asked him how much I owed him, he told me, "Ah, just take me out to lunch sometime." He had mentioned in conversations we've had over the past few months about a place in downtown Geneva that had great burgers and a great selection of beers - Geneva Ale House. A few weeks ago, I met up with John at State Street Jewelers and we walked down and across the street to the Geneva Ale House. (see map)
Geneva Ale House is located in what is known as the Fargo Theater building. The restaurant is basically in the lobby area of the old theater that opened in 1924 and showed the first "talkie" movies in Geneva. Five years later, the name of the theater was changed to the Geneva Theater featuring both movies and vaudeville acts. The theater was equipped with what was then a state-of-the-art locally built organ. A wide movie screen was installed in the mid-50's and many first run movies of the day were shown there in the 50's thru the 80's.
The building has survived a bombing - in 1932 a bomb exploded that knocked down walls and blew out windows in the area; and a fire - a large fire in 1937 gutted the building. In 1987, the large theater was cut into two sections allowing for two screens, but was subsequently closed in 2000. For a number of years, a retail store operated in the space of what is now the Geneva Ale House. (Picture at right courtesy Cinema Treasures.org)
In 2009, Brian Harrington had enough of the corporate world. Working as an Internet Technology engineer, he chucked it all away to open up a pub that featured over 140 different types of beers including over a dozen on tap and a menu featuring more than just your typical bar food. Geneva Ale House has now been open for about three and a half years.
It was just before noon when John and I got into the pub. The entrance is located just under the old Geneva Theater marquee. The long and narrow space features a rectangular bar in the back with high top tables along the wall and low top tables toward the middle. There's a little alcove off to the side that features a couple tables. The dark maroon walls featured a number of beer signs from eclectic and microbreweries that were available at Geneva Ale House.
We took a table up toward the bar area and John had handed me a food menu that they had on the table, then pointed out the beer menu after that. While looking through the menus, we were greeted by our server, Aimee, an immediately likable person with a sparkling personality. She asked if we wanted anything to drink and I noticed that they had one of my all-time favorite beers on the list - Capital Special Pilsner. John doesn't drink much beer so he ordered an iced tea. Plus the fact that he had to go back and work on jewelry.
John had eaten there a number of times with his wife, Cindy, and he was well versed with the burgers. The burgers at Geneva Ale House are all 1/2 pound black Angus beef and coupled with a pretzel bun. They had seven different types of burgers to choose from - eight, if you count their veggie burger. John highly recommended two burgers - the Ale House Burger which featured a burger topped with applewood smoked bacon, sharp cheddar cheese, grilled onions and a fried egg; or the Stuffed Burger - a hand pattied burger that is stuffed with blue cheese, bacon and jalapeños. Both sounded very good as did the Mushroom/Swiss cheese burger - I figured I could get some bacon added to it if I wanted for a small upcharge.
Also on the menu, Geneva Ale House had a couple other things that caught my eye. First there were the Fish Tacos described on the menu as "smoky seasoned seared East Coast Cod with warm corn tortillas, corn and black bean salad, red cabbage, pico de gallo and jalapeno vinaigrette." If J.C. hadn't had me so wound up on getting a burger, I would have ordered the fish tacos. The reuben with the house-made corned beef, along with house-made sauerkraut and topped with Swiss cheese and a house-made Thousand Island dressing also sounded damned good.
When Aimee came back to take our order, John ordered the stuffed burger without a bun. He had his choice of sides including fries, onion straws, or a small house salad. He asked what the vegetable of the day was and Aimee told him it was Brussels sprouts. He got those instead. John's in great shape, much better shape than me, and he patted his stomach and said, "I'm trying to keep my girlish figure." But then he blew it by asking Aimee after I ordered, "Hey, could you put a couple strips of bacon on my burger?" I had to laugh...
I went with the Ale House burger on John's recommendation. I asked if they could cook it "medium" and Aimee said it would be no problem. For a side, I decided to try their onion straws. I like good onion straws.
While we were waiting on our burgers to show up, John and I were catching up on things. He, too, has his own blog - My El Camino - that centers on the history of restoration and maintenance of his 1984 Chevrolet El Camino that he bought 21 years ago. John is also a drummer and his former band, Jonesin', will be inducted into the Iowa Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this September. (Click here for the entry on my visit to the Iowa Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.) Most of the guys in the band - including John's younger brother, Dave - were from our hometown of Newton, IA who found most of their success after moving out to Omaha. So, that was sort of fun to talk about.
(John's sister, Julie Christensen, graduated in the same class as me - John was a year younger - and she is a great singer. Over the years, Julie has performed with the likes of Leonard Cohen, Lou Reed, Robben Ford, Van Dyke Parks, Iggy Pop, and k.d. lang.)
Our burgers came to the table and it was a great looking burger in presentation that was put down in front of me. The pretzel bun crown had split during the baking process. There was a dill pickle spear that was speared to the top of the bun. Lettuce, a tomato slice and fresh red onion rings were off to the side, but I had no intention of putting them on the burger. The fried egg was laying on a couple of criss-crossed bacon slices on top of the cheddar cheese on the burger patty. It was a pretty impressive looking burger. But for as big as it was, it was nearly dwarfed by the shit-pot-full pile of onion straws that were on my plate. Eating the burger was going to be tough enough. Making a dent into the pile of onion straws might be another matter.
The first bite of my burger told me that it was a very good burger. John had been raving about the burgers to me since last summer and everything he told me about them were coming true in my mind. The burger meat had a nice char-grilled taste to it, the pretzel bun was chewy and very flavorful, and the combination of the hard fried egg, the applewood smoked bacon and the sharp cheddar cheese gave the burger an overall fantastic taste. I was completely impressed with the namesake Ale House burger at Geneva Ale House.
Equally as good were the onion straws. They had a light batter on them that was very tasty. I'm a sucker for good onion straws and the ones at Geneva Ale House were very, very good. I had trouble when I wanted to stop eating them because they were so good.
John offered me a bite of his Brussels sprouts. I declined as I don't care much for that vegetable. He insisted, "No, no! These have a smoky taste to them. I don't know exactly how they cook them, if they roast 'em or what. But they're actually very good."
I tried one and I had to admit - they were very good. They didn't have that Brussels sprouts taste that I don't care for, but more of a smoked or roasted flavor that was actually very pleasing. I told John, "My wife likes Brussels sprouts and she's always trying to get me to eat them. If she learned how to cook them the way they do here, I may eat them!"
John did such a good job on polishing and cleaning up the amplifier that I told him that I owed him at least another lunch AND a dinner at Geneva Ale House. I'd have no problem going back to Geneva Ale House for another burger, or to try the fish tacos. Geneva Ale House was everything John told me it would be - very good food, great beer selection, good service, neat setting. It's only a little over 2 hours to Geneva from my house in the Quad Cities. I'd like to go back there with Cindy at some time on a nice summer weekend to have lunch again at Geneva Ale House.