I was traveling home from St. Louis recently and I had to stop in Litchfield, IL to get some gas. Something jogged my memory when I looked down the road and saw a sign for the Ariston Cafe. I got onto my cellphone and looked up my "Restaurants to Visit" list on Google Maps. Sure enough, I had the Ariston Cafe flagged with a note - pork tenderloin sandwich. It was coming up on the noon hour and I still had a three hour drive home, so I decided to head over to the Ariston Cafe and give the place a try.
I had no idea to the historical significance of the Ariston Cafe when I went there that particular day. It turns out that the restaurant dates back to 1924 when Greek immigrant and candy store owner Pete Adam opened a restaurant in Carlinville, IL on the advice of a local doctor who felt there was a need for another restaurant in the small town. Pete didn't have two things - money or restaurant experience. However, the doctor loaned Pete $1000 to open a restaurant and the first thing Pete did after securing a building was to drive to St. Louis nearly 60 miles away to hire a cook.
Pete's restaurant was located along what was then Illinois State Highway 4 and U.S. Route 66, the only paved fully paved road in the state at that time. He named his restaurant Ariston, which means "the best" in Greek. When Route 66 was relocated about 15 miles east of Carlinville in the late 20's, Pete Adam knew that he had to stay close to the road that took people from Chicago to Los Angeles.
Along with partner Tom Cokinos, they rented a small building along the new Route 66 just outside of Litchfield, IL for the second Ariston Cafe. But this was during the depths of the Great Depression and Pete's banker told him that he should think about giving up one of the two restaurants. He decided to keep the one in Litchfield since it was now right on Route 66.
After being there for about five years, the two commissioned contractor Henry Vasel to build a new restaurant directly across the road to the west. The new Ariston Cafe opened in the summer of 1935. Adam and Cokinos put in a couple of gas pumps in front of the place. The Ariston Cafe quickly became a favorite place to stop for motorists traveling the "Mother Road" between St. Louis and Chicago.
Pete Adam eventually bought out Tom Cokinos and ran the restaurant until the mid-60's. During the Christmas holiday of 1965, Pete's son, Nick, came home to see his parents. Nick was living in Pittsburgh where he had a full time job, plus he was getting ready to marry his fiancee, Demi, in January and settling in the Steel City. But Nick saw that his father - now 75 - was having a tough time at the restaurant. Plans changed and after Nick and Demi got married, they stayed in Litchfield to run the restaurant. Nick had planned to run the restaurant for only a couple three years and then moving on. But it turned out that he ran the restaurant for the next 40+ years.
In the mid-70's, the Adam's added a banquet room to the north side of the restaurant and expanded the kitche. But pretty much everything in the original building is still the same including the counter and the booths. The original brick outer shell on the building is still in place today as is the original Budweiser neon sign on the front of the building. In 2006, the Ariston Cafe was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Pictured at left - Nick and Demi Adam. (Photo courtesy Litchfield Journal-News.)
In 2014, Nick Adam - then 75 years old - decided to put the cafe up for sale. His son, Paul, had been involved in the business for 10 years, but he had no ambitions to run the restaurant after his parents retired. Locals and Route 66 historians alike were up in arms with the announcement that the Adam family was putting the place up for sale. But as of late 2015, the Adam's still owned the restaurant. It was still for sale, but Nick Adam has had to quell rumors that it was closing. Last month, Nick and Demi Adam celebrated their 50th year of running the Ariston Cafe.
The Ariston Cafe is located just past the corner of Columbian Blvd. and W. Union Ave on what is designated as Old Route 66 in Litchfield. (see map) It's right across the street from the Litchfield Route 66 Museum and Welcome Center. I parked in the parking lot on the north side of the building and went around to the front door. In front of the door were two men in black suits, just hanging out. Across the street were a gaggle of people holding signs protesting budget cuts to social services in Illinois. I didn't quite know what that was all about as I went inside.
I was seated at a table in the main dining room. It was like stepping back into the 1930's. Old pictures from around the Litchfield area hung on the walls. I was given a menu and my server, Brittany, came over to greet me. Brittany was a petite young lady, emphasis on the petite.
Next to me was a gentleman in a black suit enjoying his lunch. He was dressed similarly to the two guys standing out in front of the place. Owner Nick Adam sidled up to the man and I heard him ask if he was part of the Governor's security detail. The guy sort of laughed and said that he was not. Then it hit me - Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner was having lunch in the restaurant. That's why there were two guys standing out front and why there were protesters across the street from the restaurant.
Actually, he was back in the large banquet room that was added in the 1970's. Somewhere in the picture above right is the Governor having lunch. So, I guess you could say that I had lunch with the Governor.
I was definitely thinking about getting a pork tenderloin sandwich, but they had a number of other things to choose from on the menu. In addition to appetizers and salads, they had a little bit of everything - steaks, seafood, Italian dishes, Southern-style entrees, and Mexican specialties. They features a number of sandwiches including burgers, and they also had a pretty impressive list of beers to choose from.
After considering the prime rib of beef sandwich and the hot beef sandwich for a moment, I decided to go with what I came in for - the pork tenderloin sandwich. It wasn't the flattened hubcap-sized pork tenderloin sandwich that you find at some places, which was a plus in my book. It was a regular-sized pork chop battered, deep-fried, and served on a regular bun. I got some pickles and sliced onions to go along with the sandwich. (Yellow mustard was on the table.)
However, the pork tenderloin was woefully overcooked. The outer shell was beyond crispy and had that sort of burnt oil taste to it. The pork was tough to chew and it was difficult to get down the gullet. The sandwich came with some basic crinkle-cut fries and they were basically just a throwaway for me. All in all, I was pretty disappointed in this pork tenderloin. They kept it in the deep fryer too long and that killed the taste.
After I finished up, Brittany tried to entice me with some housemade pies as well as the Ariston Cafe's famous baklava. I was already getting heartburn from the overcooked sandwich so I passed on the dessert.
Even though I was disappointed in my pork tenderloin sandwich, I think the experience at the Ariston Cafe was pleasant enough. The service was efficient, there's a lot of history in the place (it may be the oldest restaurant along the original Route 66), and the atmosphere was cozy and welcoming. I would probably try something else at the Ariston Cafe at some point. They haven't been in business for over 90 years by selling bad food.