When I was having trouble with my car earlier this summer, the car dealership I had originally bought the car from was located in Monmouth, IL. We were talking to our neighbor, Ann Blough, about having to take the loaner car back down to Monmouth and pick up my car. She said, "Oh, my gosh! Have you guys ever tried that restaurant down there in Monmouth? It's on the west side of town and, oh my gosh, is it wonderful!"
She went on and on about this place and Cindy asked her what the name was. Ann said, "Geez, I don't know. But you can't miss it. It's on the west side of town by the highway."
Monmouth isn't that big, so we figured any nice place along the by-pass on the west side of town would be easy to find. After getting my car back from the dealership, we took off in search of the "great" restaurant. And we did find it rather easily - Cerar's Barnstormer. (See map)
Now, I used to drive on the Highway 67 by-pass for years when I worked for a couple companies based out of St. Louis. Not once did I ever notice Cerar's Barnstormer, nor had I ever heard about it. And it's been there since the mid-80's! While it's sort of tucked back from the by-pass, it's still rather visible from the road. It's not so surprising to my wife, however, who has said that I wouldn't notice a pink elephant in a tu-tu if it were walking down the street. She says I'm not very observant.
Restaurant veteran Bernie Cerar opened Cerar's Barnstormer in 1985 near the site of what was the old Monmouth airport - hence, the "barnstormer" moniker. The restaurant is decorated with pictures and models of planes as a tribute to some of the daring pioneers of the air that flew out of the small airfield near where Cerar's is located. Bernie Cerar retired in 1999 after 40 years in the restaurant business. His son, Kevin, took over the day-to-day operations of the restaurant.
We got into Cerar's around 6 p.m. and we were were greeted at the host stand by Kevin Cerar, who, in a booming voice, said, "Folks! Welcome to Cerar's! How many tonight?" It sounded more like an announcement than a greeting, but it also came off as very sincere. I immediately liked the guy.
We were seated in Cerar's main dining room. The decor looked like it hadn't changed since the day they opened over 24 years ago. Not that there was anything wrong with that. I sort of like old steak houses/supper clubs and Cerar's had that old time feel to the place.
We were given menusand we were soon greeted by our waitress. Cerar's menu is varied and very typical of the supper clubs you find throughout the Midwest in these smaller towns. Beef and seafood are prominent, but they also feature chicken, pork, sandwiches, salads and a raft of appetizers. Cindy ordered up a house Cabernet while I had a beer - I'd just driven about 1300 miles in four days.
Although Ann told us that their pork chops were to "die for", I was looking at some of the beef offerings Cerar's had on the menu. But one seafood thing caught my eye - the Blackened Cajun Combination. They would take a salmon filet, season it with cajun spices, then pan sear the fish in a cast iron skillet. They'd serve it with shrimp sauteed in white wine, lemon, cajun spices and a dash of Tabasco sauce. And for a finale, they'd pour the cajun sauce over the fish and shrimp. Oh man! Did that sound good.
I did find the pork chops that Ann was talking about on the menu. It's a grilled thick cut chop served with scalloped apples. You could get it blackened with cajun spices, as well. I thought about it for a minute, but I went back to looking at the beef.
Cindy, on the other hand, was looking for seafood. Cerar's had plenty of seafood to choose from on the menu. Lobster, shrimp, salmon, even farm-raised catfish. But she found the orange roughy on the menu and decided that's what she was going to get.
I found what I was going to get - the roasted beef tenderloin. I like a good, thick steak that is cooked indirectly over water on a Weber grill. Cindy sort of likes the steaks cooked directly over a flame, but every once in a while I want to taste the full flavor of the steak without the taste you sometimes get when cooking it direct.
Cerar's bastes their roasted beef tenderloin filet in olive oil, then season the beef with rosemary and their special spices. The filet is pan cooked and they keep all the oil and juices to be poured over the steak when it's put on the plate.
Cindy and I finished our garden salads before the meal and the waitress came and said our entrees should be up at any time. I ordered a glass of the house Cabernet like Cindy had which was pretty good for a house wine.
It wasn't long after that when our meals showed up. Cindy's orange roughy was a large filet and was not fishy smelling or tasting in the least. She said, "Oh, boy. This is really good."
My roasted beef tenderloin filet was very, very good. It was juicy and tender, and the oil and juices from the pan that they put on top of the steak before serving didn't take away any of the original meat flavor. It was a very pleasant surprise.
Cerar's began to fill up pretty quickly as we were finishing our meals. I can understand why they do the business they do and have been for over 20 years.
I asked the waitress if I could get a copy of the menu. She said the only ones they had were the original menus, they didn't have a "to-go" menu printed up. She left for a moment to check to see if she could get one for me. A few minutes later, Kevin Cerar came up to our table with a menu. He said, "Are you like me and like to collect menus?"
I explained to him that I was somewhat of an amateur food critic and that I liked to tell people about the places I've visited. He said, "So, how did we do? Was everything perfect?"
I said, "This was excellent. The food was great, the service was great. I love the ambiance of old places like this. Don't worry, you got a high grade in my book."
And we will.
I love finding old supper club-style steak houses in little towns or out in the middle of nowhere. Cerar's was a pleasant surprise to find, considering I'd been driving past the place for years not knowing that one of the best steak houses in Western Illinois was just off Highway 67 on the west side of Monmouth. It's worth the drive to go to Cerar's Barnstormer.