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by Richard C. Ross


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More about St. Charles


Dining Out for Less: 5 Tips

For longer than I can remember, the Hotel Baker in St Charles, IL has stood guard on the west side of the Fox River, watching the water tumble over numerous dams, the first of which was constructed in 1836.  That year also saw the completion of the first bridge in town (also followed by numerous others, many destroyed by fire), a gristmill and sawmill...  The dam was a crucial element in the establishment of what was then the town of Charleston.

Fires ravaged more than bridges across the mighty Fox River: Hanes Mill on the west side of the river succumbed to flames in 1919 and was subsequently used as a dumping grounds for the next seven years.  A local resident -- Edward J. Baker -- didn't particularly care for the idea of a dumping ground as a focal point in the middle of town. He had a vision.  His dream was to build "an elegant, 55-room resort" that would be the finest small hotel in the world.  He bought the property in 1926, and two years later -- in June of 1928 and at a total cost of more than a million dollars -- the Hotel opened its doors.  Baker had realized his dream.

Many things have changed since 1928, both inside and outside of the hotel.  But the ambience that is reminiscent of its formal splendor remains unchanged.  And just the other night, Yvonne and I had an opportunity to experience not only that ambience, but an excellent dinner as well.

Yvonne had been saving a coupon for quite some time and, since neither of us had any ideas about what to make for dinner, it seemed like the perfect excuse to dine out and use the certificate, too.  We had been to Rox City Grill on a couple of other occasions, but only for cocktails and entertainment from a local musician; after checking out the website and its menu, we were convinced that it would be the perfect time to try dinner.

Once again, we were surprised to see that an almost empty restaurant; there was only one other table occupied when we arrived and only one other table was seated just before we left.  Normally that would be a red flag...   But Rox City Grill's menu finds itself on the upper end of pricing structure, and dining out is an activity that -- in these times of economic stress (especially right after Tax Day) -- often lends itself better to a lesser-priced menu.  Too, the soft jazz set at a low volume,  along with upholstered chairs, white table cloths & cloth napkins and uniformed staff all lend themselves to a soothing ambience more conducive to couples than to families with young children in a dining room configured to hold no more than fifty or so diners.

We began the evening with a cocktail and glass of wine as we checked the menu.  Turns out that it was a new, spring version with a few new items.  The appetizer list had an item that caught our eyes: Twin Lobster Rolls -- new england lobster salad, bacon, celery, espelette pepper.  At $15, these would likely be considered as quite extravagant, but I have to say that, with a healthy helping of lobster claw meat, these rolls were about as good as the ones I sampled in Boston last year!

 Yvonne's dinner choice was the Ahi ($30) -- seared rare, jasmine rice, lobster pot stickers, wakame, basil-ginger glaze.  For an additional $7, she added a Caesar Salad -- romaine heart leaves, classic dressing, aged parmesan, sourdough, tomatoes, bouqerones.  The description didn't mention the tiny little pair of anchovies that graced the construction, but there they were: only a hint of salt and a necessary addition to any Caesar worth its salt (pardon the pun)!  The tuna was seared perfectly rare, the portion size was large and the flavor was excellent.

I hadn't had it for a long time, yet the new iteration of the menu included Lamb ($29) -- roasted aussie rack, calamata mashed potatoes, poached tomatoes, gazpacho.  I followed suit with a salad and, for an additional $7, I chose a Little Gem Wedge -- blue cheese dressing, tomato, croutons, applewood smoke bacon.  This was definitely one of the very best versions of "the wedge" I have had.  The lamb was served as a pair of double-cut chops from the rack, taunting each other from the ends of the mashed potatoes on which they sat; it was  quite tender and quite tasty.

To be fair, less expensive items are available on the menu: farm-roasted Chicken and pan-seared Tilapia at $17 and $18 respectively... But there also some pretty high end items, too: a $43 New York Strip Steak and a $29 pair of Blue Crab cakes.   This I think, gives opportunity to a variety of budgets.

I liked Rox City Grill.  The menu was varied enough to catch the attention of a variety of taste buds.  The service was well-timed, relaxed and professional.  Our waiter though, did not ask my preference for how I would like the lamb to be cooked; as a result it came out a bit on the too well done side.  And an extra charge was somehow mistakenly added to our check total, but the correction was easily effected. 

All the flavors were interesting and the food was well-prepared and well-plated and portion size was large.  Dinner plates themselves  could have been much warmer; the only real missed opportunity was my mashed potatoes, which were almost cold.  I didn't really get a chance to tell our waiter until after dinner, as he didn't ask about the dinners, only if we needed anything else...

When one considers the entire evening, it was a very pleasant experience.  Even without the coupon -- which really came in handy -- the price wouldn't have been outrageous.  As a fine dining destination, Rox City Grill is more of a special occasion kind of place, and  unfortunately would not be a restaurant I would be able to return to enjoy on a regular basis.  I will however, look forward to a return visit.

In the 1830s, a trip from St. Charles to Chicago typically took at least three days.  Approximately one hundred and seventy-five years later, it sometimes feels like it will take that long just to get from one side of St. Charles to the other -- especially on a Friday night at 5:00 pm.  But I bet that if you took the time to relax and enjoy dinner at Rox City Grill, the commute might not seem quite as bad...





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