For 20 years, Lisle and Pat Elsbury made the 80-mile drive from their suburban Chicago home to Starved Rock State Park, one of Illinois’ favored hiking and camping spots. They became particular fans of Duffy’s Tavern, a bar and restaurant dating to the early 1970s that stands proudly at the head of North Utica’s blink-and-you-miss-it downtown. Over the years, the Elsburys joked that if Duffy’s ever went up for sale, they’d put in a bid and move to their favorite getaway. Then, when they were down for a trip in 2003, they learned that Duffy’s was indeed for sale. Weeks later, they were handed the keys.
Not much has changed at Duffy’s since then. It remains an Irish-themed bar where shamrocks hang year-round and the Reuben remains the signature menu item. It also remains one of North Utica’s go-to spots, especially for visitors.
“People come down to hike at Starved Rock, and then they need a place to eat and drink and relax,” Lisle Elsbury said. “That’s where we all come in.”
Indeed, there is quite enough to turn a visit to Starved Rock into a full-on overnight trip in the Illinois Valley — from broad views to boat rides and red wine to Reubens.
The Illinois Valley is a collection of towns and natural wonders along the Illinois River, about 100 miles southwest of Chicago. The main attraction is Starved Rock State Park (starvedrockstatepark.org), which is home to 18 small, lovely canyons formed by glacial meltwater and erosion across its 2,500 acres.
If you still have energy after exploring those gorgeous canyons, there are several other worthy nearby excursions into nature: Matthiessen State Park, which includes a 1-mile canyon and charming little Lake Matthiessen. There’s also Buffalo Rock State Park, which offers broad views of the Illinois River on a bluff that once was an island within the river.
But if you’re tuckered from traipsing through Starved Rock and ready for some relaxation, fair enough.
LaSalle and Ottawa
North Utica is small enough that it might be worth heading west to LaSalle or east to Ottawa. Ottawa, a town of nearly 20,000, has plenty of parks, coffee shops, restaurants and a charming, tree-shaded town square. Conversely, LaSalle’s downtown is a bit depressed with plenty of boarded-up storefronts along the wide heart of downtown, 1st Street. Today a few food options appeal, and there are also a couple of interesting stores worth popping into.
Canal Cargo (1-815-545-6656) is a massive space full of vintage and quite reasonably priced furniture and knickknacks, while just down the street, To Be Continued Consignment Boutique (tbcboutique.com) is housed in an old bank. While it has a decent secondhand selection, the reason it’s a must-see is the old safe-deposit vault, which remains pristine and on display.
LaSalle also offers an opportunity to ride a sliver of the 96-mile I&M Canal (lasallecanalboat.org), which provided a trade route between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River for hundreds of years. Now it’s mostly a historical curiosity, though in LaSalle, a visitor can ride it on a “mule-pulled, full-size replica canal boat [that] will take you on the same hand-dug waterway that 19th-century pioneers traveled.”
The easy charm of downtown Ottawa was an eye-opener, but so was how much I enjoyed scrappy downtown LaSalle. With several vacant storefronts, and several others promoting video gambling, it’s a town clearly a bit down on its luck. But it also presents a fighting spirit, with signs in a few storefronts that declare, “I believe in LaSalle!” Walking up and down 1st Street, it’s not hard to root for it to get back on its feet.
Eating and drinking
The area’s most impressive restaurant has long been worth a visit unto itself: Ron’s Cajun Connection in North Utica (ronscajunconnection.com). Louisiana native Ron McFarlain opened his restaurant in a modest 90-year-old former single-family home in the mid-1990s. It’s long on McFarlain’s charming Southern banter, Cajun music drifting from the speakers and a Louisiana bounty of boudin, blackened alligator, jambalaya, étouffée, gumbo, red beans and rice and, well, you get the idea. If I’m having one meal in the area, this is it.
But if you’re in the mood for some grease and a beer, don’t discount Duffy’s (tinyurl.com/jzt2rpd) and that Reuben. It also has one of the better beer lineups in the area, and occasionally features beer-pairing dinners.
The August Hill Winery tasting room in North Utica (augusthillwinery.com) doubled in size over the summer after a sleek expansion of trim black furniture, fresh wood floors and lights that dangle above in glass orbs. August Hill specializes in sparkling wines made in the traditional champenoise method and attracts decent crowds, I’m told, especially during Utica’s Winter Wine Walk, held the second Saturday in February.
And for something sweet, check out Two Girls and a Cupcake (1-815-667-7075), which makes all their tempting offerings (cupcakes in the forms of Caramel Nut Cheesecake, S’Mores and something called “Vanilla Explosion”) in house. (I went for the Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough.)
LaSalle offers a few solid dining options that include the broad American menu that arrives on a digital tablet at Uptown Grill (uptowngrill.com); the tapas (pronounced “TAP-es” down here) at the Pink Chihuahua (thepinkchihuahua.co); and the audacious hot dog menu at the Dog House (lasalledoghouse.com), which includes such novelties as the San Antonio dog (guacamole, sour cream, grilled onions and grilled peppers) and the Tampa Bay dog (ketchup, mustard, mayo and pineapple — ugh).
Where to stay
The Willows (thewillowshotel.net) is a boutique option in North Utica just down the road from the park. Starved Rock offers its own option (including restaurant) with the stone-and-log Starved Rock Lodge (starvedrocklodge.com) within the park.
Starved Rock State Park and surrounding towns are about 400 miles southeast of the Twin Cities, just off Interstate Highways 80 and 39.