2015 Hall of Fame Inductees
On Saturday June 13, two new businesses were inducted into our Association’s Hall of Fame.
The Route 66 Association of Illinois Hall of Fame recognizes “those people and places along Route 66 whose blend of hardy individualism and grassroots community spirit gave the road such special character.”
To qualify for election to the Hall of Fame, nominees must have made significant contributions to the character or history of the Illinois portion of Route 66 from 1926 to 1977 while it was an official United States highway in the State of Illinois.
Steve's Café, Chenoa, IL
(Adapted from Carolyn Parry’s nomination)
Steve’s Café was a famous landmark on old Route 66. It was known for, “The Finest Steaks
Between Chicago and St. Louis.” Steve’s Café started out as a garage, gas station and
lunchroom built in 1924 by Tom and Charles Elliott. The building was purchased in
1925 by Paul Lanterman and the lunchroom was operated by his wife, Ada. There was
counter seating for nine and a table which seated four customers. A superheterodyne
radio set was installed in the garage portion of the building and a sizeable crowd of
Chenoans would gather each evening to listen to whatever program was being received.
In 1926, State Route 4 was officially designated U.S. Route 55. In the 1930s, Elmer
and Orville Wahls purchased the property from the Lantermans, who moved across
the street, and added to their existing gasoline and oil business. Then the property was
purchased again and the new owners added 50 feet to the east of the existing dining room to accommodate the growing number of patrons.
The Café was one of the first to have air conditioning outside the Chicago area. The first
air conditioning equipment, made by Williams Oil-O-Matic Ice Cold Air, was installed in
the restaurant and a large sign was put up on the roof. Every time a new model was intro-
duced by Williams, it was brought to Chenoa to replace the older model and to test it as
new equipment. On hot days it was not unusual to see people lined up between the
front door and the counter, trying to keep cool.
In January, 1934, the restaurant was known as the Wahls Café. It had a juke box which
made it popular for teenagers from Chenoa and surrounding towns who, for the price
of a 10-cent coke, could spend the evening dancing to Glen Miller, Harry James and
other Big Bands. There were white linen tablecloths and napkins, the waiters and
waitresses had a dress code, and Steve Wilcox was the day chef.
In 1942, Steve Wilcox took over the restaurant. Never closing – it was said there was
no key for the door – Steve’s became known for its steaks and homemade pies.
Politicians called ahead to order pies to take with them on their way to and from
Springfield. Steve catered to nighttime truck drivers, but it was not uncommon to see
the Governor, Senators, and Representatives eating there. Even Al Capone was
known to have dined there.
One of the most popular items at Steve’s was a cube steak with hash browns, a lettuce wedge with house dressing and toast, all for $1.25. One of Steve’s famous remarks when people were lined up waiting to eat was, “Damn it, why don’t some of you people go home to eat?”
When the “new” four-lane Route 66 opened up, it caused the demise of Steve’s Café.
It was sold and continued with other managers and even housed an antique shop.
It was a time of growth, of change, and a place where many memories were made.
The Tropics Restaurant and Lounge, Lincoln, IL
(Adapted from combined nominations)
The Tropics Restaurant opened in 1950 after owner Vince Schwenoha returned to Lincoln after serving in the military in Hawaii. After a trip to California, Vince brought back the idea of a, “Tropicburger,” which consisted of two hamburgers on one bun. The original restaurant consisted of a bar, “The South Seas Cocktail Lounge,” and a small dining room that held about 30 people.
Lew Johnson started working at the Tropics as a busboy in 1951. The Tropics was sold and he was hired as the Tropic’s manager. Lew met his wife at the Tropics and they were married in 1955. The Johnsons managed the Tropics together until her death in 1992.
The Tropics came to be known for its pork chops, tenderloins, and steaks. The Johnsons brought Chef Henri from Chicago to set up one of the first smorgasbords in the area. Before long, the Tropics was known to travelers on Route 66 headed back and forth between Chicago and St. Louis. There were theme nights for the Smorgasbord, Oriental on Monday, Tuesday was Country, and Friday was Seafood. They were also known for their French fried lobster! Everything was made fresh at the restaurant each day!
The Tropics survived two fires, the first in 1965 and the second in 1975. In 1975 the restaurant was closed for 30 months while the owners put up a new building. The Tropics reopened on July 7, 1977, and three months later Interstate 55 was completed. Between 1985 and 1987, The Tropics was among the top 100 independent restaurants in the United States in sales.
During its heyday, Hollywood stars, big name bands, and ordinary people ate side by side at the Tropics. The Tropics is no longer in business but was the main attraction on Route 66 in Lincoln for many years.
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