Door County’s in. So’s New Buffalo, Michigan. A long time ago I had a friend, sort of an insignificant other, who insisted on going places that weren’t. When we got there, we always found out why. We went to Starved Rock once; there was no mirror or TV in the room, no room service, no snack shop, and meals were served only at certain hours–terrible food in a dining room full of screaming kids who kept us awake by running up and down the halls all night. We checked out the following morning.

But when someone suggested I check out the Starved Rock Lodge Restaurant again, I decided not to hold a grudge. After all, both the lodge and I have undergone extensive renovation. (In spite of the new wing, the lodge looked the same. So, for that matter, did the screaming kids.) My friend Sandy, who remembered what wonderful times she’d had there as a kid running up and down the halls all night, volunteered to go along. The brochure mentioned a cocktail lounge and a new Starved Rock Cafe where we could get snacks when the dining room was closed. Maybe it would be like the Hard Rock Cafe, which, under desperate circumstances, might be OK.

Sandy was looking forward to a free meal. After tasting the food, she remembered there was no such thing. Of course, being from Chicago, we were dressed all wrong–black jeans instead of blue. The decor was tacky Twin Peaks (maybe it was no coincidence that the theme music played continuously in the background), featuring a large glass case full of stuffed road kill complete with identifying placards like “Badger Hit By Car–Nov. 1982.” What an appetite teaser.

Sandy’s face fell when she cased the menu (mine hasn’t done that yet, although my mother’s did, it dropped into her bra; in my case that might be an improvement). No radicchio, no arugula, no tomatoes with buffalo mozzarella and basil, just mall food–burgers, sandwiches, spaghetti, pizza, and salads, along with bagel dogs, peanut butter and jelly, and so on for the kiddies. I started with a gluey cream of broccoli soup (cup $1.95/bowl $2.25), which the menu said was prepared fresh daily. They would have been better off opening a can like I do. The pimento in my atrocious chicken salad sandwich ($5.25) turned it an interesting shade of pink; perhaps it was meant to color coordinate with the minuscule cantaloupe garnish. Sandy headed for the salad bar ($4.95 with soup and bread) and almost got sucked into the mayonnaise. Its piece de resistance was macaroni salad, and the only lettuce was a pathetic bowl of limp iceberg sparsely embellished with shredded carrots, red cabbage, and radish. She declined the soup, but was able to get Henri’s low-calorie dressing for her salad. No decaf cappuccino here, just Sanka (75 cents).

We knew dinner was doomed from the moment we bit into our rolls, rolls so dry we had to put each bite between two butter pats to swallow it. Our appetizer of potato skins ($4.95) was supposed to come with bacon, cheese, and green onion, but appeared with a simple grease-pool garnish instead (actually pretty good). Sandy chose a Caesar salad ($4.95), and I had the angel hair pasta with pine nuts and pesto ($10.95 with soup or salad, potato, and dinner roll). I know what you’re thinking: what kind of idiot would order gourmet in a white-bread place like Starved Rock Lodge? But then, what kind of idiot would put it on the menu? Caesar salad shouldn’t have mustard in it, pesto should have flavor, and pasta dishes should come with grated parmesan or romano cheese, not a choice of potato. My salad dressing tasted like Wishbone Italian.

Our desserts, bought from a Chicago supplier, were wonderful–except that my Black Forest cake ($2.95) was actually banana chocolate-chip cake with fudge icing. Sandy’s carrot cake ($2.50) was the traditional cream-cheese-frosted kind. The service was incredibly slow, but who cared? There’s nothing else to do there at night; besides, it had the advantage of putting off the arrival of the food.

It’s hard to screw up breakfast, and I’ll admit that the raisin bran ($1.50) was OK; however, both the French toast ($2.25) and the cheddar cheese omelette ($3.95) were greasy. And forget fluffy–they weren’t just flat, they were concave. The regular coffee tasted no better than the decaf.

We checked out the Starved Rock Cafe, a tiny snack shop, and found it to be a marginally better choice for breakfast or lunch. The food is the airport-concession variety, complete with sandwiches wrapped in those plastic triangles, muffins, junk candy, and coffee with some flavor. We desperately asked the desk clerk about local eateries. She recommended Vickie’s as the best place in town. We got as far as its parking lot, where a sign said “Hamburgers and Chicken to Go.” We went, without.

In the Albert Brooks-Meryl Streep movie Defending Your Life, the characters–all dead people–are sent to a sort of purgatory called Judgment City, where all the food is great and you don’t gain weight from eating it. That’s my idea of restaurant-critic heaven. Starved Rock Lodge is more like restaurant-critic hell. Perhaps the fact that the words “and Conference Center” have now been tacked onto its name should have clued me in; a place that will take conventions is a place that can feed a prison population. According to legend, Starved Rock got its name from an incident in which a band of Indians got trapped on top of a butte surrounded by their enemies and starved to death. The quality of the food can only be interpreted as an attempt to re-create the legend for the tourists.

The Starved Rock Lodge and Conference Center Restaurant is located at Starved Rock State Park, about an hour and 45 minutes from Chicago, and is open all year round. Breakfast is served from 8 to 11 Monday through Friday, 8 to 10 weekends; brunch 11 to 2 Sunday; lunch 11 to 4 Monday through Friday, 11 to 5 Saturday; dinner 5 to 9 Monday through Thursday, 5 to 10 Friday and Saturday, 4:30 to 8 Sunday. The Starved Rock Cafe is open daily 7 AM to 3 PM. For further information write P.O. Box 471, Utica, Illinois 61373, or call 815-667-4211. To make restaurant reservations, call 815-667-4227.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/J. Alexander Newberry.