Dining Out: Glowing Sputnik Beckons Diners to Hennepin's Waterfront Tavern

Image source: PJ Star
The sputnik beckons again.

This is good news especially in autumn, as one of central Illinois’ greatest natural canvasses explodes in color along Illinois Route 26. Along that motorway, for Peorians meandering up the east side of the Illinois River, a great turnaround point is Hennepin, seat of Putnam County. The county, once the biggest in the state and inclusive of the site of Chicago, is now the state’s smallest, with a population (6,006) smaller than Bartonville’s.

But it’s got a sputnik. And it’s again aglow.

For six decades, the offbeat beacon — the kind ubiquitous at car dealerships in the space-age-obsessed ‘50s and ‘60s — summoned visitors to Ray’s Place, a pub-and-grub landmark in the Illinois Valley. But the place went dark more than two years ago.

But local native Greg Waldorf, whose family has run a tap in Peru for almost 40 years, bought and rehabbed the weathered business, yet retained its throwback feel. The joint sparkles, from the bar through the dining room, but still boasts vestiges of nostalgia such as old, rotating Michelob signs. The feeling is comfy, whether coming solo to watch a TV ballgame or with the family to chomp dinner.

When my wife and I visited, the staff was chipper, almost gleeful. Nice welcome.

At night, the dinner menu is classic Illinois Valley, spotlighting fried chicken and pasta. Other offerings are available as entrees, including bluegill.

We popped in on a Saturday afternoon, just past noon. The lunch menu is focused, with seven appetizers, plus nine sandwiches and burgers.

From the appetizers, we opted for the tater tots, but these come from no grocer. These handmade bacon-and-cheddar bombs (five for $4.95) burst with rich flavor. We also sampled the onion rings ($5.95), also homemade.The rings were fat and tasty, but a wee salty.

My wife eyed the burger list, which includes a double cheeseburger with two half-pound patties — a pound of beef. That’s not something you’ll find at McDonald’s. She went with a quarter-pound cheeseburger ($5.95), which comes with Lay’s kettle chips. The burger was solid, if unremarkable.

I glanced over the various pulled-pork concoctions, including The Shipwreck, a piling of a half-pound burger, a quarter-pound of pork, four slices of bacon, beer cheese and French fries — all of that squeezed between two buns, for $12.95. Not wanting to fall asleep immediately after the meal, I instead opted for the simpler hardwood smoked pulled pork ($7.95), a half-pound of pig topped with their root beer barbecue sauce. The latter nicely balanced smoky and sweet, a nice accent to the succulent pork.

The Waterfront makes for a pleasant stop for Illinois River rides — and even a reason to take one in the first place.

Source: Peoria Journal Star