UTICA - Nestled in the shadow of Starved Rock State Park on the Illinois River in LaSalle County, Utica is well-known for its downtown business district filled with restaurants, bistros, specialty shops, and tourist attractions. The hamlet of less than 1,000 souls is also known for its annual Burgoo Festival, which lures tens of thousands of tourists each October to Utica's quaint downtown, and a destructive tornado that leveled much of the downtown district and claimed eight lives on April 20, 2004.
Skoog's Pub & Grill, located at 155 Mill Street on "the strip," was one of just a few downtown businesses that escaped the tornado unscathed. A plaque above the restaurant's entrance commemorates the event. Skoog's, along with other down town restaurants and businesses, is now enjoying a rebirth of sorts as park visitors from downstate, upstate, and all points between are again "flocking to the Rock" and filling Utica's downtown shops and eateries.
For great homemade food (virtually nothing on their menu is "out of the box"), it's hard to beat Skoog's, which opened in 2000 after lifelong resident Andy Skoog decided to renovate a closed tavern that formerly occupied the site. Skoog had gotten a taste of running a restaurant when he managed a bar and grill while a student at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston. After his 1995 graduation from EIU, Skoog returned to Utica and found employment as a route driver for a local beer distributor, biding his time until an opportunity to open his own bistro in Utica presented itself.
"I was looking for a place of my own," he said. "Then a building that was formerly a site of a tavern became available, and I had an idea to open it back up." After a six month renovation, in which a new brick facade, hardwood floors, kitchen equipment, and new fixtures were installed, Skoog's opened to the public. It quickly became one of the most popular gathering spots for locals and park visitors in the region.
Skoog, who honored his Swedish heritage by creating the business' street sign around a Swedish flag motif, hired a local chef, Randy Gielow, who brought 25 years of kitchen experience. Gielow specializes in barbeque ribs, pastas, and steaks, three of Skoog's signature dishes. Skoog's dinner specials, created by Gielow, include ribs and chicken (Thursdays), bluegill and walleye (Fridays) and baby-back ribs (Saturdays). Other staples of the restaurant's menu include the massive Skoog Burger, Andy's tasty chicken wings ("just-right" hot), Italian beef and buffalo chicken sandwiches, and homemade soups and chili. On Tuesdays, Skoog's offers tacos. "Everything from the cole slaw to the (entrees) is totally homemade," Andy said. "Skoog's was built on the idea of great food, large portions, and an enjoyable dining and drinking experience."
During a recent weekend visit to Skoog's, a mix of locals and out-of-towners were sprinkled throughout the restaurant's clean, bright interior, with several residents gathered near the bar watching a game, and hungry tourists occupying most of the tables and booths. We ordered the Skoog Burger (almost big enough for two), king tenderloin (large, crispy, and flaky with a hint of sweetness in the breading) and, though we knew we would be taking most of them home, a dozen of Andy's secret-sauce chicken wings. With a couple of drafts and a pop, the total ticket came to about $30. Our server, Erica, was cheerful and efficient without being overbearing. We left full and content, loaded down with chicken wings for the trip back to Peoria.
Though Skoog's realizes a large portion of their sales from liquor, the restaurant's environment is decidedly "kid-friendly," as Andy puts it. Kids are always welcome, and a smaller-portioned children's menu is offered. Skoog said the business' clientele is comprised of a mix of about 75 percent locals and 25 percent out-of-towners, but the disparity lessens in the summer, when tourists swarm to the area by the thousands to enjoy a day at Starved Rock. "Utica is a fun place to visit. The people are nice, friendly, and helpful," Andy said. "I think it's in the water". Andy and his wife, Holly, who works as a server, can usually be found at the restaurant working alongside manager Kevin "Choppy" Stewart and their two-dozen-or-so employees, serving drinks and food and chatting with customers. "Come on in and watch the game and have something to eat and drink," Andy said. "I guarantee you won't come out of our place hungry." DFM Article found in Peoria Area Dining & Food Magazine, May 2007 - By Tim Alexander