I got antsy. It had been too long since we'd gone for a drive. I suggested an overnight drive for Saturday. Ernie agreed quickly and the boys are always delighted if we go out of town. I had come across a picture of an abandoned diner in southern Illinois and although I wasn't sure it was still there I figured it was only the right thing to do to find out. I booked a cheap motel room and on Saturday morning we set off.
This is our best practices schedule for these days:
Pack a bag with a bottle of wine, some lemons (for my lemon water), some pecans (for snacks), some dark chocolate, a crossword puzzle and relevant chargers.
Get in the car with a general map in your head.
Stop and take pictures.
Ask Ernie to turn around so you can take a picture.
Get tired enough that you start to skip pictures you probably should have taken.
Check into motel.
Go into nearby town and find someplace to have a drink and review the day.
Find a restaurant, get some take out, and go back to the motel.
Curl up, eat dinner, watch bad tv.
Have a piece of chocolate, a glass of wine, and go to sleep early.
That's what we did on Saturday. We were headed to Marion eventually. We got stuck in the Little Egypt festival in Salem so couldn't get everything we wanted there, but it was delightful. Finally got to Royalton, Illinois and started to look for the diner. I immediately thought it was gone and got all tense. Ernie pulled over to let someone go around him and I looked to my left and shrieked. There it was.
It just sits there, so beautiful. Peering through the window you can see the tile and counter and stools all there, just waiting. A little research shows that it was known as Mary's Diner, although it actually started out as a railroad diner car before settling on Kedzie in Chicago, eventually coming home to Royalton in the 30's or 4o's.
One of Royalton's unique businesses was the Royal Diner. It is no longer being operated, having closed in 1990 at the time of the death of Mary Ferrari, Manager and cook for 42 years. She began working at the Diner in August, 1948, intending to "help out" the new owner, Steve Covilli, for only a few months until his wife could take over. Mary and a partner, Genevy Daniele, did such a great job that Steve had them to stay on. Mrs. Daniele moved from Royalton in 1952, leaving Mary to operate the Diner. She had some part-time help, such as her sister, Emma Beavers, who helped a few hours most days.
Originally, the Diner was a railroad car diner on some unknown railway in the early 1900's. After its retirement from service, the car was refurnished as a diner, complete with marble counter and swivel stools. It was brought to Royalton by a former mayor, Mike Schibert, in the late 30's or early 40's after it had already been used as a restaurant on Kedzie Avenue in Chicago. Schibert brought the diner to Royalton on a railroad flat car and placed it at South Main Street on a vacant concrete foundation slab of a movie theater that had been destroyed by fire. It was operated by the Schibert family until 1948 when it and the adjacent tavern were sold to Steve Covilli. To step inside the diner-was to step into another long-gone era. The green ceiling bears the unmistakable arch of the railroad car it once was. Each of the fifteen wooden stools along the marble counter has its own brass footrest near the bar. Worn ceramic tiles cover the front wall below the row of passenger-type windows. The floor is white terrazzo. Mary had dozens of live plants near the windows.
However, it was the food and not the surroundings that brought most of the customers to the Diner. Mrs. Ferrari's speciality–homemade ravioli (sometimes made daily)–earned her a reputation throughout southern Illinois and many parts of the country. She was the daughter of Italian immigrants and learned the recipe from her mother. Spaghetti and meatballs, chili mac, and hamburgers were also favorites of many customers. In the beginning, they offered a daily blue-plate special. Her customers were an extended family for this great grandmother of six. The family atmosphere among her and her customers was what Mary would strive to have. The regular morning "Gang" of coffee drinkers sat around each morning talking and enjoying each other's company. For many years, about 45 to 50 school children walked down to the diner from the school to have lunch. Then it was a bubbling, noisy, and busy place. Mary kept the Diner open daily from 8 to 8 except on Sunday when the hours were 4 to 8 p.m. She rarely took a vacation, was healthy, and didn't retire until an illness in 1988 forced her to cut her hours to just weekends. She was most happy when she could be at her Diner among the many, many friends she had acquired over the 42 years. Mary died in June, 1990, and the Diner has been closed since. It has a new owner, Roger Orlandini, as of July 1993. The tavern is being operated but as of this writing, the Diner remains closed.
If you read about some of the other businesses at that link it boggles the mind. You look at this tiny town, not much more than 1,000 people living there now, and then you read that at one point there were 12 grocery stores there. It was mining town…started in 1907. Another tidbit of history:
J. L. Mitchell became the owner of the North Mine #7. He recruited people from Southern States to come to Royalton to work. He brought them here on the railroad. Since no homes were available in the fast-growing town, he had box cars set up for homes and called it New Camp. It was part of his addition to Royalton in which he designated two blocks for a school ground and one block for a park. He bought houses in Hymera, Indiana, transported them by railroad, and set them up just west of the mine. These were erected along North Main Street, but everyone called it Hymera Row.
We found some other wonderful things, but Mary's Diner made my day. We checked into our hotel and found a little bar on the corner of the square (circle?) in downtown Marion. It was delightful. Tiny little place with classic rock sounding perfectly classic as it played. We watched the skies turn gray and the rain start. We headed back to our hotel, stopped at 17th Street Barbecue. I looked at the menu and the salad options and thought 'the hell with it.' I got the same thing Ernie did….smoked chicken wings and fries. Good GOD in heaven they were good. We got them sans sauce but they didn't need it. I'm sure they had some garlic salt on them (I could feel it the next day) but it was worth it. No wonder Food and Wine called them some of the best chicken wings in the US. The fries were heavenly too. It was worth every bit of the splurge. Then we watched a Hallmark movie, snuggled in the comfortable bed and drifted off. A perfect day.