ALTON — By the time opening night rolled around, Elijah P.’s Burgers and Brews owner Russ Smith probably felt a little like he had made a trip through Lovejoy’s printing press.
“It has been a long road, but I am happy with the way things turned out,” he tells me Tuesday, the first official day of business for the restaurant.
For more than two years, Russ, who also owns the Bossanova Restaurant and Lounge downtown, has worked tirelessly to bring his dream to fruition. After purchasing the building at 401 N. Piasa St., the new owner ran into stumbling block after roadblock after crumbling block (literally).
“We had a failed epoxy floor, as well as almost a year-long wait for the Illinois EPA to give the okay for the building,” Russ says. “There were times I thought somebody must be out to get me.”
But that is all in the past. Tonight, it is time to check out the area’s newest eatery and see if his hard work has paid off.
Smiling faces greet me as I walk in the door.
“Hi,” the hostess says warmly. She is standing in an open area, with a bar to my left (every seat is already filled) and tables and booths to my right (thankfully not yet full … the advantage of arriving before dinner rush).
Even before taking inventory of the decorations, the place screams Alton. Everywhere I turn there is a familiar face … a city employee, a teacher, a local business owner. People keep hopping out of their seat to wander over and say hi to a friend a table or two down, and among them is Russ, darting back and forth, saying hello to old friends and welcoming new ones to his establishment.
The restaurant, named after minister and newspaper publisher Elijah P. Lovejoy, who was murdered just down the street from the new eatery by an anti-abolitionist mob in 1837, definitely has a turn-of-the-century look and feel, with oversized wooden tables, stonework in the archway and quaint chandeliers.
Just past the main dining area, a long hallway provides a quiet spot from the bustle up front, showcasing artwork and photos of the Piasa Bird, Miles Davis and Robert Wadlow (if you have spent any time at all in Alton you shouldn’t even have to ask), along with a vintage map of Alton and a portrait of Abraham Lincoln.
Even the menu (put together by Bossanova head chef Jarvis Putnam) boasts a cover page dedicated to Alton facts and features. Inside, choices include five salads, appetizers such as fried pickles, fresh baked pretzels and pork belly, and gourmet burger and sandwich selections (the menu taunted that the sandwich menu was coming next week). I chose the stuffed Portobello (a cheddar and Muenster stuffed fried Portobello patty with tomato, mayonnaise and arugula) and fries.
The sandwich arrived with the cheese dripping down the sides. The mushroom had a wonderful, rich flavor, and the fries were sweetened and savory. The portions were generous and everything was served hot. I even got the pleasure of peeling the protective seal off the brand-new ketchup bottle (which always makes me feel superior).
I didn’t partake of the extensive, multi-tap beer menu or wine selections, but many of the other patrons were sampling a variety of malt, roast, fruity, tart, crisp, bold and citric flavors from all over the country (including many local breweries). There currently are more than 50 brews to choose from, with plans for more on the way, along with a full bar and dozens of scotch and whiskey choices.
As the sunlight dimmed and the interior lights got brighter, I looked around at the little restaurant that worked so hard to arrive and now looks to the Greater Alton area to help it thrive. Alton Mayor Brant Walker praised Russ’ efforts to open a history-themed respite for the hungry.
“What Russ has done is amazing,” Walker said. “Because of people like this who are willing to take a chance and invest in that area, we are seeing downtown coming back in a big way.”
When the check came, I also had the pleasure of snapping the little plastic seal where the credit card goes.
That wasn’t nearly as much fun as the seal on the ketchup.
For more information on Elijah P.’s, call (618) 433-8445.