September 8, 2011
The southwest suburbs elevate fried chicken in a way few other places in the Chicago area do. Loyalties lie with two legendary restaurants: White Fence Farm in Romeoville and Dell Rhea’s Chicken Basket in Willowbrook.
Between them are 122 years of history, two cartoon chicken mascots (one in chef’s hat, one in tuxedo collar), 10 miles of separation along old U.S. Route 66, a billboard war and a billion pieces of chicken, hot-grease-fried during the course of thousands of Sunday afternoons.
White Fence Farm
There are 12 dining rooms inside the massive homestead called White Fence Farm. One is the Red Room, where a few dozen vintage clocks hang, set at various times. Some of the hands stopped spinning long ago. It’s a metaphor, perhaps, for a restaurant that refuses to yield to the unstoppable motion of progress.
White Fence Farm doesn’t merely suggest or re-create the past; it is the past. The restaurant is as much an antiques museum as a house of fried chicken, displaying the same collector dolls, matte portraits and porcelain trinkets as your Great Aunt Dorothy in her Scottsdale condo. Except here you find waitresses wearing modest green dresses and aprons; busboys in short-sleeve white shirts and bow ties. They are impossibly polite, and your jaw throbs from smiling back. Those who make the hiring decisions tell me they prefer “an old-fashioned plain Jane.”
In the 1920s, coal mining executive Stuyvesant Peabody built the restaurant on 450 acres of farmland in the unincorporated outskirts of the middle of nowhere. The construction of U.S. Route 66 drove customers to the farm and built its reputation. In 1954, Robert and Doris Hastert bought the property, spruced up the 150,000-square-foot building and continued the fried chicken tradition (Robert’s nephew Dennis would become speaker of the House in Congress).
White Fence Farm was never just about sitting down and eating; it’s a half-day multisensory experience that begins with the petting zoo out back (llamas, sheep, the few fortunate chickens). There are musical variety shows performed during lunch and dinner — patriotic tinged, always family friendly. Afterward, patrons walk through the arcade games and fun house mirror hall to reach the vintage cars room, where Lincoln Continentals and Ford Model A’s are kept behind glass.
Then it’s time for chicken, and regular patrons say it tastes the same today, last month, 50 years ago. There’s little waiting around. Immediately, the waitress brings a bottomless supply of sugar-dusted corn fritters, working in both savory and sweet directions. Old-school favorites cottage cheese, pickled beets, kidney bean salad and coleslaw make an appearance. The chicken is precooked in a pressure steamer and stored in a cooler until an order comes in. Then it’s flash-fried in soybean oil for three minutes, producing a smooth layer of orange-gold shell that breaks away in one clean piece. The chicken is flour-breaded but appears more battered.
The fact that the chicken is precooked doesn’t make a difference in taste — the skin bears a brittle crunchiness, grease free, aggressively seasoned, with meat beneath that glistens. Most decent french fries employ the same twice-cooked method: a blanch, then a quick fry for a crispier product. I’ve never seen this done with chicken, but it might be necessary when 8,000 orders emerge from the Frialator every week.
“My grandpa said keep it simple. Don’t try to follow fads and trends,” said owner Laura Hastert-Gardner. “He would say you just do the same thing, keep it clean, serve it hot, serve it friendly and people will come.”
During one Sunday visit, I eavesdropped on a conversation at the next table. An older fellow told his waitress at the end of the meal: “Nothing’s changed. It’s all still the same.”
The waitress replied: “It’s like we’re stuck in a time warp.”
“See, this is a senior citizens club,” he said.
The waitress: “If only we appealed to younger generations.”
I brought this up with Hastert-Gardner, who agreed her greatest challenge is catering to a new generation without alienating the core clientele. She said one of the most frequent comments she gets from diners is how surprised they are that the restaurant is still around.
To attract more working families, White Fence Farm started a carryout business, now at four locations in the west and southwest suburbs. A fifth outlet is planned in Orland Park. But those carry-and-go stores are charmless boxes compared with the flagship. Eating chicken with pastel wallpaper and stuffed moose heads in your peripheral vision is vital to the experience. Kitsch can be an endearing flavor.
Dell Rhea’s Chicken Basket
A 15-minute drive to the northeast from White Fence Farm, there once stood a gas station in the DuPage County stretch of U.S. Route 66. Back in the 1930s, when it was owned by a man named Irv Kolarik, you’d wait for your oil change at the lunch counter inside, passing time with a sandwich and a piece of pie.