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DeKALB – When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit, Gavin Wilson, co-owner of the Hillside Restaurant, one of DeKalb's oldest family-owned eateries, hoped that it wouldn’t affect his business.
“But then the closings came and there were dramatic changes,” Wilson said. “I knew we had to change our model. We went from a sit-down restaurant to relying heavily on carry-out and curbside pickup since March.”
Throughout the changes, it's loyal customers such as Tim Struthers, Wilson said, that have helped keep his business afloat.
Struthers, who also happens to be senior vice president of community banking at the First National Bank of Omaha's DeKalb branch, said he's been eating at the restaurant, located at 121 N. Second St. in DeKalb for more than 40 years. He said he eats at the restaurant at least 10 times a year and has had their lasagna more than 200 times.
“I love their beef lasagna, and I’m a fan of their chocolate cake and rhubarb pie,” he said. “I’d say I visit the restaurant with family and friends and for business lunches and meetups equally. It’s a place that always has home-cooked meals that you don’t have to cook yourself. It’s a genuine hometown restaurant with great food. When you’re there, you feel like you’re at home in your own dining room.”
When the restaurant first opened in 1955, it served fried chicken. Jim and Nancy Sisler and Nancy’s mother Helen Fraser were the restaurant’s original owners. In the 1960s and 1970s, the restaurant’s menu changed to become more of a family restaurant.
Gavin Wilson and his wife Mary purchased the restaurant in 1989.
“At the time, I was a cook and Mary was a waitress,” Wilson said. “We became managers when the old owners bought another restaurant. They decided they couldn’t keep both restaurants going, so they offered to sell this one to us.”
Wilson admits that neither he nor Mary were originally restauranteurs: Mary is an artist and he is a musician. He performs with The Real Jazz Quintet, and the band will record inside the restaurant while indoor dining is closed due to pandemic mitigations.
Pre-pandemic, the restaurant was open for lunch and dinner every day and for breakfast on the weekends. Since March, the restaurant’s new hours are 4 to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday for curbside pickup, carry-out and delivery through EatStreet.
‘The pandemic changed everything’
Wilson said that owning a restaurant is “a stressful business,” with or without a pandemic, “but the pandemic made everything more difficult. The pandemic changed everything.”
“Even though we’re serving a large number of meals, we have to keep our quality high and keep our customers happy,” Wilson said. “If things go wrong, if an oven or other equipment break down, we have to improvise. You can’t let the little things bother you, and you can’t let the customers see you sweat.”
Wilson attributes his optimism during the difficulty of the pandemic to his customers’ loyalty and the fact that the restaurant’s building is owned, so there are no monthly rent or mortgage payments.
“We’ve had a dramatic decrease in sales, but special days and holidays have been busier this year than ever before in 30 years,” he said. “Our loyal customers have literally helped keep us going.”
The restaurant also received financial assistance from the government. In the spring, Wilson applied for and received a Paycheck Protection Program loan – less than $150,000 according to ProPublica's PPP database – for the restaurant’s employees. The restaurant has had a staff of as many as 30, but since the pandemic, there is a staff of eight.
With additional mitigations in Illinois starting Friday, Nov. 20, Wilson said that he will “stay positive, [continue the curbside pickup] model and hope for the best.”
“Since day one, we took [the pandemic] seriously,” Wilson said. “We listened to the recommendations because frankly, our customers were also concerned about their health. We support the mitigations, but we also want to make sure it’s being done evenly and with great respect for a business’ need to support their families and their staff.”
Comfort food in a cozy atmosphere
The Hillside Restaurant’s chef Eric Griffiths' first experiences with the establishment came as a customer, when he was a boy.
“Something has always drawn me to the restaurant, I loved coming here with my family when I was a kid,” Griffiths said. “The food has always been really good. It’s a nice space for a nice night out.”
On Wednesday, Griffiths kept busy in the kitchen right as the dinner shift began, preparing a chicken alfredo order and pumpkin pies to go.
Wilson described the restaurant’s menu as “homemade and seasonal,” with options changing four times a year.
“We like to keep the favorites and introduce new items,” he said. “When we first introduced lasagna, not too many people knew how to spell or pronounce it.”
Wilson said that many dishes on the menu use family recipes. The pie crust is the previous owner’s mother’s recipe. The mushroom spinach lasagna is a recipe that Wilson’s mother sent to him on a whim.
Other popular menu items include quiches, pot pies, casseroles, chicken alfredo, chicken schnitzel, sauerbraten, soups, salads and desserts. Customers often order whole pies and cakes. Their chocolate cake has won multiple awards at the Sandwich Fair.
DeKalb City Manager Bill Nicklas, another frequent flier at Hillside, describes the meals at the Hillside Restaurant as “an abundance of food that’s good-tasting and reasonably priced.” City Hall is conveniently located across the street from the restaurant, so he picks up food from there two to three days a week.
“It’s comfort food that I grew up on like turkey pot pie, meatloaf and lasagna,” he said. “The restaurant has a homey, warm atmosphere that’s great for families or a date night. It has a cozy charm to it, one you’re not going to find at many other restaurants these days.”
“There were lots of family restaurants like ours years ago, but many have closed in the last 20 or so years,” Wilson said. “Our food is all home-cooked and homemade. It’s real comfort food. You’ll know the difference when you taste it. There’s family favorites, the kind you grew up eating, and steaks, seafood and food from every culture.”
The restaurant offers an indoor dining room that seats 120 people and an outdoor patio at the front. The walls are covered in a dark wood and the floor has plaid design. Heirlooms and antiques, such as clocks, beer steins and colorful bottles line hanging shelves and photos decorate the walls.
The restaurant also sells meals for the holidays, including Thanksgiving and Christmas. Meals can be ordered in varying sizes, from an individual holiday meal for one to platters large enough to feed a family of 10. For more information about Thanksgiving meals, visit the restaurant’s website.
“Thanksgiving is our busiest day of the year,” Griffiths said. “We spend two weeks preparing. We make pies after pies after pies and pounds and pounds of turkey. It makes you feel good when people are happy, celebrating and eating the good food you’ve made.”
Claim to fame
In addition to serving the DeKalb community, the Hillside Restaurant has also fed meals to well-known celebrities, including Cindy Crawford, Nelly, the Speaker of the House and entertainers that performed at Northern Illinois University and at the Egyptian Theatre, which is next door.
When a Hollywood crew called the DeKalb Chamber of Commerce and asked to be put in touch with a restaurant that serves homemade food, they recommended the Hillside Restaurant.
The Hillside Restaurant catered food for the 1997 movie “A Thousand Acres,” starring Michelle Pfeiffer, Jessica Lange, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jason Robards and Colin Firth.
“There was a church scene where there was a food fight, and we had to make a table full of food for each shot,” Wilson said. “There was one scene where they eat a large coffee cake in the morning. Every shot included a slicing of the cake, so I had to make 20 of them. Sadly, that scene never got used in the movie.”
More than food
Gavin and Mary Wilson own and operate the restaurant and their three sons have worked in the restaurant through the years. One son is now an executive chef in Chicago and another is a waiter in California.
Wilson said that the restaurants’ customers are what “truly make the restaurant a family restaurant.”
“People have gotten engaged here and celebrated their weddings, anniversaries, birthdays, bar mitzvahs, communions and many other holidays, from Valentine’s Day to Mother’s Day,” he said. “I want to say thank you to the customers for choosing us, choosing our restaurant. We’re the oldest restaurant in town, and we’re happy to be a part of the DeKalb community.”
For more information about the Hillside Restaurant, visit www.hillsiderestaurant.com or call 815-756-4749.