Like city officials in almost every community these days, St. Charles realizes that if you want to attract visitors, you've got to offer them more than just the Cheesecake Factory.
Most of the activity is taking place along the river, not surprisingly, and this quiet little town now seems poised to become another suburban dining magnet.
Much of the food buzz in St. Charles centers on First Street. Newcomers like Prasino, which already has a La Grange location, have taken up residence here, offering three meals a day with a very specific mantra.
"The idea is to serve clean, unadulterated food in a very friendly, warm environment," said John Parker, the GM of Prasino.
At breakfast, a chorizo, jalapeno and cheddar omelet is served with breakfast potatoes, but at lunch, it might be a Niman Ranch skirt steak salad with spinach and cremini mushrooms. Smoothies are available from an extensive juice bar, while dinner brings more ambitious fare, such as seared tuna loin, sliced and served over soba noodles with edamame and fresh radish.
"We try to source as much locally as possible, certainly as much organic as possible. The idea is to support the local economy as much as we can," said Parker.
Just down the street, Wok 'N Fire opened its third location; its other locations are in Addison and Elmhurst. It's sushi for the masses, with lots of crab-stuffed avocado and shrimp tempura rolls embedded with cream cheese. But the sea bass is surprisingly smoky and sweet, served atop a mound of sesame rice, while the kung pao noodle dish is fortified with bits of steak. There are cocktails a-plenty, so no one goes thirsty.
And right around the corner, the four-month-old Pizzeria Neo is taking an Old World approach to Neapolitan pizzas, which are tossed into their gleaming new wood-burning oven.
"We make the dough fresh every morning - there's a lot of work that goes into it, but the end result is absolutely fantastic," said owner Tony Alfonso.
They offer five "reds" - that's with sauce made from San Marzano tomatoes and fresh mozzarella - but also five "whites" without the sauce. In that case, the finished pie might be topped with fresh arugula, prosciutto and shards of parmesan. Dried, cured meats are just as important here, and Alfonso says it has been fun to see how locals have been responding to all of the new dining options.
"Definitely hoppin', there's a lot of new additions to the area, and with our concept we brought traditional food in, but in a modern, urban atmosphere and so far - like you said - it's been great," Alfonso said.
The usual rule is to have a city location first, then head out to the suburbs. Prasino is doing the just the opposite. First, they opened in La Grange, then St. Charles, and this spring, they will open a third location in Wicker Park, on Division Street.
51 S. 1st St., St. Charles
31 S. 1st St., St. Charles
Wok 'n Fire
181 S. 1st St., St. Charles