Is this Time Travel? I hold on to little bits of my past, when I visited this homey, nostalgic place on a more regular basis. It’s been 33 years since I was here. I remember that we had brought Massiva along, my 6th grade French exchange student, to show her a bit of Americana, the way Midwesterners do!
Why has it been so long? It’s pretty simple – we found the take-out place, just one town over. They serve the same food, without the wait! But the Original White Fence Farm brings me back to my childhood, fingers sticky from eating more than my share of sweet Corn Fritters, begging my parents to let me play one more game, and feeding the barnyard animals.
“Why do all the places we remember visiting seem to involve food?” my mother asks me.
Well, we tend to visit our favorite restaurants more often than we revisit tourist attractions. Museums, zoos and arboretums go to great lengths to lure you back, once you’ve discovered them. Traveling art exhibits bring lines of patrons, winding through gallery space, to get to the special exhibit hall. A zoo may not have new animals to put on display, but they can invent new ways of displaying them, new habitats to build, and more exotic safaris to take you on.
On her first trip to Chicago, an art & history enthusiast might visit The Art Institute of Chicago and The Field Museum of Natural History. Returning to the city, there’s so much more to see, so an architectural tour down the river, and a stroll past art galleries and book stores on Printer’s Row are exhilarating stops. Lucky enough to visit Chicago a third time, she ventures out to the suburbs that hug the city, where there is a small museum dedicated to the childhood of Ernest Hemingway, not far from Prairie-style homes designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
But on every trip, arriving from neighboring Indianapolis, she stops to make a meal of “The World’s Greatest Chicken,” at White Fence Farm, in Romeoville, IL. Food speaks to us, in ways that many other experiences do not!
White Fence Farm is a throw-back, to a simpler time. For me, visiting there today takes me back to the late 1970s and early 1980s, when I visited with my family. But it was a throw-back even then, to a simpler time. The entire place was a nod to a more manual, hands-on, mechanical time, a less digital time, a socially and emotionally more interactive time. People put their hands on real objects during this time, and did things with them.
It was a time when families ate a meal together, all around one table, sharing their food “Family-Style.”
The restaurant is a place that works hard to hold on, clinging to little bits of our collective past. Collections of things, all sorts of “collectible” things, are on display throughout the restaurant. They stand there, needing to be dusted regularly, representing the passage of time, the time it takes for one model of a typewriter or clock, a car, a radio, or a car radio, to evolve, or be engineered, into the next.
I wonder . . . how old are the youngest children who remember what a typewriter is? Have they seen one, outside of a museum? Are they young enough to still be considered children? At this restaurant, which is so much more than a restaurant, these things are all on display, reminding us of times past, so I suppose it’s something of a museum too.
Opened in the early 1920s, along what would become Route 66, the original rooms have hand-hewn hardwood beams that shelter a unique, friendly, courteous place to have dinner. The restaurant’s theory was that people would enjoy a simple menu, with superior food, when it was served in an attractive atmosphere on a good-looking farm.
The restaurant keeps odd hours: they serve dinner from 5 – 9p on Tues. – Fri., and from 4 – 9p on Saturday, extending their hours to 12 – 8p on Sunday. Why don’t they serve lunch? “Because evenings and weekends are when families most often gather,” the restaurant’s website explains, “Considering our size it’s much more manageable and cost effective to run only one crew with our hours of operation.”
Why are they closed on Mondays? “We have to be closed one day a week so you realize how much you miss us,” declares a meme, on “The Original White Fence Farm Restaurant’s” Facebook page.
The restaurant is massive, having been remodeled and added to over the years, expanding to accommodate parties of 35 – 1000, in 12 dining rooms. They are able to cook up to 60 pieces of chicken in as little as 3 – 5 minutes! They recommend that you give them 24 hours’ notice if your party will need over 100 pieces. Wanna make a reservation?
“White Fence Farm rolls out the welcome mat for motor coach tours, of any size, who wish to join us. Our seating capacity is 1,100 plus. Celebrating birthdays, anniversaries, company outings, Christmas parties and other special family gatherings has become a tradition for generations of many and their guests.” (White Fence Farm brochure)
Located on 12 acres, with 567 parking spots, they serve as many as 10,000 people weekly, with an average of 7,000-8,000 Chicken dinners per week.
What is the purpose of the restaurant’s décor, of the many collections on display behind glass, and scattered around the waiting areas? They are there to entertain! Families come to the restaurant, situated 25 miles SW of Chicago, from all directions. Most of the time, in my childhood, the large lobby area was completely full, with an hour-long wait.
It’s a fascinating glimpse into history, with trinkets, antiques, old farming equipment, and country décor showcased throughout the building. Clocks, guns and musical instruments are displayed up high, out of reach. Ceramic figurines take up shelf space, and old newspapers are framed on the wall. Strolling in at 8p, as I did this time, the waiting area was empty, but that might have been the first time I’ve see it that way.
As a child, the museum inside was my entertainment. The kiddie games were my entertainment. I have memories of being dragged away from the lobby, after an hour, still engaged, not ready to sit down on a hard wooden chair, surrounded by the grownups, my parents and grandparents.
On this visit I notice small area partitioned off, with age restrictions. Behind a small sign are a variety of digitized games of chance – digital slot machines are entertainment for the adults. Looking back, I can’t remember if drinks were ever served in the waiting area; I’m certain now that at least some of the parents could have used a drink, confined to the waiting area, with their energetic children. I have a vague memory of adults smoking in the restaurant, while we were eating our dinner, but that’s what adults did in the ‘70s.
The animals outside, in the courtyard behind the building, were also my entertainment. There were chickens, of course, alongside goats and llamas that you could feed through the fence. The brochure encourages families: “Visit our farm animals. Buy our fiber.” The chubby farm animals eagerly received chubby fists full of pellets, offered at kid-level, or up high when the adults joined in.
Back then I had an inkling of the fact that I would not be eating these chickens, when I sat down at my family’s table, inside the restaurant. Perhaps I’d be eating their brothers, or their distant cousins. The animals I was feeding and petting were clearly Pets!
I thought of them as restaurant mascots. They were in the same category as the monstrous white rooster everyone was posing for pictures with, in front of the restaurant. The same rooster’s image makes appearances on menus, brochures, and the restaurant website.
A goat comes running across the open lot, at the sound of my quarter turning through machine, in exchange for food – he’s clearly heard that sound before, and knows the reward! I’ll help feed these chickens . . . to fatten them up for the next person in line? Nah! I’d expect these ones will live a long, beautiful life, with their long, beautiful feathers intact.
But folks who come to White Fence Farm do love the chicken, and you get ½ a chicken (4 pieces) when you order the Specialty Farm Chicken, for $15.50. Alternatively, you can order Pork Chops, Fried Shrimp, Broiled or Crispy White Fish. The restaurant offers Steak Tips (7-9 oz.), Ribeye (10-12 oz.), Regular, Large or Extra Large T-Bone (from 16 – 25 oz.), but that’s not what most visitors come for. They are here for the chicken!
“White Fence Farm has truly perfected the art of cooking chicken. Fresh, never frozen chickens arrive daily to be coated with our closely guarded secret recipe for breading which is milled exclusively for us in Chicago. The chicken is pressure cooked thoroughly before being flash fried for only 3 minutes. The low-cholesterol-soybean oil used has less fat than most, providing possibly the healthiest chicken you can eat!” (Take-out Menu)
What interest could a vegetarian possibly have in such a place? Well, all dinners are served with: Bean Salad, Cole Slaw, Cottage Cheese, Pickled Beets, Corn Fritters, with choice of French Fries, Mashed Potato, or Baked Potato with Home Made Gravy. All of this is brought to the table, and shared by all who are present.
Did I mention the Corn Fritters? You can call them Hush Puppies if you want, like I do. They are sweet, with yellow corn embedded in them, and powdered sugar dusting the outside. I don’t typically have a sweet tooth, but I gobble them up! I raise my blood sugar with carbs and starches that eventually surge sweetly through my veins.
I would visit White Fence Farm just for these! It’s hard to pass up Mashed Potatoes & Gravy for only $2 for a small container, or $4 for a pint, but it’s the Corn Fritters that I want as my take-away. A dozen are just $1.75. But it’s close to closing time, as I mentioned, and I’m sent home with at least double that number. They won’t last long!
They are certainly big part of what brought me back to White Fence Farm, after so many years away. The visit was triggered by my constant exclamations, from the road, when the restaurant’s billboard was in sight! “We always went there – the Hush Puppies are amazing!” Over time, this is enough to create cravings for Specialty Farm Chicken, and Corn Fritters, for everyone in the car!
Does it live up to the hype? Does the food warrant my pointing out the sign every single time I drive past it? How could it? There’s so much nostalgia wrapped up in the experience, but returning there now comes close, and I’ll ask for seconds.
Part of the remembered experience is the hour spent in the lobby, checking out the collectibles! My mother collects ceramic salt & pepper shakers, made of wood, metal, plastic and ceramic. “One day, these will all be yours!” she tells me. Today they remind me of what a beautiful, wonderful, thoughtful person she is. Like it or not, our things tell a story about the person we are!
White Fence Farm doesn’t look like it is going anywhere, so I imagine I’ll be back, perhaps with my niece, to feed the chickens, rather than to eat them! The fortune-telling machine in the lobby encourages us to turn our attention forward. Rather than lingering too long on our past, it encourages us to look in the other direction, the direction of dreams of the future, of what’s to come.
As the clock ticks towards 9p, does the empty lobby of White Fence Farm tell us anything about its future? Well, the restaurant is hiring, needing more help to keep up with the place, and the ability to seat 1,000 hungry diners. Look at all those vacuums, and the rows and rows of tables and chairs they will sweep under. The families have returned home, kids tucked into bed, with full bellies. The farm will be ready to serve them dinner, tomorrow.
Join me on my next adventure,
White Fence Farm: http://whitefencefarm-il.com/
White Fence Farm on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/WhiteFenceFarmRestaurant/
WFF Shows (Entertainment for Your Dining Pleasure: http://whitefencefarm-il.com/shows.php