Western Lake County's charm is that it hasn't been suburbanized by Chicago--yet. There are some telltale signs that it's starting to be--a funky hot-dog stand now boasts a turquoise awning and neon lighting, and an old schoolhouse has been converted into a pricey furniture and gift shop--but the place still looks and feels like a good-old-fashioned farming community.
About an hour's drive from Chicago (90 minutes if the weather or traffic is bad), the area around Ingleside reminds you just how pretty and peaceful farmland really is. One scenic route to take is I-94 or Route 41 north, then exit on Route 60 and stay on it as it meanders through Lake County and eventually hooks up with Route 120.
Near Mundelein Route 60 joins Route 83, where you'll see Quig's Orchard, 300 S. Route 83, a combination apple orchard, bakery, greenhouse, restaurant, and gift shop (708-566-4520). Until September 10 they're featuring Michigan peaches; their own apples will be ready for picking in the fall. Open every day except Monday.
A few minutes north is Wiech's Inn, 2924 W. Park Ave., a favorite bar for locals (708-949-9685). Perhaps the sign posted outside says it all: "We don't serve U in ol' jelly jars." It's technically situated in downtown Ivanhoe, but you'll pass it if you blink--so keep your eyes open. It's one of the oldest bars in these parts, and the clientele is definitely mixed.
There are numerous greenhouses and nurseries on both sides of Route 60 for the plant and tree lovers. If you've come off the Chicago expressways, you'll be surprised at just how slowly you begin to drive. Gentle hills of farmland, a blue sky, and the solitude of the road can almost make you think living this far from the city isn't such a bad idea.
Driving into Ingleside snaps you momentarily back to reality, but in a different decade. The whole place seems lifted from a 1950s movie set--one-story brick buildings, an actual downtown, and a real diner.
There's an authentic Dog-n-Suds at 517 S. Washington St. (708-587-6808) that's straight out of American Graffiti (OK, here it's the early 60s look); you park your car at a little booth and order from a menu above the oldest-looking microphone in the world--and the food is brought out to you. The root beer float for $1 is great, and you can take home a gallon of root beer for $2.50. Try the famous Coney dog ($1.10 for the dog alone or $2.10 with fries and coleslaw).
For something a little fancier, try the Fairmont Inn up the street at 130 S. Washington (708-587-1538), which specializes in Cajun food. The chicken-breast Cajun sandwich ($4.50 with fries) is great.
About a block away at 69 S. Washington is the Black Bear Chalet (708-587-7933), which specializes in German cuisine. A dinner for two featuring a half duck, slab of back ribs, Wiener schnitzel, red cabbage, and dumplings goes for $21.95. Not that hungry? There's whitefish with coleslaw and potato for $7.95, or bratwurst, or plenty of other less filling entrees. The place is closed Tuesdays.
One of the nicest restaurants is Rick's Waterfall, located at 35291 N. Route 59 in Ingleside (708-587-4200), which is situated on three acres of lovely wooded property. Its specialty is fresh fish, but there's an occasional pig roast. It's worth calling to see when the roast is being planned; for $7 you get fed (corn and baked potato are included), and you get to stroll around the grounds.
For pizza or ribs, there's Fanella's at 26842 W. Route 134 in Ingleside (708-546-8282), a combination fast-food and sit-down restaurant. It also has decent pasta on the menu.
Looking for a place to stay? The Skyline Motel, 32550 N. Route 12, one mile north of Route 120 (815-385-9804), is a pink brick six-unit structure operated by Russ and Betty Wertke. A room will cost you $30 to $38 a night.
Fish Lake Beach Camping Resort, 32223 N. Route 12, one block north of Route 120 near Volo (708-546-2228), charges overnight campers $17 a day ($2.50 extra if you want to plug in your air-conditioning). If you just want to park and enjoy a day at the camp's beach, the price is $2 per car plus $2 per adult and $1.50 per child. The resort features hayrides, movies, tennis, square dancing, playgrounds, and an 85-acre spring-fed lake for swimming, fishing, rowing, or paddleboating.
For even more nature, try the Volo Bog State Natural Area at 28478 W. Brandenburg Road, west of Route 12 (815-344-1294). A remnant of the Ice Age, the bog is loaded with marsh marigolds, fiddlehead ferns, orchids, and moss, and is a favorite of bird-watchers. A variety of songbirds, waterfowl, and wading birds is always on hand. Deer, muskrats, weasels, and red fox can also be spotted. A visitor center is housed in the original barn of the George Sayer dairy farm, which operated on this site at the turn of the century. There are indoor exhibits that explain wetland ecology, a small gift shop, and public rest rooms. Free guided tours are given every Saturday and Sunday at 11 and 1.
And what would a trip be without some shopping? The Antique Alley Mall, 415 S. Washington in Ingleside (708-587-0091), is open 11 to 5 Monday through Saturday, and noon to 5 Sunday. The Old Volo complex, 27640 W. Route 120, features a restaurant and an antique-car museum, as well as jewelry, craft, and furniture shops. It's open daily from 10 to 5 (815-385-3896). Nearby, at 27764 W. Route 120, is Knock on Wood, a furniture and gift shop in a converted schoolhouse (815-344-4888).
If you like deli foods, Koenemann's, a German storefront that's been in the area for decades (815-385-6260), features homemade ham, sausages, and bacon; they'll also do party trays. Located at 27090 W. Route 120, east of Route 12 in Volo, it's worth the trip for the aroma alone.