It's not widely known that Joliet was originally incorporated as the village of Juliet, while the neighboring Romeoville was called Romeo. Passing through in 1845, former president Martin Van Buren wondered out loud why the town didn't name itself after explorer Louis Jolliet. Illinois politicians later OK'd a name change, spelling it "Joliet"--demonstrating the same command of language that their successors have today.
Most of the things to see in Joliet are big, gaudy, or both: places like the Rialto Square Theatre, Stateville and Joliet state correctional centers, the Empress riverboat casino, and the Orwellian Com Ed power generating plant. Since we covered many of them in this guide two years ago (and besides, they're hard to miss), we won't describe them here.
What are as obscure as Joliet's original name, and therefore guideworthy, are the city's good, inexpensive places to eat. This is partly due to a common urban American pattern: expansion in newer areas has attracted all the boringly familiar restaurant chains, while the creeping seediness of older neighborhoods hides places having true originality or ethnic flavor.
The Des Plaines River cuts Joliet into two distinct halves: the west side's neon strip-mall clones and the east side's hulking, boarded-up houses. Visitors who yawn at the former and cringe at the latter might have a hard time finding a good restaurant unless they ask (as I did) folks who sample the fare 24 hours a day, 7 days a week: the local cops.
Officers of the Joliet Police Department have a definitive short list of places to grab chow--or, in cop lingo, "take a 4-7"--derived from a few rules. One is to avoid drive-throughs. Some restaurant employees harbor ill will against humanity in general and police in particular, so most cops allow food preparers as little anonymity as possible. Another rule is that east-side places don't stay open late, so after midnight "you eat west." Going west from the river means cruising Jefferson Street's three miles of virtually continuous strip mall; most of the preferred places are on or near it. You can get a free detailed street map from the Heritage Corridor Visitors Bureau, 81 N. Chicago St. (815-727-2323). But I prefer the Rand McNally map, which shows street numbering, available for $2.95 at Chicago bookstores.
An unexpected advantage to tailing Joliet police on their meal runs is that you eat good stuff. Car-bound cops fight a losing battle with bulge, and--unlike some cops we know--many on the Joliet force eschew a regular heavy intake of items in the fat and salt food groups.
For visitors who don't have the luxury (or misfortune) of being taken around in a squad car, it's not hard to find the places cops like on the west side: you go west on Jefferson and watch for squads in the parking lots. During the day you scan across the tops of cars for roof lights. At night they're harder to spot, but you shouldn't bother anyway; after midnight police will generally be at one of the three west-side places described below.
Visitors looking for a very early breakfast--say, 4 AM--might find police at, no joke, Home Cut Donuts, 815 W. Jefferson St. (815-727-3511), open 24 hours, 7 days. Some of Joliet's finest claim they go to Home Cut for the best coffee in town, or to stay awake on slow nights. "Hey," says one badged patron, "I don't even like doughnuts." Visitors will relish the java and can look into the kitchen as the staff puts holes in the food.
Cops who want a more substantial breakfast travel a couple of blocks farther west. There, anchoring a modest strip mall, is Louis' Restaurant, 1001 W. Jefferson St. (815-722-6660), open daily from 6 AM to 9 PM. Visitors looking for the classic Greek diner--with a voluminous, diverse menu and belt-busting portions--will find it here at breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
When lunch rolls around, Joliet squads roll into Georgio's Restaurant, 2231 W. Jefferson St. (815-729-3513), just over a mile from Louis' and open 24 hours, 7 days. Georgio's--big, comfortable, familiar--has specials like catfish, lamb, and fried chicken, and a back parking lot that can hide an embarrassingly large number of squads. Across the street, at 2138 W. Jefferson St., is the newer Al's Diner (815-741-1955), a snazzy 1950s-style rock-and-roll place that's relatively inoffensive for its ilk. The menu's short, but cops like Al's because the food is good and cheap. Visitors will find old Illinois license plates, phosphates, and Harry Belafonte bawling "Day-o!" while they eat. Al's is open every day from 11 AM to 10 PM, Friday and Saturday till 11 PM.
Lovers of big, airy sports bars with lots of big-screen TVs can find Joliet's version in TnT Restaurant and Sports Bar, 2727 W. Jefferson St. (815-729-1857), open seven days and serving from 11 AM to 10 PM (from 3 PM Sunday). TnT is named for its owners, pro football players Mike Tomczak and Tom Thayer, and is run by Thayer's brother Rick and his mother, known to staff as "Ma" Thayer, who treats police officers as her adopted children. Cops from all over--sometimes dozens at a time--eat at TnT, probably for Mrs. Thayer's den-mother-like attention. Ordinary citizens come for the meat loaf, clam chowder, and surprisingly reasonable prices.
When they want to rub elbows with the office workers, jurors, and late-night theatergoers in the downtown area, police head for Chicken-N-Spice, 251 N. Chicago St. (815-727-1100), open daily from 9 AM to 8 PM. It looks like a Brown's or KFC, but offers a health-conscious menu with things like turkey chili. Much less healthful is the strawberry shortcake: a homemade biscuit surrounded by strawberry goo and piled high with whipped cream. Flash a badge if you want to be fawned over by owner Ken Reimer, who named his specially seasoned french fries "Jo-Jo's" after a downtown night-shift officer.
Surrounding the downtown area are the older, more compact neighborhoods of the east side. An influx of Hispanics that began in the 1970s spawned Mexican restaurants, several of which are favored by Joliet police but shunned by unarmed locals. Cops say that although street gangs are active nearby, these places are safe enough in the daytime.
Just south of the Joliet State Correctional Center, police have found the best steak taco in town at Beto's Taqueria, 800 N. Collins St. (815-722-8057), open 11 AM to 11 PM. Beto's can't handle a sit-down crowd since it has only a few booths, but officers say it's great for takeouts. Slow business has kept the place closed some days, so call first.
Four blocks east is Leal's, 701 N. Garnsey Ave. (815-727-7167), open seven days from 11:30 AM to 10 PM (from 3 PM Sunday). This simple tavern makes a bean and pork taco that my uniformed guides call "unbelievable" and I found to be without peer in my native Bucktown. Seating is limited to the bar and a couple of tables, yet Leal's does a brisk lunch business--serving a surprising number of lawyers, presumably from the nearby government buildings.
For more of a restaurant atmosphere, police head for Restaurante La Escondidita, 600 E. Jackson St. (815-722-0507), five blocks south of Leal's. It has lots of seating, a great tortilla dip, and a full menu that includes Mexican beer. Hours are 11 AM to 11 PM Monday to Thursday, and continuously from 11 AM Friday to midnight Sunday.
After dark, the dining focus turns back to the west side. Many of the night-shift officers of the Joliet, state, and county police lunch at the Family Table Restaurant & Bakery, 6 N. Larkin Ave. (815-725-1679), just north of Jefferson Street, or the cozy Sara's Place, 3501 Channahon Road (815-741-3076), located off the beaten path in far-southwest Joliet. Both are open 24 hours, 7 days, and cops like both because they can avoid interruptions for things like advice on beating a parking ticket.
At the Family Table, the staff ropes off half of the expansive dining room when traffic is slow, and that's where they seat the law. It's because of this royal treatment, along with a roomy dining area, diverse menu, and central west-side location, that Joliet officers vote the Family Table "the number-one place for all three shifts." Don't speed on your way out.