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Ray Brookhouse's McHenry, Illinois

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McHenry, Illinois

A former resort destination on the Fox River, McHenry used to be referred to as the "superboonies" on Chicago TV (often reporting snowmobile accidents or tornadoes). These days it's a hodgepodge of farms, industrial parks, and subdivisions. You'll know you've arrived when the Chicago radio stations start to fizzle out and you see cows grazing near parking lots.

The biggest party of the year is Fiesta Days, a ten-day mid-July blowout featuring antique auto and boat shows, sidewalk sales, concerts, an arts and crafts fair, a Jaycees barbeque, and a parade complete with three-wheeling Shriners. Throughout the celebration, a Dixieland band makes the rounds of funnel-cake-munching locals; during the parade and sidewalk sale, crowds belly up to a makeshift bar behind the Foxhole Tap & Pizzeria (3308 W. Elm, 815-385-6710) for quarter beers. In September the annual Country Meadows Fall Craft Show brings in 200 exhibitors and 5,000 visitors; for more information on either event call 815-385-4300.

Though it's unsafe to swim in the river, McHenry's reputation as the "gateway to the Chain o' Lakes" still attracts boaters. The Thursday-night boat drag races held off Blarney Island tavern on Grass Lake (about 45 minutes from McHenry by boat) draw hundreds. The landbound can drive out to the bar's mainland branch, port of blarney (27843 W. Grass Lake, Antioch, 847-395-8000), and board a marine shuttle to the island spot, which has hundreds of bras hanging from the ceiling and is strictly SRO on the weekends.

The boatless can also rent sailboats, canoes, rowboats, paddleboats, and kayaks at Petersen Park Beach (McCullom Lake Road west of Richmond Road, 815-363-2126), also a favorite swimming spot. The park is open daily from 11 to 5:30 June 2 through August 19; there's a nominal admission fee for nonresidents.

Three miles south of McHenry, the 1,800-acre Moraine Hills State Park (914 S. River Road, 815-385-1624) is a an enchanting mix of wetlands, lakes, and hills, home to coyote, white-tailed deer, red fox, ducks, geese, and over 100 additional species of birds. Its ten miles of interlocking crushed-limestone trails are perfect for biking, hiking, and skiing; there's also some good fishing (boat rentals are available).

The downtown movie theater may be dark, but the McHenry Outdoor Theater (1510 N. Chapel Hill Road, 815-385-0144) is still going strong. A double feature is $5 for adults and free for kids 11 and under. An even more retro destination is the Just For Fun Again Roller Rink (914 N. Front, 815-363-4387), which opened in the 1930s. The prices are old-fashioned too, with skate rentals from $1.50 to $3 and admission $2 to $5 per session.

Despite an influx of chain stores on the north edge of town, the old downtown remains home to independently owned restaurants and bars, many with outdoor decks, boat docking, and river views. Local favorites are After the Fox (1406 N. Riverside Drive, 815-344-3760) and Vickie's Place (1211 N. River Road, 815-385-2014), located on opposite sides of the Fox. Bimbo's (1318 N. Riverside Drive, 815-385-1444) is popular with visiting Republican brass (there are not a lot of Democrats in town); guests have included Illinois state legislature kingpin James "Pate" Philip and House speaker Dennis Hastert.

Pool players will want to check out the old-school Old Bridge Tavern (1334 N. Riverside Drive, 815-363-1863) right next door to the 80-year-old Little Chef diner (1332 N. Riverside Drive, 815-385-9752), where most mornings you can catch Ray Brookhouse at the counter along with all the other regulars. If you're in a hurry, cross the street to another of Ray's haunts, the Riverside Bake Shop (1309 N. Riverside Drive, 815-385-0044), where you'll find sweet rolls, fresh bread, and buttery cookies sold by the pound.

The place for pancakes is down the street and across Route 120, at the Windhill Pancake Parlor (3307 W. Elm, 815-385-1172). The dining room, which features an extensive collection of Victorian china and other antiques, is open daily from 7 AM to 3 PM and on Friday evenings, when it hosts a fish fry from 5 to 9. At Zubrzycki's Warsaw Inn (217 N. Front, 815-344-0330) there's a Polish-American buffet with more than 80 items including homemade pierogies, blintzes, stuffed cabbage and peppers, and a huge array of desserts. An all-you-can-eat lunch is $6.50, dinner is $8.50, and brunch, offered weekends, is $10.50.

If you're fending for yourself, check out Nature's cornucopia (1259 N. Green, 815-385-4500), the town's health food store, or sullivan Foods (3705 W. Elm, 815-385-7755), where you may catch Ray Brookhouse rounding up the carts.

--Cara Jepsen

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustrations/Heather McAdams.

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