The reason I stop in Galesburg, Illinois, every chance I get is simple. It's the Packinghouse Dining Company.
Count me as an advocate for our nation’s places in between.
Yes, I live in Carroll, Iowa, a crossroads for Sioux City, Omaha, Nebraska, and Des Moines. But my affection for communities attached to roads less traveled goes beyond that. I feel at home in places like Galesburg, Illinois. The rhythm is right — and if I measured life as Mitt Romney does, I’d probably even think the trees were the right height.
For the better part of two decades I’ve driven through or stopped at Galesburg, a city of 32,000 between Peoria and Davenport, at least twice a year, on my way across Interstate 74 to and from the Kentucky Derby in Louisville. Last week, I visited the Abraham Lincoln historical facilities in Springfield and made Galesburg a key stop.
The reason: The Packinghouse Dining Company.
It is quite simply one of thee best restaurants in the Midwest, ranking right up there with what Chicago and St. Louis and Minneapolis have to offer.
Across from the Amtrak station in this old rail town, The Packinghouse is literally located in a former packinghouse, one Swift & Company operated from 1912 to 1976.
The Packinghouse Dining Company obtained the building in 1978 and converted it to a restaurant operation, opening in March 1979. In recent weeks the restaurant completed another renovation.
The surroundings are inviting to be sure, but all restaurants live and die on the quality of the food — and The Packinghouse is a gem, well worth a turn off I-74 for a delightful hour (or more) of some of the Midwest’s best fare.
“Everything is made from scratch in this house,” said Todd Erling, executive chef and co-owner of The Packinghouse.
As the name would suggest, The Packinghouse delivers big-time on steaks and chops and prime rib.
“We clean all of our own meat,” Erling said. “We cut all of our steaks.”
I love a good steak.
But it’s not what I order at The Packinghouse. That would be the Fried Scallops Oscar, crispy jumbo scallops, lightly breaded with a crab sauce, served with gold potato puree.
Ever had the final meal question — you know, what you’d order if you are on death row or in hospice? I’ve asked it but never considered my own response.
Now I know the answer.
The Packinghouse’s Fried Scallops Oscar.
Another highlight on the menu, and trust me on this, is Fried Chicken and Waffles — both of those items served together with housemade apple butter and real maple syrup.
There is so much comfort food at The Packinghouse that you have to wonder if people in Galesburg go around looking for reasons to be depressed, or at the very least, cheer rainy days.
The salad bar offered some of the freshest greens I’ve tasted — and generous chunks of blue cheese.
The Butcher’s Tavern onion rings are satisfying all on their own. And make sure to take some homemade cinnamon rolls to go.
Then there is the signature dessert — the white chocolate baked brioche. I was actually too full to even try a bite of this, but Erling tells us that couples who take Amtrak from Chicago to Galesburg for the express purpose of eating at The Packinghouse order the brioche.
For his part, Erling, who owns 160 acres of farmland with his family near Davenport, Iowa, won the Food Network’s “best in smoke” contest last year for a Rocky Mountain pork tenderloin soaked in Blue Moon beer. He cooked that up in Denver outside of Coors Field.
Once you are loaded up at The Packinghouse the city of Galesburg has some other attractions worth your time. One of our nation’s greatest wordsmiths, Carl Sandburg, the author and poet, was born there. There’s a visitors’ center next to the Sandburg birthplace. Visitors also can hit Old Main, the 1857 structure at Knox College and one of the sites of the Lincoln-Douglas debates.
But the best advice about Galesburg: don’t drive past it on I-74, and come with an appetite. You won’t find a better restaurant in the Midwest, and Galesburg is a city deserving of our rooting interest.
Douglas Burns is an editor, columnist and, obviously, food critic at the Daily Times Herald of Carroll, Iowa, where this story first appeared.