But it was just that lack of formality that made us fall in love with the place--that and an atmosphere reminiscent of a basement refinished and paneled as a family room.
Even the bar has that feel. It's a tiny square of a thing jammed into a corner, decorated with a sign that shows the international "No" symbol over a cow pooping and backed by an impressive collection of adult alcohol, the kind of stuff that can be turned into martinis and Scotch-and-sodas. Of course, we didn't really drink the martinis; we just ordered lots of them to get into the proper spirit, then proceeded to our table next to the dead tree trunk that rises through the ceiling. The tree used to be alive, but the Tri-County Health Department made the management kill it a few years ago because they were worried about rodents or some such nonsense. "Now they would probably let it go," says Karen L'Anglais, who bought the place with her brother, Jay Lombardi, two years ago from their father, Emil Kuchar. Emil, one half of the "Emil-Lene's" name--the other half came from his wife, Charlene--obtained the place in 1972 from original owner Frank Emmerling, who had run it since 1958.
And if you can follow all that, you haven't had enough martinis.
Anyway, it's fitting that the tree is dead, because Emil-Lene's embodies a philosophy that's pretty much dead, too: that going out and getting loaded and eating in a way that hasn't been in style for decades is still a hell of a good time. We certainly had fun, starting with the martinis and then moving on to wines chosen from Emil-Lene's wine list, which carries a warning to the effect that "the wines listed herein are not necessarily the wines that are actually sitting in our basement." Nonetheless, we found plenty of good wines to satisfy what needs weren't already being addressed by the crudites. Not that Emil-Lene's gives its complimentary appetizer such a gussied-up name; it refers to this course as "the bowl of raw vegetables in a big bowl of crushed ice in the middle of the table." We found crisp celery, radishes, scallions, carrots and a lot of black olives, all served with Emil-Lene's signature blue-cheese dressing and a ranch-style dip with only slightly less salt in it than is found in the Dead Sea.
The French bread arrived hermetically sealed in plastic, and once we'd unwrapped it, we had no choice but to pile on the 300 pats of sweet butter that had been placed on more ice and given to our table to divide and conquer. What better to follow that than the copious amounts of sour cream that came with big, squishy-centered baked potatoes? Also included with our meals were soup (called "chicken noodle" but really an excellent "celery noodle") and red-onion-laced iceberg-y salads accompanied by a serving tray of the ubiquitous blue-cheese dressing, French, oil and vinegar and Thousand Island--homemade, as is everything else here.
But not surprisingly, the main attraction at this steakhouse was the beef, in the form of sirloin ($25.95 for a sixteen-ouncer) that had been seared on a grill and then finished off over Kingsford charcoal. Two experienced Emil-Lene's eaters in our party ordered their meat "charred and medium-rare," which made for a more concentrated flavor; those of us who had simply gone for rare found less flavor but more juice. We all enjoyed the presentation of each meal: a large white platter, adorned with nothing but a piece of meat.
But Emil-Lene's is full of other visual excitements, including a peppermill the size of a four-year-old, a custom-made job from the old May D&F. It's actually the second one the restaurant's had, because the original was stolen by someone who smuggled it out during business hours. (Is there a peppermill under your raincoat, or are you just happy to see me?) The peppermill's size makes bodybuilders of the waitresses, all of whom have been there for at least thirteen years--some for as many as twenty. In addition to pumping pepper, they're also required to be adept at packaging leftovers by making gloves of plastic bags and then scooping up the remains while simultaneously turning the bag inside out. Luckily, their veteran status means they've pretty much memorized the verbal menu, a relatively easy task since the same sides come with every meal.
With one exception: There's a variation on the standard side of spaghetti--yes, spaghetti--that arrives on a small plate alongside your meat. Only the really regular regulars know it, but the spaghetti can be had with a burnt-butter-and-garlic sauce rather than the meaty red redolent with fennel and rosemary. And since this was my first visit, I didn't know that. So now I'll have to go back.
I hope it'll be soon.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch: Another longtime landmark, El Rancho, has not fared nearly as well as Emil-Lene's. This old family place left the family that started it in the Forties and traded hands several times over the past few years; its most recent regime served up one of the worst meals it's been my displeasure to eat ("To El and Back," May 23). But according to a recent newspaper clipping, the entire ten-acre El Rancho complex off I-70 is now for sale. Current El Rancho owner Mark McKenna didn't return my call, but word has it that the next owners can raze the restaurant if they want--a selling point, because the property's commercial zoning, which was given only after a huge local battle several years back, paves the way for just about anything.
El Rancho Meadows, anyone?