This Saturday, I had the enviable task of visiting The WheelHouse to check out the menu and location. St. Joseph is not usually on my radar for weekend fun, but it is only about 20 minutes outside of Champaign-Urbana. The quaint downtown has been growing for the past couple of years, including Wyldewood Winery and The WheelHouse.
The restaurant is located in Main Street Station in St. Joe, which also houses a salon, sign store, and a few other small shops. The location is charming with a small-town feel. From the parking lot you can see most of downtown, and it's just a stone’s throw from the IGA. In the restaurant, bikes are hung on the walls, family photos are displayed in the restrooms, and a warm toned, reclaimed wood bar invites visitors to sit a while.
The WheelHouse has been open since late 2016 and is a family business run by Ryan and Abbie Layden-Rogier. Chef Ryan Rogier was previously at Alinea in Chicago, and in 2013 he won a healthy eating recipe contest and got to eat dinner with Barack and Michelle Obama. Visitors to the restaurant are treated to photos of Rogier and Mrs. Obama, which is a charming touch. The causal, family feel of the restaurant makes it a nice location for family meals and catching up with friends, but the food is not your usual family restaurant fare. There is a kids menu, but on Saturday night there were no kids in attendance. The restaurant is an enjoyable mix of casual and artisan, with local beer on tap and an appealingly diverse wine list.
After being greeted by the staff, we were seated at a small table by the front door. Made up of half church pew and half comfy chair, this is the kind of place to invites a drink and lively conversation. We arrived around 7:30 p.m. and the place was mostly full of convivial diners and welcoming staff. We did not have to wait for a table, but I am sure that earlier in the evening the tables were full. A quick chat with the wait staff confirmed that we arrived just as the dinner rush was tapering off. The quirky ambience is a nice change from the slick interiors of some of the over-manufactured chain places that have appeared in recently in town. I know with certainty that the décor of The WheelHouse is not from some corporate warehouse somewhere — it’s a nice change for sure. The real appeal of The WheelHouse, though, is the food.
The Wheelhouse is farm-to-table and works with Willow Creek Farm (Urbana). For a starter we ordered the smoking chicken, which is a feat of presentation. A small mason jar arrived at the table with a spoon. Upon lifting the lid, a smoked aroma wafted out that definitely tempts the appetite. Inside the jar is a lovely combination of smoked chicken, savory greens, butternut squash and cheese from Ludwig Farms. The chicken was tender, and the butternut puree just the right amount of salty and sweet. The greens added just the right amount of bite. The table agreed that this was a great way to kick off a meal.
Next, we moved on to the mains with the cauliflower curry and WheelHouse burger. The curry was surprisingly delicious with a quinoa base and roasted curry cauliflower. As a person who does not count cauliflower among my favorite vegetables, this is some kind of delicious magic because I would happily eat cauliflower from this place any day of the week. That is a glowing recommendation as far as I am concerned.
As for the burger, it sounds hyperbolic but this is one of the very best burgers in greater C-U: two beef patties, Munster and pimento cheese with caramelized onions and sour pickles. This is a burger lover’s dream. The bun was toasted on the grill and had just the right amount of squish (that's a technical term). The fries were salty and crispy fried with the skins on. The secret sauce and the tomatillo ketchup were fresh takes on conventional favorites, and in this case it more than worked. While dining we also tasted some local beer from Riggs brewing and enjoyed watching the chef prepare our meal through the cut out window to the kitchen. I will say that it was readily apparent that our server was new at her job, but she was pleasant and mostly helpful.
Overall, if you are willing to make the short drive to St. Joe, The WheelHouse is a great experience. The farm-to-table menu is accessible and tasty; the location is cozy and charming; and the prices are reasonable. I plan to return soon for another WheelHouse Burger, and perhaps give the dessert menu a try as well.
The WheelHouse is located at Main Street Station, 109 North Main Street, St. Joseph, and open Tuesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 to 11 p.m.; Saturday 10 a.m. to 11 p.m.; and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.
All photos by Jillian Zwilling.