Wind your way through the woods of Valley View, a fancy name for unincorporated St. Charles that is 40 miles due west of Chicago, and follow the tiny signs stapled to utility poles pointing the way from Route 25. If you’re lucky, you’ll see the gray wooden barn-like structure, nicely appointed with white trim, nestled amongst the pines after you barrel down a steep hill and make a right angle left turn (or else wind up in the Fox River). A gravel parking lot sprawls out upon the south bank of the Fox, but you’ll be parking at the end of it as the vanity plates on the cars parked up front indicate that the owners park there and they’re not ashamed to flaunt it. Motorcycles have their own little spot just to the right of a few barrels that harken back to the days of moonshine and the front door with its painted mural of a gangster and lady in red (presumably the latter being a reference to the one that gave away with John Dillinger, just before he was gunned down in front of the Biograph Theatre in Chicago).
The establishment at this bend of the Fox River between Elgin and St. Charles started out as Reitmayer’s Beer Garden in 1917. Once Prohibition descended upon this great land in 1920, old Reitmayer himself brewed his own beer, “…in a hidden cellar behind the chicken coop and pumped it to their thirsty Prohibition Era patrons through an intricate copper tubing system that remains underground to this day,” according to the Al Capone’s Hideaway website. Al Capone’s connection to the place now named for him is as murky as the Fox after a storm, though locals say he used the place to “lay low” as a patron when the heat got too strong in the City of Big Shoulders, rather than owning the place as he ran a bootlegging and prostitution empire, not an out-of-the-way tavern. Whatever the case, he was there and the Hideaway is a living museum in his name.
Step through the plate glass door at Al Capone’s Hideaway and you’ll find yourself in the stone-tiled foyer of the establishment. A pair of shoes encased in cement (get it?), just to the right of the cloakroom where a poster hangs of old Scarface himself, smoking a stogie in a leather chair. An antique stove lies across from the clawfoot bathtub, presumably once used for gin. A wooden door with glass panes on your left leads into the bar area. The actual wooden bar generally follows the lines of the southwest corner of the room, to the left of which is the mensroom marked “Da Boys” that is the size of a closet but features a urinal and a pot, along with an ashtray. Now that’s old school. Behind the bar are old photos of gangsters set amongst a Tommy Gun and other relics from the early 20th Century. Unfortunately, the barroom would be infinitely better if half the space weren’t filled up with gangster tchotchkes, including t-shirts, keychains, baseball hats, along with a selection of their own cigars behind a life-sized cutout of Al Capone and the Lady in Red (again), which is where everyone takes photos. They even have their own “Tommy Guns Vodka” at the bar, though it’s reputed to be halfway decent.
A series of small chandeliers hangs over the bar, matching those you’ll find in the adjacent dining rooms, just beyond the hostess stand. The whole building is made of wood, and the walls and ceiling in the main dining room are actual wooden logs, upon which hang gangster era photos, press clippings, old model cars, and other items from the now-defunct Al Capone Museum in Chicago. You’ll also find a few signed publicity photos mixed in of celebrities like Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci. You and your party will be seated at one of the low-slung wooden tables with alternating black and red tablecloths and, if you reserve a table or come early and are seated in the main dining room, you’ll enjoy wooden chairs with arm rests that allow you to get comfortable as you gorge yourself while gazing through windows overlooking the Fox River. Latecomers are placed in the rear, arm-less portion of the dining area, though the fireplace is sought after in the winter. The second floor features the aforementioned “speakeasy,” which means that you’ll find a three-piece, Dixie-style jazz band on Saturday nights in this second, non-smoking dining room. The speakeasy is closed on all other days unless it is booked by a private party. Wherever you find yourself in the Hideaway, you’ll find that the entire staff wears either flapper dresses or all in black with fedoras and white ties.
Even to this day, Al Capone’s Hideaway brews its own beer. Four actually: Tommy Gun Amber, Hideaway Ale, Swingin’ 20s Stout and Legs light (the latter of which tasted so much like the Hideaway Ale that we weren’t sure if we were served the wrong one). Each beer, except the stout which they were out of on my last visit, had a good head but they were all fairly mild (or somewhat flat if you want to be harsh). Only these four are available, so Bud Light or Heineken drinkers need not apply. The multi-page menu lists an impressive array of steaks and chops, along with “warm water lobster tail $7.95 with any entree.” No one in my group got this but we were wondering what a warm water lobster is – a crawdad? The menu also features photos of Al Capone and other mugs of that time with little holes punched out of the pages to look as if they were made by tiny machines guns. There are things on the board of fare other than meat, but who cares? This is a steakhouse. As such, most entrees cost between $25 and $40, with Big Al’s Surf & Turf going for $75, which includes a 12-ounce filet and 10-ounce lobster tail. While that isn’t cheap, here’s the real kicker: $1.75 extra for bleu cheese on your salad, full-price refills for soda and a bowl of baked French Onion soup goes for $5.50. You can get a cup of French Onion with shredded Swiss instead of a baked slice comes with your meal at no extra charge, a much better deal. Interestingly, the wines are moderately priced at around $25 and the Hideaway does offer a nice array of Sunday specials, which are basically the main steaks for almost half-price. Otherwise, you’re going to pay Gold Coast Chicago steakhouse prices, though it is very good to see Black Angus and USDA Prime varieties of steak available – the mark of any proper steakhouse. On my last visit, I had the first good London Broil (with Bordelaise sauce) that I’ve had in years, the last of which having been served to me over 20 years ago at the now-defunct Red Caboose. We started off with the potato skins (a bit dry) and the deep-fried mushrooms (a bit much, though we got we asked for). The bread basket comes with giant rolls that are literally swimming in olive oil, which your server will warn you about as it pools in the bottom of the basket that you’ll not want to overturn under any circumstances. Mini ice cream cones filled with lemon sorbet are distributed prior to your entree to cleanse the palate. Al Capone’s also serves a nice selection of desserts and frozen after-dinner drinks. Once you’re able to push yourself away from the table and pay the bill, which could be measured as a percentage of GDP for parties of two or more, make the most of it by grabbing yourself a book of Al Capone matches and take a photo of your party with the photo of Al Capone, posted onto the door and under the violin case.
Al Capone’s is a fun place and we had a great time, in a similar manner to the Safe House in Milwaukee, though the Hideaway lays it on thick with the gangster theme. This seems to be the raison d’être of Alphonse Capone Enterprises of 2222 S. Wabash run by Bill Brooks. This outfit is the same as behind such cleverly named vices as, “Roaring 20s Beer, Wine and Spirits” (name of the microbrewery and purveyors of Tommy Guns Vodka), “Speakeasy Cigar Co.,” and “Bootleggers [flavored] Cigars.” The merchandising never ends… If you’re looking for authenticity, you’ll find it in the building itself and some of the decor, but the rest is a lot of window dressing that I would say is more for kids if it weren’t for the adult themes of booze, steaks and smokes. For those that may be put upon by too much Capone, I would recommend the Green Mill, Twin Anchors and even Butch McGuire’s for that former speakeasy and Prohibition Era feel. Chicago Bar Project recommendation: head to Al Capone’s Hideaway during daylight hours (at least twilight), so you don’t get lost or have to wait an hour even if you have a reservation (Saturdays especially). For more information, check out the Al Capone’s Hideaway website. And remember, you can always get further with a smile, a kind word and a gun, than just a smile and a kind word.