With a name that describes it perfectly, the Country House has delighted suburbanites in the know with award-winning burgers and has titillated them with its ghost stories that have been covered nationally on cable TV. Hearty food, a good beer selection and down-home service also continue a tradition that originated with the Country House’s original founding in 1922 by Emil Kobel.
Though Chicago city dwellers may think so, the Country House is no longer “in the country” but rather on 55th Street, just west of Route 83, in the Southwest suburb of Clarendon Hills that was originally settled by John J. Monell and named after a suburb of Boston. Parking is located in the rear. A brown awning with “Country House” written in white leads into a spacious vestibule with a thick wooden door framed by old-fashioned lanterns.
Upon entry, you’ll find the hostess stand on your right, in a narrow, wood-paneled hallway where waitresses jostle with customers waiting for a table and those paying their bill amongst numerous awards and accolades hanging on the wall for “Best Burger in Chicago” (more on this later). Restaurant seating lies straight ahead and off to your left at a series of low-slung, thick wooden tables, a few of which are set before windows overlooking 55th. Expect long waits on weekend nights.
Additional seating can be found in the bar, representing the eastern half of Country House. Here you can grab a high-backed wooden barstool at a bar that runs most of the length of the western wall, across from cocktail tables (reserved for dinner after 6pm) and a magnificent stone fireplace with a stuffed boar’s head above it. If you’re not hungry enough for a meal, you can snag a free basket of peanuts. Customers shuck their peanut shells onto the old wooden floor, a practice that is actually encouraged as they say peanut oil helps to protect the hardwood floor. When Mother Nature calls, you can find the restrooms to the left of the main entrance.
The first Country House claim to fame is the half-pound “Country Burger,” touted highly by such fine publications as the Daily Herald and Chicago Tribune, TV stations WGN and CLTV, online media outlets Metromix and Citysearch, and by customers alike. Personally, I thought the burger was good, but pre-formed and something less than fantastic, though I did really like the duck tenders—fried with breading and mixed with almonds—as well as the mini mozzarella sticks. Burgers on offer also include buffalo (tasty and lean, but a bit drier than beef), turkey and ostrich. Other favorites include 50¢ oysters on Tuesdays (limit 24, chief), all-you-can-eat, beer-battered perch on Wednesdays, homemade soups including French onion, grilled pork chops, and pulled barbecue pork that is smoked in-house. Country house features a respectable eight beers on tap (including Bell’s, Bell’s Seasonal, Weihenstephaner Weiss, Warsteiner, and Guinness), 22 more in bottles (including Delirium Tremens, Kostritzer Schwarz Bier, Stiegl, Fat Tire, and Old Style), and ten wines by the glass.
The second Country House claim to fame is the alleged haunting. According to the Country House website: “During the late ’50s, the bartender working at the Country House was having an affair with a pretty blonde woman, in her late twenties, who was a frequent patron of the roadhouse. One evening, she came into the bar with her small daughter in tow, to visit with her lover, tending bar. Unfortunately, they got into a fight, which greatly upset the young woman. She asked the bartender to watch her child for a little while. When he refused, she left with her child, and proceeded to kill herself by wrapping her car around a tree near the roadside. Luckily, her daughter survived!” A heart-warming story, if I ever heard one…
Today, the waitstaff, bedecked in their finest Country House t-shirts, claim the following as evidence to the ghost’s existence: smelling a woman’s perfume when no one else was around, found the taps running in the women’s restroom, hearing a baby crying upstairs, the jukebox turning on after close, customers hearing their name called before their turn, and strange things happening to the computer-based ordering system—though, if the latter were true, then every computer running Windows is haunted… Richard Crowe, Chicago’s famous ghost hunter and proprietor of Supernatural Tours, was called in few ago to investigate the poltergeist accompanied by a psychic who claimed to feel the presence of a young and attractive blonde woman who died of abdominal injuries, matching the description of the young mother. The story has even been covered on the Discovery and Travel channels. Find this all a little creepy? Try Country House around Halloween…
The Country House was originally built in 1922 by Emil Kobel, who ran the tavern and a small grocery store on the first floor, and lived above with his family. During Prohibition, the Country House remained open as a grocery store and restaurant, though it’s been claimed that the regulars could still get a drink of their choice in those dry times (much like Simon’s in Andersonville). In 1930, the small stone house adjacent to the main building was added and served as a fireworks store, gas station and barbecue stand amongst other things. When Kobel retired in 1957, the place was sold to Richard Montanelli, a decorated World War II bomber pilot, who bought it for his mother so that she could have her own business. Local residents David & Patrick Regnery bought the building in 1974, renovated it shortly thereafter and re-opened the following year with the same goal as Emil Kobel: “To be a neighborhood roadhouse where friends can meet for good conversation, a cold drink and a gratifying meal.” The place quickly became a popular spot for college students and crowds from the my childhood favorite for crash-up derbies and now-defunct, Santa Fe Speedway [tear]. Since then, two additional Country Houses were opened in Lisle (1985) and Geneva (1996).
So, there you have it: not only is Country House a great pub in the suburbs, but the joint also slings a mean burger and has an intriguing history to boot. If you like Country House for its hauntings, you might also want to check out Ole St. Andrews Inn, California Clipper and Gold Star Bar (all in Chicago). If you’re judging your own burger competition, be sure to visit Hackney’s (Glenview), Alfie’s Inn (Glen Ellyn), Bristol Tap (Bristol), and Goldyburger (Forest Park). And if you like suburban roadhouses, you may also want to drop by the Village Tavern (Long Grove), Morrison Roadhouse (Niles), or Billy’s Roadhouse (St. Charles). For more information on Country House, check out the “Burger One” website. Booyah!