“Real Food | Real Beer | Real Fun”
Ah, Aurora. It is the second largest city in Illinois and actually spans parts of four counties: DuPage, Kane, Kendall and Will. Aurora is also known as the “City of Lights,” the location of the movie “Wayne’s World,” and, in much smaller circles, the city of my birth. The city has had many problems over the years, which makes the place called “Walter Payton’s Roundhouse” a bit of an oasis in a city with an improving, yet uncertain future, and a pleasant alternative to the legion of burrito joints and taquerias that surrounds it.
Walter Payton’s Roundhouse, not to be confused with Roadhouse, is actually a “complex” like an adult amusement park. This nightlife-atorium can be found on the eastern bank of the (not so) mighty Fox River, across from where the Hollywood Casino riverboat is permanently docked. The Roundhouse features just about everything you’d want on a Friday or Saturday night. You can enjoy a mean steak in the restaurant and wash it down with an array of award-winning, hand-crafted brews from the bar (brewed on the premises), you can pay homage to “Sweetness” in the Walter Payton museum, take in some entertainment in the comedy club or some music out in the courtyard or America’s Bar, and finally have a nightcap and maybe cigar in the cognac bar – all of which is housed within a historic landmark rescued from decay by one of the most beloved athletes in all of Chicago sports and in the history of the NFL. Some even have their weddings here. Crikey! What more could you want?
History and Resurrection
In 1856, the first roundhouse in America was built here on the Fox River by the Chicago Burlington and Quincy Railroad to house and repair steam locomotives and other railroad cars. The structure is 70,000 square feet in size, 264 feet in diameter and is built with 18-foot walls of limestone. By 1864, the final ten service bays were completed, forming a complete circle of 40 bays in all. The only constant is change and as such, locomotives yielded to Zephyrs, which yielded to automobiles. The year 1974 brought with it the closure of the roundhouse and the demolition of the satellite facilities that had been built around it over the last 100 years. When no one was found to purchase the facility, the railroad began an unauthorized demolition until the city halted it thereby saving the structure. However, the roundhouse then stood vacant for over 20 years, and became part of Aurora’s spreading urban blight that has only recently begun to reverse.
In March of 1995, the pride of the Chicago Bears and pro football Hall of Famer, Walter Payton, along with partners Scott & Pam Ascher and Mark Alberts, purchased the dilapidated building for $10 following a unanimous vote in the Aurora City Council. After 370 days of renovations, Walter Payton’s Roundhouse was opened to the public on the vernal equinox, March 21, 1996.
Roundhouse prior to renovation
Getting There and Entrance
Today, the Roundhouse is located just northeast of downtown Aurora and is attached to the Aurora Transportation Center, which is the very last stop on Metra’s Burlington North Santa Fe commuter line out of Chicago’s Union Station. Most drive to the Roundhouse but taking Metra is also an intriguing option in “reverse commute” fashion, particularly those coming from Naperville, Hinsdale or Chicago.
An alternate route is via bicycle. The Chicago installation of Time Out Magazine suggests the Fox River Trail via Metra: “For a full day’s ride, take the Union Pacific District Northwest Line from Chicago’s Ogilvie Center (500 W. Madison St.) to Crystal Lake and head south from the station a few blocks to the trailhead at Main Street and Crystal Lake Avenue. End your ride in Aurora at Walter Payton’s Roundhouse… Catch a ride home at the Metra station right next door.”
Parking can be found in the Roundhouse’s large parking lot, but consider yourself forewarned: the lot gets absolutely jammed on weekends, so you’ll have to bite the bullet and have the valet park it (no charge). Also, when you enter the parking lot, don’t try to make an immediate left where it says “do not enter” like my Dad did, twice…
The entrance to Walter Payton’s Roundhouse can be found under an overhang, next to the “Waltersaurus,” a dinosaur sculpture sporting Walter Payton’s #34 Chicago Bears jersey, part of Aurora’s 2006 “Dinosaurs on Parade.” Push your way through the revolving door and, once inside, you’ll see a merchandise counter on your left but you’ll want to ignore any sudden impulses and instead walk straight ahead to the waitress stand to be seated.
Blue feet are neat on the “Waltersaurus”
Dining Room and Food
The dining room and main bar, otherwise known as the “America’s Brewpub” portion of the Roundhouse complex, is situated in bays 1-6 and to the right of the maitre’d stand. As you walk into it, the space opens up into an enormous room. A series of booths runs along the outer arc, overlooking the environs surrounding the Roundhouse. Thick, low-slung wooden tables and chairs fill the rest of the dining room from the large area in front of the stone fireplace, built from limestone debris found during the Roadhouse’s resurrection, to the large, plate-glass windows overlooking the inner courtyard that serves as a beer garden and live music venue (more on that later). The two story-high ceiling is held up with cast iron trusses and yellow pine timbers, all of which gives the place an airy rustic feel. The space is also family-friendly, non-smoking and is served by an army of waiters, waitresses and busboys. Wooden stairs lead up to a second floor with additional seating that hugs the exterior wall.
A giant tapestry of the famous painting, “The Bear Dance” by William Holbrook Beard (circa 1870), covers the two-story eastern wall of the dining room and just above the portal to the kitchen. “The Bear Dance” undoubtedly hangs in reference to Walter Payton, a “Bear” of the Chicago variety, though he never showboated or “danced” after touchdowns, though there was that performance in the Super Bowl Shuffle… Anyway, I find this painting rather interesting for two reasons. First, my parents have a replica of this work framed in their living room, an eclectic addition to the house I grew up in, which follows an increasingly eccentric pattern of behavior on their part (which I can actually appreciate, the painting goes nicely with the “wood sprite” purchased a few years ago). Second, my Dad loves to explain at each family get-together that each bear in the painting displays a different human emotion. There are so many bears in the painting that all human emotions are indeed displayed, from affection to zest. While repetitive, we appreciate my father’s explanation as it distracts him from his usual fascination with puns, the lowest form of humor.
The Bear Dance by William Holbrook Beard
The fare at the Roundhouse is self-described as, “American Regional Cuisine.” A variety of appetizers are served in both half and full orders, with such notables as the jalapeño shrimp wrapped in prosciutto and the baked artichoke parmesan dip with crushed red peppers. Don’t know what to order? Go with the “Taste of America” that includes buffalo wings, ribs, calamari, onion strings, chips, salsa & guacamole. You can also whet your appetite from a selection of soups and salads as you gear up for a selection of entrées, that centers on steaks, seafood, pasta, and jambalaya.
On a recent visit with my wife and parents, we shared a gigantic plate of nachos (the “full” order indeed, as we were warned by our waiter), along with the oven-baked Chihuahua cheese-with-chorizo-thing served with tortillas, which was tasty but excessively greasy and surprisingly hot at first. We moved on to two orders of the 9-ounce, black peppercorn-encrusted filet mignon served on garlic herb mashed potatoes with cognac cream sauce (recommended by our waiter and with 6- and 12-ounce versions also available), a hand-cut New York Strip, and an order of the pork tenderloin served on a bed of orange chipotle mashed sweet potatoes with barbeque sauce. All of the above was quite good, and is served until 10pm Monday through Thursday, until 11pm on weekends and 9pm on Sunday.
“Well, they call me Sweetness, and I like to dance
Runnin’ the ball is like makin’ romance
We’ve had the goal since training camp
To give Chicago a Super Bowl Champ
And we’re not doing this because we’re greedy
The Bears are doin’ it to feed the needy
We didn’t come here to look for trouble
We just came here to do The Superbowl Shuffle”
– Walter Payton singing in the “Super Bowl Shuffle”
The menu at Roundhouse is inventive and the quality of food impressive, but the real story is the beer selection. Like that of Goose Island, Piece and Rock Bottom in Chicago, and RAM and Flatlanders elsewhere in the suburbs, Walter Payton’s Roundhouse brews a selection of many types of grog, all brewed on the premises, in large vats located just beyond a low wall of glass blocks and brick and a few overflow cocktail tables across from the main bar on the first floor. The main bar is a great place to have a drink if you have to wait for a table, and for Bears tailgate/watch parties on gamedays. Also, parts of the original rails that ran through the roundhouse can still be found in the floor.
The most notable variety of ale at the Roundhouse is the “Payton Pilsner,” created by Brewmaster Mike Rybinski, which won a Gold Medal as the “World’s Finest Bohemian Styled Pilsner” at the World Beer Cup in 2000. This creation was followed up with a Gold Medal for the “Payton Pilsner Light,” for “European Styled Low Alcohol Beer,” and another Gold Medal was awarded for the “Bourbon Barrel Imperial Stout,” in 2004 – that’s three consecutive Gold Medals for those of you scoring at home (the World Beer Cup is held every two years), and Walter Payton’s Roundhouse was the first brewery in the world to achieve this impressive winning streak. Congrats, Mr. Rybinski! Sadly, Mike had to settle for a Silver Medal in 2006 for his “Just Call Me George” Baltic Porter. I wonder if he can sleep at night…
In my opinion, the best way to explore the Roundhouse beer selection for the first time is to order the sampler. You will get a selection of five pre-selected, 9-ounce “flights.” I had the Payton Pilsner, Honey Wheat, Aurora Amber, Hemp Stoned Ale (seasonal), and Sweetness Stout, the latter of which received the Gold Medal at the Great American Beer Festival in 2001. I don’t normally have a sweet tooth, but I thought the Honey Wheat was the best. For whatever flavor you fancy, you can purchase six-packs and growlers to go, and kegs are also available. You can also check out the “Blessing of the Beers” beer tasting held annually just prior to the Great American Beer Fest, at which the Roundhouse submits a new selection of their beer.
The Roundhouse also serves brunch every Sunday morning, featuring Belgian waffles, French toast, three-egg omelettes, steak & eggs, and “scrams” consisting of three scrambled eggs incorporating a variety of ingredients. Like the similarly-named appetizer, the “The All American” serves up to four people with four eggs any style, two pieces of French toast, two pancakes, bacon and cheddar-stuffed hash browns, two slices of honey baked ham, four country sausages, and six slices of applewood smoked bacon. Wash it all down with a build-your-own Bloody Mary.
Cognac Cigar Bar
After you’ve had your meal, and should you ever tire of the beer (I’m obviously being facetious here…), head back past the waitress stand and down the hallway and you’ll find a tastefully appointed bar on your left in “Bay 35.” Cognac is the specialty here, and a selection of other fine spirits is also available. Patrons are free to smoke cigars should the urge arise and the bar offers a selection from Brazil, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Honduras, Jamaica, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Miami. A fireplace keeps those seated on the couches warm in the winter months who are not yet hitting it off with a newly-met “friend.”
The wooden bar itself is quite notable as it was built in 1893 by Charles Passo for the Columbian Exposition at the World’s Fair in Chicago. According to the Roundhouse website, “Sixteen bars were built for the Anheuser Busch Family to hawk their beers at the fair. Upon arrival to the fairgrounds, our bar being one of the sixteen, had three holes drilled into the eyes and mouth of the lion head in the center of the backbar. Three lightbulbs were inserted thus giving birth to the ‘World’s First Electric Backbar.'” The owners of the Roundhouse obtained the bar from Salvage One in Chicago and successfully stripped the hideous Formica that had been foolishly applied to it.
Walter Payton Hall of Fame Museum
Near the Cognac Cigar Bar is a smallish, maroon-carpeted room with navy blue-painted walls that celebrates the life of the man that not only made the Roadhouse possible but who was also one of the greatest running backs in NFL history – Walter “Sweetness” Payton. This space is filled with Walter’s awards, helmets, jerseys, Hall of Fame bust, his Vince Lombardi MVP trophy, and several unframed news clippings that could do with a little more care. All of above is showcased behind glass in wood-paneled cabinets along the walls. The crown jewel of the room, Walter Payton’s Super Bowl ring, can be found in the glass case in the front of the room. Multiple reproductions of a photo with Payton pulling down the center’s shorts at training camp can be found hanging on the walls, as well as an enlarged Wheaties box with his likeness. The museum covers his football career from high-school through retirement, and includes his other forays into auto racing, music and development of the Roundhouse. The video “Pure Payton” plays on a TV at the end of the room and is available for sale at the merchandise counter on your way out.
For those unfamiliar with Walter Payton’s career, I can tell you that the man was nicknamed “Sweetness” for a reason. Payton, with his high-pitched voice, pleasant demeanor and size at 5’10” and 200 pounds, was a fairly unassuming running back but it was he who fearlessly bowled over defenders and blocked effectively on non-running plays. He was one of the first running backs to selflessly go over the top over defenders, risking life and limb, to score a the goal line, and Payton even threw a few touchdowns in his day – whatever he could do to help his team win, he would do. Few professional athletes have exhibited more class and likeability than Sweetness, hence the name.
In 1975, Walter Payton was drafted in the first round by the Chicago Bears – the only team he would ultimately play for. He rushed for over 1,300 yards in 1976 and over 1,800 the next year, which helped him earn the NFL Offensive Player of the Year Award in 1977. Sweetness was also a key member of the Super Bowl champion 1985 Bears, and I still think Coach Mike Ditka should have run Walter Payton into the endzone late in the game instead of William “Refrigerator” Perry, a move which he admitted regretting later. All in all, Payton established the NFL rushing record of 16,726 yards (broken by Emmit Smith in 2000) in his 13-year career in which he went to nine Pro Bowls.
Walter Payton retired after the 1987 season and the Chicago Bears immediately retired his number. During his first year of eligibility, he was voted into the Hall of Fame in 1993. Aside from his opening of the Roundhouse in 1996, I don’t recall hearing much about him until that fateful press conference in February 1999, when Payton tearfully announced that he had been diagnosed with a rare liver disease known as “primary sclerosing cholangitis.” This malady resulted in the formation of a cancerous tumor on his liver, and Walter revealed that his doctors did not give him long to live. After advocating for organ transplants in a variety of public appearances over the next six months, including one at Wrigley Field with Mike Ditka, Walter ultimately succumbed to his terminal illness on November 1, 1999 at the age of 45. I remember when this was announced as well as the kicked-in-the-gut feeling of sadness I had afterwards. The Chicago Bears wore #34 patches on their uniforms for the rest of that season to honor his memory.
“On a very grim evening, 9/11/01. Walter & Dad – make these people feel welcome in your home above. God bless America.”
– L.Y., visitor comments from the museum logbook at Walter Payton’s Roadhouse
Tickle Your Funny Bone
On the lighter side of Walter Payton’s Roundhouse is the comedy club, just past the museum, cognac bar, photos of the Roundhouse’s restoration, and the restrooms. The club is run by ComedyComedyLive, who formerly ran the Funny Bone. Wes Sullivan hosts a rotating line-up of performers every Thursday through Saturday. Doors open at 8:30pm from and admission is $15 for those 21 and over. You can get a quick preview of what’s inside as you wait for the can, but don’t dilly-dally.
In the Courtyard
In the center of the Roundhouse complex is a courtyard that features a large outdoor bar with an impressively-sized, wooden gazebo that hosts live music every Wednesday, Friday and Saturday night, weather permitting in summer months for a nominal cover around $5. Seating is available from a smattering of green plastic tables and chairs and there is plenty of space on the grassy lawn to stand. Mostly rock cover bands like the Fabulous Janes, HEDNWEST and Libido Funk Circuit are featured, along with some blues and jazz acts, all of which come on stage around 10pm and play until just before close – 2am on weekends, midnight from Monday through Thursday, and the whole place closes at 11pm on Sundays. The courtyard also hosts events up to 1,000 people in warmer months, such as complete weddings (there’s even a Comfort Suites Inn next door). There are additional rooms in the complex named after different types of beer that can accommodate special events catering up to 600 people as part of the Roundhouse’s “America’s Banquets” function. As the weather begins to turn colder, three exterior fireplaces help keep the throng warm in the courtyard and, in winter months, bands play in the “America’s Club” portion of the complex while live reindeer have been known to take up occupancy outside, much to the delight of the youngins. Additional entertainment is available on the putting green in the courtyard, and every St. Patrick’s Day when the Roundhouse hosts the politically correct, “Toss the Rowdy Leprechaun Contest” inside.
At the End of the Day
I originally had my doubts about Walter Payton’s Roadhouse and what was originally called “America’s Brewpub.” To me, it sounded like a cheeseball club taking advantage of a loose affiliation with a local celebrity, which is more like what Payton’s part-owned “America’s Bar” on Erie in Chicago was. This couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, following its multi-phase renovation that started in 1995 and finished in 1998, the Roundhouse complex and the City of Aurora were awarded the National Preservation Honor by the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1999. Though not what it was initially intended to be, the Roundhouse also stands as a splendid memorial and tribute to Walter Payton himself – a place where his memory lives on.
To this day, the Roundhouse appeals to a diverse clientele: young singles looking to pick up on the weekends, local families looking for a good meal, Bears fans on gamedays, Walter Payton admirers, out-of-town beer enthusiasts, couples before heading out to see a play at the historic Paramount Theater in downtown Aurora, and packs of guys before heading across the street to the boat to lose their shirts. My parents took my wife and I to the Roundhouse for the first time this year, and we loved it. Our meal was great and we stayed for some music afterwards. My Mom even got to be part of the show as she found herself alone between the stage and the crowd while trying to find us after exploring the courtyard (or so she says…) For more information, menu and listings for upcoming bands, comedy and other events, check out Walter Payton’s Roundhouse website. We miss you Sweetness!
A quick tour of Walter Payton’s Roundhouse & America’s Brewpub
The Roundhouse in its (original) heyday
Almost literally in the limelight