La Grange: Blending an Urban Vibe with A Small Town Sense of Community
Tucked amidst other leafy, long-established near west suburbs, La Grange isn’t one of those towns with a sprawling water park, huge shopping mall or gleaming steel-and-glass office towers.
For many, though, that’s exactly the charm of it.
La Grange residents often refer to their village as “Mayberry,” a nod to the abundance of historic 19th century homes set under gracefully arching tree canopies and a kind of front-porch, we’ve-got-your-back neighborliness. It also boasts a thriving downtown shopping area that is both quaint and hip.
Ask people in an online post what they love about living there and they keep it short and sweet: “Drinking wine on the front porch and talking to passing people.” “Hanging out with your neighbors.” “Enjoying at least two block parties a year.” “Walking to town for dinner.”
Longtime residents underscore the simple things in life that make a difference in this suburb about 14 miles west of Chicago. “La Grange has the atmosphere of a small hometown, and is a nice, warm community,” maintains Robert Breen, whose father was born in La Grange and who also grew up there. Breen, in turn, stayed to raise his own family and gave much of his time to the village as a business owner and volunteer.
Breen points out that even as La Grange retains its perennial appeal, it has changed with the times. “La Grange has gone through a transformation over the last 20 years and really turned things around since the 1980s,” he says. “It’s very vibrant today.”
Likewise, Steve Palmer grew up in La Grange and is now a well-known business owner and community leader at his family’s namesake, Palmer Place Restaurant and Biergarten. He agrees that the small-town, tight-knit nature is alive and well, but notes that the village’s recent success is the result of careful planning. “A very smart, progressive group of business leaders and village trustees and officials got together and revitalized the community several years ago,” says Palmer, “and what we have today is 100 percent to their credit.”
Tom Livingston is another example of the community’s magnetic appeal, which has a way of drawing its native sons and daughters back home again. Livingston grew up in La Grange, and his parents, grandparents and great-grandparents also called the suburb home at one point or another.
“We may have moved away to other communities for a job or after college, but when it came time to pick a community that has many aspects that parents are looking for — and that people with growing families are looking for — La Grange really has everything going on,” says Livingston, a former trustee who is running for village president in the April 9 election, seeking to succeed retiring president Liz Asperger.
The dining scene in La Grange is one example of how, in Livingston’s words, the town really has it going on. Walk or drive down La Grange Road and other intersecting streets in downtown La Grange on any given night — much less a weekend — and you’ll see the hustle and bustle.
Residents say they appreciate the charm and convenience of being close to the action. “I love being able to walk downtown and eat in my own downtown,” says 15-year resident Mary Ellen Staelgraeve.
Adds Livingston, with a laugh, “If the family budget allowed, we’d be out every night in La Grange!”
As La Grange’s reputation as a “restaurant row” has grown, so, too have the number of patrons from other surrounding communities, from Chicago and beyond.
You know you’ve arrived on the culinary map when recent restaurant drop-ins include the likes of buzzworthy Hollywood actors Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis. The duo were spotted (and Tweeted) at Prasino in La Grange around Christmastime, giving the village a national dateline.
Prasino has become known in other ways, too, as it was recently featured on “Check, Please” on WTTW television. Other eateries in and around La Grange, including Palmer Place, Q BBQ and Little Joe’s, have had some time in the TV spotlight, too, on “Check Please” and on WGN-TV’s “Chicago’s Best.”
Nicksons Eatery, another hotspot in town (see review in Dining on page 104), is a Michelin-recommended American restaurant known for locally sourcing ingredients.
“Not only are we the neighborhood nook, but we see people from a different town here literally every day. It’s neat,” relates Nick Baca, chef and co-owner with his brother, Rich.
The new restaurants just keep coming, too, strengthening the “Ahhh! La Grange” theme that the village introduced a few years ago to emphasize the appeal of La Grange’s restaurant row. Armand’s Pizzeria, Smashburger and WOOW Sushi and the soon-to-open Café 103 are some examples.
It’s safe to say that there is something for every palate in La Grange. Many ethnic cuisines are represented, including Italian, Asian, Indian, and Mexican. Even in the middle of the night, one can get a good slice of pizza in the village, thanks to Di Nico’s Pizza and Gelato Cafe, which is open until 3 a.m.
In addition to the homemade gelato at Di Nico’s, La Grange is home to Tate’s Old Fashioned Ice Cream, which offers an assortment of made-in-house ice cream flavors. Chains like Coldstone Creamery and Red Mango pile on the toppings, too.
Those with a sweet tooth can also be found at Lilett Candies and Fannie May Candies, both of which have stores in La Grange. Aracely’s Bakery offers a variety of sweet treats, too, in addition to homemade authentic tamales.
Although downtown La Grange on and near La Grange Road attracts a lot of traffic for its restaurants, the West End district — a few blocks away off Brainard Avenue — also boasts a variety of dining and shopping options. Among them is the popular Antonino’s Ristorante, a traditional red-and-white tablecloth Italian place.
Eat, Drink and Be Merry
Come for the food, stay for the fun. That seems to be the mantra of some La Grange restaurants that offer various forms of entertainment, regularly or on a special-occasion basis.
Foodies also flock to La Grange for a variety of special events hosted by local restaurants. In March, Palmer Place holds an ever-growing St. Patrick’s Day bash inside the restaurant and in a large tent. “We’re really excited about our 30th annual Shamrock Festival,” says Palmer, adding that entertainment on and before March 17 includes the Shannon Rovers, Irish step dancers and several live bands.
In July, Nicksons lends a bit of New England to La Grange with its Lobster Fest. The family-friendly event takes place in the brick-lined alleyway next to the restaurant and includes live entertainment.
Several of the newer places in the village combine eating and imbibing with entertainment. Café 103 will offer cooking classes and parties for all ages. The Dinner Club, a meal assembly kitchen, is a popular place for group
outings that combines convenient meal preparation with a fun night or afternoon out with friends.
The relatively new Bottle & Bottega also offers a blend of food and fun — or more specifically wine and art. The business offers both public and private events where guests bring a bottle of wine to the studio and are guided by a professional artist to paint an artwork of their choice. Like many businesses in town, it’s owned by village residents. Paul and Meg Lafaivre decided to pursue their entrepreneurial dreams and opened Bottle & Bottega after visiting another location in the franchise.
Ceramic Art Café offers yet another opportunity to express one’s creativity through artwork while having fun in a group. A longtime presence in the Calendar Court building, Ceramic Art Café offers party packages for kids
While food and drink have become synonymous with La Grange in recent times, the village, merchants and would-be business owners have also been working to bolster the town’s retail presence.
Given the fact that the nearest mall is a few towns over and there are no big box stores like Wal-Mart or Target within the village limits (the closest ones are down the road a bit in Countryside and McCook), downtown La Grange has become a welcoming place for independent shopkeepers.
One longtime business in La Grange is the Clipper Ship Gallery, spotlighting the paintings of artist Charles Vickery. Known for his coastal seascapes, clippers and scenes of the Indiana and Michigan dunes, Vickery also painted well-known suburban landmarks, including the Lyons Township High School north campus clock tower and Graue Mill
in nearby Oak Brook.
Horton’s Home Lighting, another longtime fixture in La Grange, is known for, among other things, its actual fixtures. The lighting showroom is complemented by a lower-level ACE Hardware and a home and seasonal accessory department.
As the economy has rebounded, new storefronts have emerged in downtown La Grange over the past couple of years. “We have some fantastic new businesses opening up,” says Steve Jasinski, current head of the La Grange Business Association and a Realtor for Baird Warner in La Grange. Among them is a soon-to-open store called Painted Rubbish, where people can give old furniture a new life by repainting and decorating their pieces.
Speaking of giving old furniture new life, Jackson Square Mall across from the Metra tracks, is a popular stop for locals and visitors alike for its wide range of antiques, home décor and collectibles.
Other independently-owned stores in La Grange include fashion and accessories boutique Cela Creations, vintage and artisan shop Blue Eyed Jack, children’s store Monday’s Child, and women’s clothing retailers Cleo Boutique and Mary Ann’s Shoppe. One of the newest stores is Eco-Maniacs, a green business specializing in earth-friendly toys, apparel and accessories.
Likewise, the entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well at From Scratch Marketplace, a shared kitchen that has allowed many home cooks to make and package their famous recipes, from cookies to pasta sauces to pretzels. Many of the vendors whose foods are sold at From Scratch are La Grange residents as well, giving new meaning to the term “locavore.”
The West End of La Grange, near the Stone Avenue stop on the Burlington Northern Metra line, is also home to several independent businesses that have become popular shopping stops, including Vintage Charm and Hammer Boutique.
For a comprehensive listing of stores, restaurants and other businesses in the village, visit the La Grange Business Association website, www.lgba.com.
The Silver Screen
The façades of many buildings in downtown La Grange reflect the village’s history as a commercial hub. One of the most notable is the marquee at the La Grange Theatre on La Grange Road.
Built in 1925 as a venue for live shows, the La Grange Theatre was converted to a moviehouse in the 1940s. Five years ago, the building was carefully restored and improved to include comfortable new seating and an updated sound system, along with a new concession stand. As part of the restoration process that was supported financially by the village, many original architectural details, including a hand-painted ceiling mural, were uncovered.
Today, the multi-screen theatre shows nearly-new movies at a value price of $5.50 for adults, $5 for seniors and kids, and $4.50 for matinées.
The theatre holds special events and screenings throughout the year including films by Lyons Township High School students, as well as classic holiday movies as part of the La Grange Hometown Holiday celebration.
Not far away, in neighboring Western Springs, the Theatre of Western Springs continues its long tradition of live theatre in the suburbs, for both families and adults. Many members of the cast and production are suburban residents, and performances run the gamut from comedy to drama to musicals.
On the playbill this spring is “The Trip to Bountiful” from April 11-21 and “The Unexpected Guest” from May 30 to June 9. Family productions through the Children’s Theatre of Western Springs include the staging of “The Boxcar Children” in May.
In addition to its performance series, the Theatre of Western Springs also offers classes and workshops for young people and adults, including a well-attended summer camp.
The Annual Pet Parade
Just how homespun is La Grange? The village’s annual Pet Parade — a tradition dating back 67 years – is a “must see” for residents, as well as an attraction for people throughout the Chicago area. Thousands of spectators and participants take part in this annual kick-off to the summer season.
“We love the Pet Parade. Soccer shuts down for the Pet Parade, baseball shuts down for the Pet Parade — everything shuts down for the Pet Parade,” points out Staelgraeve.
Breen’s father, Edward Breen, Jr., was one of the founders of the La Grange Pet Parade and is credited with naming the event. “The Pet Parade has taken on a life of its own as it’s grown over the years,” agrees Breen. “It’s something the community really embraces.”
So much so, he adds, that other traditions have piggybacked off the parade itself. “It’s a fun day in town, and people have block parties and house parties to celebrate all day,” Breen notes. Last year, nearly 20 block parties were held the day of the pet parade.
Pets and Pals Charities Ltd. was formed in 1999 to raise money to meet parade expenses. Palmer is the charity’s current president and says that the Pet Parade truly defines La Grange. “Having grown up and been in it as a child and just watching it every year, it’s amazing to see the joy it brings to people and the smiles on kids’ faces,” says Palmer.
This year’s Pet Parade will feature traditionally popular acts like the Jesse White Tumblers and the Lawn Rangers precision lawnmower team, as well as marching bands and dozens of community-based organizations and sports teams. Step-off will take place at 9:30 a.m. on Saturday, June 1.
Looking ahead a bit, other downtown events include the annual La Grange Craft Fair in July, West End Art Festival in September, Halloween Walk in October, and Hometown Holiday in early December.
Other Points of Interest
• The La Grange Public Library, which dates to 1904 and was rebuilt in 2007, includes a 100,000-piece collection and offers programs for all ages, from knitting classes to computer sessions to book clubs.
• The La Grange Area Historical Society maintains a file for every residence in town, which people can look at and add to. The society also offers special events throughout the year, such as a trivia night and quaint teas for girls and their parents or grandparents.
• La Grange has a residential area called the Historic District that spans nearly 1,000 buildings built from the late 1800s to the early 1900s. The Historic District is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
• The Park District of La Grange offers classes for all age and activity levels, including many held in the district’s Recreation Center. An indoor “park” is a highlight of that facility.
• The private La Grange Country Club is one of the oldest country clubs in the area, dating back to 1899.
• Lyons Township High School, founded in 1888, educates more than 4,000 students and is often included in rankings of top high schools in the state.
• Every summer, downtown sidewalks are dotted with some kind of community artwork, designed by local residents and sponsored by local businesses. From cows to clocks to rain barrels, the art projects stick around for the season and are auctioned off in the early fall for charity.Edit Module