Effingham, population 12,500, seems an unlikely locale for a renowned gourmet restaurant and perhaps the largest Corvette party in the world, but this town at the crossroads of I-57 and I-70 is full of surprises.
While most interstate exits feature the usual dreary assortment of fast-food spots and chain motels, Effingham, 100 miles southeast of Springfield, draws food fans and auto aficionados from around the globe. Some 50,000 to 60,000 people pass through Effingham daily, according to Tourism Director Jodi Thoele. Not all of them stop, of course.
Those who do are in for some treats. “Effingham has a lot for a foodie, and culinary tourism is popular now,” Thoele says.
Heading the treat list is the Firefly Grill, featuring fresh American cuisine and named a “delicious destination” by the state of Illinois. Opened in 2006 by husband and wife Niall and Kristie Campbell, the restaurant has become synonymous with the town, Thoele says, feeding 300-600 people daily. The majority are travelers.
The menu features produce from the restaurant’s gardens and protein from local sources, prepared in creative ways. Interesting cocktails, homemade sodas and pure Vero water add to the experience. Numerous articles from national publications lining the walls erase any doubt as to the restaurant’s reputation.
Those articles also tell the story of how the Campbells, on a visit to her hometown, lamented the lack of fine dining. After Scotland-born Niall prepared a meal for Kristie’s family and friends, they convinced him to open a restaurant in town and even invested in its start.
The result is a freestanding, high-ceilinged, multi-windowed building surrounded by a small pond and gardens. It has a big-city feel and a menu based on what is in season.
While the Firefly can be the sole goal of a trip to Effingham, food fans also should stop at the Hodgson Mill Mercantile, visible from I-57. The company has been around since 1882, but the barnlike store with surrounding porches is relatively new. It offers a plethora of Hodgson Mill products, other local goods and cooking classes.
Even if you aren’t a fan of HM’s whole wheat graham flour or gluten-free pasta, you are sure to find enough grain items to fill a grocery bag.
Another longtime Effingham business, John Boos & Company, has a factory outlet showroom where cooks can buy butcher block cutting boards at a discount. “They are all over the Food Network,” Thoele says, and used by celebrity chefs around the world.
Thoele also recommends Tuscan Hills Winery, which she says has an “old world feel.” The winery hosts murder-mystery dinners, wine tastings, music and is a relaxing place to hang out with friends.
For a faster-paced attraction, try the Mid America Motorworks’ free MY Garage Museum, full of rare Corvettes and Volkswagens from the Yager family’s private collection. The Motorworks annually sponsors what is billed as “the largest Corvette party in the world,” drawing tens of thousands of fans for seminars, vendors, drag races, concerts with big-name bands and a Corvette expo. This year’s dates are Sept. 14-18.
Car fans also might want to attend the Effingham Cruise Night on Sept. 8 to see vintage vehicles cruise downtown for a night of nostalgia. The Hobnob Harvest Market, Sept. 8 and 9, brings more than 100 vendors with food, music and vintage furniture, clothing and jewelry.
Thoele says downtown Effingham has a lot of one-of-a-kind shops, including the Baseball Card Connection, a longtime mecca for collectors.
Devotees of a different stripe flock to the Cross at the Crossroads. At 200 feet high and 113 feet wide, the cross towers over the interstates as they run together briefly. The cross was a project of a nonprofit organization and is open year round. A welcome center houses cross memorabilia and a short video about its construction.
Another unexpected find is the Effingham Performance Center, a 1,500-seat theater showcasing performers such as Scotty McCreery on Nov. 10, REO Speedwagon on Nov. 16 and the Oak Ridge Boys on Nov. 17. “For a town our size, we get some amazing performances,” Thoele notes.
Other special events on tap this fall are the Heart of the Hops Craft Beer Festival with brews from throughout the United States, to be held downtown Sept. 30, and the Grapevine Bluegrass Festival at nearby Lake Sarah Oct. 6-8.
For more information on Effingham, go to www.visiteffinghamil.com. Call 217-342-2002 for reservations at the Firefly Grill and visit the website at www.ffgrill.com. Details about the Mid America Motorworks’ museum are at www.mygaragemuseum.org.
Mary Bohlen is a Springfield-based writer and editor and retired journalism professor at University of Illinois Springfield. She enjoys traveling the Midwest in search of interesting spots.