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Harvest Café: Worth the Drive

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Head south out of Peoria and take Interstate 155 and eventually you will see a bunch of wind turbines in the farm fields, turning and churning and resembling a modern-day Quixotic nightmare.

When you come to an exit that tells you to turn right to reach Delavan, you might be struck by the shear starkness of your surroundings. You hope, as the next sign tells you, that Delavan really is only five miles away because it doesn’t look like there is anything up ahead.

When finally you reach the town and note that it has only 1,700 residents, you might start to wonder what it is about this little café in the heart of the town that gets people from 30 minutes or more away in any direction to come on a regular basis.

Once inside Harvest Cafe, with its warm and welcoming décor, you will probably get impatient to taste the food you have heard raves about.

The menu may take a second or third look because it has dishes you probably are unfamiliar with, but that is OK because you can be assured that whatever you order will be made and served as fresh as it can be at the restaurant its executive chef declares “has made it” into the farm-to-table culture that is starting to take hold in central Illinois.

“The farm-to-table concept is starting to catch on in the Peoria, which is great. It’s about time, but that’s also typical of Peoria,” said John Lanning, a Peoria native who honed his cooking skills at some of the top restaurants in the world, including Noma in Copenhagen, before returning home. “But we aren’t just catching up here in Delavan. Harvest Café has made it and now the others are catching up to us.”

Kevin Myszkowski, general manager of the restaurant, said, “We are concerned that the term ‘farm-to-table’ is going to get overused. But here, we can not only use it, we put the exclamation point on it.”

He added, “That’s because we really believe in the concept here and we have a kitchen full of people who buy into it.”

Harvest Café was started nearly four years ago by Libby Mathers, an area business woman and farm owner who decided to open the restaurant because she likes Delavan and fell in love with the 1890s building she bought and renovated to house it. “It’s something I’ve always wanted to do so I just went for it,” she said.
But she also wanted to do something that would help the area economy beyond selling food. She is a fan of the farm-to-table concept because it not only means the freshest foods possible coming into and out of the kitchen, but it also helps local farmers and their families.

“It was becoming increasingly obvious we need to get the chemicals and preservatives out of our food. And we have received amazing support from everybody around here, local and the surrounding area. We make everything fresh every day, even the buns for the burgers, and we try to have something on our menu that suits everyone’s price point,” she said.

“We are proof that if you have a good product, people will find you.”

The dinner menu ranges from $12 to $32 per entrée, of which there are relatively few. But perhaps befitting its pastoral locale it contains such dishes as rabbit, duck, wild flounder, pumpkin gnocchi, chicken pot pie and brisket. Classic American cuisine made fresh with the creativity of Chef Lanning.

If your taste is a bit more exotic, at least in terms of what you usually find in central Illinois, the menu has rabbit, duck, wild flounder…you get the picture.

“I think our menu fits us very well. It changes pretty frequently because we have to go with what is available from our farmer suppliers, many of whom are regular customers, as well,” Mathers said.

When she bought the building, she decided to keep the original wood flooring and tin ceiling because both were in good shape. More wood was added to the walls along with the earth tone paints, the bar that is noticeable the second you walk in was custom built and the original artwork depicting farm scenes were acquired from a painter in the state of Washington.

Mathers, however, did not want a place that was going to be over-the-top fancy. “I wanted warm and casual. That’s what I got. The main thing is to come in and enjoy the food, the drink, the live entertainment every Friday night. It might be wise to make reservations on weekends. We get pretty busy,” she said.

Myszkowski said that while approaching Delavan might seem pretty far out, it really is centrally located between Peoria, Bloomington-Normal and Springfield, all about a half-hour away. Smaller cities like Pekin, Morton and Lincoln are even closer.

He and Lanning fell in love with the town so much they moved here, Myszkowski with his wife and daughter. “We love it here,” he said.

He and Lanning often are visited by friends who have heard of the restaurant “and they always love it. Then they pass the word and people come in for the food. We’ve built some great relationships here.”

For those concerned about driving so far, particularly after a good meal that included alcohol, he arranged for a bus to bring people once a month from Peoria, then take them back afterward. “We call it the ‘Del-A-Van.’ People enjoy it and they don’t have to worry about anything,” he said.

Lanning first began cooking for The Dream Center in Peoria but eventually found his way to the French Culinary Institute in New York City. While studying there he worked late nights at several New York restaurants.

A few years ago he moved back to become part of the original staff at June, the now-famous farm-to-table restaurant in Peoria Heights. From there Lanning had a stint at a farm-to-table restaurant in Boulder, Colo., then returned to June as sous chef. That was followed by an internship at Noma, the Cophenhagan restaurant ranked the best in the world three straight years by Restaurant magazine.

After that internship he accepted the sous chef position at Harvest Café before being promoted to head chef.

Mathers said she believes Lanning and Myszkowski have Harvest Café humming quite nicely. “I’m very pleased. Our customers are pleased. When people try us, they come back.”

About the Author
Paul Gordon is the editor of The Peorian after spending 29 years of indentured servitude at the Peoria Journal Star. He’s an award-winning writer, raconteur and song-and-dance man. He also went to a high school whose team name is the Alices (that’s Vincennes Lincoln High School in Indiana; you can look it up).