Vernon Hills may not top the list of Illinois tourist destinations. No matter: it’s visited everyday by commuters and business travelers, and I’ve heard that 60,000 out-of-towners work here (CDW and Rust-Oleum are two well-known employers). My theory proposes that wherever large numbers of hungry workers gather, a few good non-chain restaurants prevail. So far, Vernon Hills, you’re proving me right.
Vernon Hills is a village with a verdant past and contemporary present that’s clearly shaped by the automobile culture of its initial 1970s growth spurt. It’s a richly diverse version of the American suburban dream: a thriving mall and shopping centers, large homes, lovely green parks and top schools. Lilts of English, Spanish, Polish, Russian, Korean and Japanese sprinkle the stores. The thriving retail scene’s no accident. Vernon Hills proudly maintains an inviting business environment and even works with an architect to improve the aesthetics of its big box retailers and parking lots. The Des Plaines River Trail runs along its eastern edge.
But what about food? Yes, I know. What’s wrong with Max & Erma’s, Potbelly’s, or Chipotle? Probably not much, depending on your taste. That said, I’m beside-myself-happy to discover unique (i.e. non-chain) restaurants that reflect the passionate drive of their owners. Vernon Hills has more than few places worth a visit.
First on my list: Nirvana Wine and Grillerie. Tucked into an unlikely but accessible location between Office Depot and T. J. Maxx, this little piece of heaven owned by Chef Alaine Lubin deserves its name. No deep fryer? Check. World-inspired cuisines and artisan cheeses? Check. Yes, it’s really that good. I’m blown away by Nirvana’s smooth wines (try the flights). Many are hard to find elsewhere, including the Kung Fu Girl Riesling with its unexpected delicious kick.
Nirvana often attracts bike riders ducking off the trail to take a break, and suburbanites taking a break from more standard fare. Indoors, acoustic music starts at 7 pm five days a week; outdoors, diners relax amidst lush flowering plants.
Another new discovery: Fiamme Everyday Italian: Pizzaria + Pasta (only open three months at this writing, but owned by experienced local restauranteurs). I’m amused that they call it “everyday” because it’s really rather standout. Perched on the eastern shore of Vernon Hill’s manicured Bear Lake, Fiamme provides a distinctly pleasant place to catch the setting sun while enjoying freshly made pizza or gnocchi with a glass of vino or Birro Moretti. A striking corten steel bridge spans the water to the north, and the height helps silhouette the kids running across it. My specialty pizza came topped with walnuts and speck (a smoked Austrian prosciutto). Turns out Chef Chris has worked in kitchens across Europe and South Africa; he told me he’s excited about this cuisine that’s familiar and accessible (in terms of flavor and price) but with rare European quality.
Other restaurants are calling my name too – Peacock (Indian) and Opa Estiatorio (Greek) – but they will have to wait for another day. Stay tuned!
One note: Google Maps currently shows an incorrect location for Nirvana. I recommend you take Route 60 east of Milwaukee, then take the first possible turn south into Rivertree Court. It’s just a few doors past the Office Depot.
– Linda Gardner Phillips
Click here to read more posts from Linda.