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December 2022 View more

By Phil Vettel

Stolp Island Social attracts theatergoers and locals alike

Stolp Island Social
Stolp Island Social, 5 E. Galena Blvd., Aurora

I suppose other restaurants may have opened with less fortunate timing than Stolp Island Social in Aurora. But not many.

Amy Morton, daughter of legendary restaurateur Arnie Morton (Morton’s The Steakhouse, Arnie’s), is a North Shore resident who was drawn to downtown Aurora because of the Paramount Theatre (her family loves musicals). She opened Stolp Island Social, next door, at the end of November 2019. The restaurant’s fortunes have been yoked to the Paramount ever since. When the theater was bustling, preshow business boomed. When the theater was dark, Stolp Island Social turned to Locals Night on Tuesdays to sustain it.

Amy Morton
Amy Morton

In February 2020 the restaurant was profiled in this magazine, and the Chicago Tribune added a glowing review (written by me, coincidentally enough). “The momentum we had was amazing,” Morton recalls.

But then we all remember what happened in March 2020.

Morton shuttered Stolp Island Social several days ahead of the governor’s mandated shutdown. “We knew it was coming,” Morton says. “The Paramount closed, and we followed suit.” The Paramount reopened in August 2021. Stolp Island Social wasn’t ready. “We planned on opening at the same time,” she says, “but we couldn’t get enough staff.”

Stolp Island didn’t reopen until December 2021, more than 20 months after its shutdown. “It’s been a huge struggle,” Morton says. “People are just beginning to come back to the theater, so we can have some great weekend nights when there are shows. But in the beginning, we weren’t open long enough for people to get to know us, and now we have to work hard to let the community know we’re there.”

People who come to Stolp Island Social are likely to love what they find. The atmosphere is low-key and welcoming; lighting is gentle, and vintage photographs on the walls give the dining areas a sense of permanence. Look to the ceiling—no, really, look up—and you’ll find it stenciled with inspirational quotes. It’s a cute touch. The chef de cuisine is John Thurmond, a former sous chef at Alinea in Chicago. He’s not attempting Alinea’s rarefied cuisine here; instead, expect refined iterations of classic dishes. Much of the menu is built for speed, a necessary consideration when catering to a pretheater crowd, and so the appetizer list includes such items as deviled eggs (brightened by pickled shallots), marinated olives, crispy chickpeas, and Burrata-tomato salad, all of which can be delivered quickly.

Double-fried chicken wings
Double-fried chicken wings

One of the advantages of having experienced Stolp Island in its early days is seeing how certain dishes have evolved. The meatballs, for example, were originally made of ground lamb, paired with minted yogurt and pistachio pesto. Several iterations later, the meatballs now are all beef, nestled in a red chile and coconut sauce. “We try to balance the dish between simple and adventurous,” Morton says.

In the same way, double-fried chicken wings (which renders the wings super crunchy) once were paired with honey-lemon sauce and smoked chiles; now the extra-meaty wings get a Jamaican jerk preparation, with mango-habanero sauce on the side.

Perhaps due to Amy Morton’s heritage, steaks are prominent among the entrees; there are six, all Heritage Angus beef. They’re not cheap, unsurprisingly, but prices are very competitive with the top-name steakhouses in the suburbs.

Other mains to look for include braised short ribs with Brussels sprouts and bone-marrow breadcrumbs, a special that I hope makes it to the regular menu. Beer-battered whitefish, with fennel and housemade tartar sauce, is a keeper, and tender yet hearty lamb Bolognese, served over pappardelle noodles with ricotta salata, is an ideal cold-weather dish.

Arnie’s Chocolate Velvet Cake
Arnie’s Chocolate Velvet Cake

There are a few desserts, but for me the go-to is the Arnie’s Chocolate Velvet Cake, served with raspberry sauce. The “velvet” in this description refers not to food coloring (how other velvet cakes are made) but to the silky texture of this chocolate-rich dessert.

Stolp Island has a noteworthy cocktail program, thanks to Tara Young-Ramos, originally the restaurant’s dining room manager and now the general manager. Drinks have such locally focused names as the Galena Boulevardier and Stan Mikita’s Mezcal Margarita. I liked the Clockwork Orange, a variant of an old-fashioned, but the stellar pour is the Aurora Borealis, a gin-based riff on an Aviation cocktail accented with edible glitter, giving the drink a jewel-tone appearance.

Aurora Borealis
Aurora Borealis

The good news, for restaurant and customers alike, is that Stolp Island has resumed Tuesday dinner service, in an effort to entice locals to visit when the theater is dark. To that end, bottles of wine are half-priced on Tuesdays, giving customers access to some conspicuous bargains. (There are two schools of thought with half-priced wine: Get a nice midrange bottle for a crazy-low price, or, my approach, treat yourself to a premium bottle you otherwise wouldn’t splurge on—grab the Stag’s Leap Syrah or the Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon, and you’ll be paying less than retail.)

“We’re ramping up a bit more each week,” Morton says. “It’s amazing to have the theater next door, but we really want to be a restaurant for the community.”


Photos courtesy of Huge Galdones Photography