Turning the Corner—RBK American Grill

September 2016 View more

NMAG0916_TableForTwo_RBK-047_800pxLocation. Location. Location. Even people who know nothing about running a restaurant know this to be the well-worn mantra of success in the business. But what happens when this handy marketing linchpin doesn’t quite hold up? When a seemingly ideal location chews up and spits out a variety of pleasant establishments over the years?

Without digging into the vagaries of the hospitality industry or the specifics of what went awry with each of the eateries that preceded RBK American Grill on its high-traffic, high-visibility corner in downtown Downers Grove—just steps from the popular Tivoli Theater and, thanks to its proximity to the BNSF rail tracks, an inevitable visual touchstone for thousands of hungry commuters and idling drivers each and every day—it’s hard to argue that there isn’t something commercially cursed about this particular location. Yet RBK has been holding steady for some time now, and it’s fairly easy to see why.

NMAG0916_TableForTwo_RPK Interior_800pxPlaying the Standards

Thanks in equal parts to the lovely summer weather and a classic car show along Main Street, Downers Grove was abuzz with activity on the Friday evening we visited. But it wasn’t the pedestrian throngs that forced our hand in the decision to forgo what seemed like a delightful patio for the relative calm of the dining room on the other side of the glass—it was the nearly nonstop rush-hour train traffic just across the street, an annoyance that is likely less persistent during off hours. No matter, because inside was a fine consolation prize—compact, well-lit and just the right degree of boisterous.

The menu at RBK is neither revolutionary nor run-of-the-mill, with plenty of American classics that would fit comfortably in the category of comfort food. Yet even as most dishes play it more or less straight, the attention to execution and detail elevate almost everything on the slate.

NMAG0916_TableForTwo_RBK-092_800pxOMG, RBK

Take our appetizer, for instance. Tater tots. No joke. Except these were “tot-chos”—a pile of sweet potato tots studded with pulled pork and covered in cheese. Call it a heart attack on a plate, call it trailer park poutine, call it whatever you want—we called it delicious and cleaned the dish. From there, my companion moved on to a generously appointed chopped salad, which looked like a farmers’ market in a bowl, with generous chunks of organic chicken and impossibly juicy grape tomatoes leading the charge.

Now it’s confession time. We visited RBK during the weekend of Ribfest, and I had ribs. Short ribs, yes, which really don’t fit into the same carnivorous category as the slathered Fred Flintstone xylophones they sling on West Street, but still—I ventured outside of Naperville to eat ribs in early July. I await a visit from some type of civic culinary authority. Billed as six-hour short ribs, and served atop a mesa of horseradish mashed potatoes with crispy string beans, I would estimate that they disappeared in about 10 minutes, with no need for a knife.

Little did we realize, however, that we hadn’t yet reached the meal’s apex. That came at dessert with the arrival of the banana cream pie. We also shared a tasty freeform cherry pie, but it was the banana cream (with an Oreo crust!) that cemented RBK as must-return option. This sweet wedge was, quite simply, a perfect encapsulation of the whole philosophy at work here—a straightforward standard done exceedingly well.

In fact, all other factors aside, one can say with some degree of certainty that as long as RBK keeps the banana cream pie on the menu, it will likely continue to keep itself on this corner—and in our corner.