You don't really need a family along with you to eat "family style," but it sure helps.
We stuffed all seven of us into the van a few weeks ago and headed out in search of a restaurant that many East Siders have heard about but that remains relatively unknown among the Missourians in the metro area. Diamond Mineral Springs, in the tiny hamlet of Grantfork, about five miles north of Highland, is great family fun on a number of levels. The trip over, roughly a half-hour from the Arch, mandates travel on several miles of back roads through Illinois farm country. When you finally find your way to the intersection of Illinois Route 160 and Pocahontas Road (neither of which, by the way, is directly accessible from the interstates), you're greeted by an aging sign, the carcass of an old wagon and any number of fluffy kitties prowling the parking lot.
The main restaurant at Diamond Mineral Springs is what's left of an old spa complex that dates to 1892 and at one time included a 40-room hotel. In keeping with an earlier definition of "health spa," the food hearkens back to a time when "healthy," as used as a modifier for "appetite," had not yet limited such things as calories, sugar and cholesterol. Fry most of it and add on plates and plates of veggies and starches, and you've got the kind of place where folks who've spent their day, since before sunup until after sundown, engaging in the heavy labors of farm life can refuel and prepare for another long day to come.
An entry area featuring old photos and recent newspaper clippings gives way to a single large, high-ceilinged room with a bar and display case on one wall and an old country cupboard anchoring another. Décor is old farmhouse, with a predominance of hunter green and early-1900s wallpaper, and that display case is loaded with one of the signature items of Diamond Mineral Springs, various cream pies topped with impossibly high layers of meringue.
Nothin' much fancy here -- in fact, this may be one of the few places you'll encounter appetizers of chicken livers and even gizzards, aside from when the livers appear under the camouflaged and more socially acceptable term "rumaki." We stuck with spicy wings and fried "crab stix" -- the latter not as bad as they sound and the former a coarse-battered, fruity concoction with a moderate but certainly tangible kick. Two appetizer orders went all the way around the table and then some; given all the sides that show up before and with the entrées, an appetizer course is more than a little redundant.
The first round includes heaping bowls of applesauce and coleslaw, as well as sliced pickled beets with an added touch of vibrancy resulting from the inclusion of clove. The choice of entrées, priced from $8.95-$11.95 (or $15.95 for a porterhouse steak, for the largest of appetites), consists of fried or baked chicken, fried shrimp, homemade sausage, country ham, chicken-fried steak, a 1-pound catfish, fried walleye pike and a pork steak. The portions are, as expected, giant, with the second round of sides including highly cooked green beans, mashed potatoes and biscuits. Again, nothin' fancy, but it's simply impossible for you to be hungry after the meal is over.
We piled a bunch of food into take-home bags, because we'd been sitting right next to those pies for close to an hour by that point and weren't about to leave without diving into at least a few of them. The meringue-pie choices were chocolate, coconut, lemon and banana -- very sweet but not over the top, with the meringue close to 2 inches thick. A little more subtle, but still great country pies, were the cherry, peach and blueberry, each with a little hint of tartness on the end.
During the summer months on weekends, you can also dine on the Back Porch, which offers a more elaborate menu of steaks, seafood and pastas, usually with a nice breeze on the side.
Oh, and don't get Diamond Mineral Springs confused with Blue Springs, which is right next to I-70 at the second Highland exit. You'll see any number of tall-meringue-pie billboards along the highway on your way over, and in fact Blue Springs is owned by Brad Michael, who also owns Diamond Mineral Springs, but the ambiance isn't anywhere near that of the old place up in Grantfork.
If you stay away from the superhighways on the way home, you can almost imagine what a Sunday supper out must have been like 25 or even 50 years ago -- especially given that they don't take credit cards at Diamond Mineral Spring, although personal checks are welcome.