Perhaps it should be called "proletarian gourmet."
Three-1-Three is situated, as befits its name, three blocks off the central roundabout in Belleville, whose downtown is a microcosmic version of the same forces that have been battering and reshaping downtowns in small and big cities alike. Although still clean and pleasant, many storefronts are now either for lease or relegated to purposes other than that for which they were originally designed, and the principal industry in the immediate area seems to be law firms.
Nonetheless, part of this evolution has involved opportunity for revitalization, and Three-1-Three represents a wonderful recycling of a classic early 20th-century storefront. It's a long and deep space, with a high-ceilinged diner-style dining space passing through to a long bar and finally a stage area to the rear. From the more distant past, the ceiling in the front room is pressed tin and copper, painted in red and white; a decorative element of more recent influence is the eclectic collection of poster art. These include a Japanese tour poster for the Beatles from 1966; a quick-print, very ungraphical black-and-white promotion of the movie Easy Rider; and more recent stuff for Fragile Porcelain Mice and Bob. Also not to be missed is an authentic tabletop Asteroids arcade game.
In terms of the menu, nothing is more than 10 bucks, and daily specials every day except Sunday cater to the most minimal of budgets, including stuff like 50-cent tacos and sloppy joes, and a burger, fries and a draft beer for $3.13 on Saturdays. Among the main entrees, the emphasis appears to be on main ingredients that are a step or two out of the ordinary, supplemented by huge portions of side dishes. It's an excellent approach for sending 'em away with both full stomachs and full pockets, and it fits in nicely with Belleville's working-class history.
Even the appetizers are basically meals unto themselves. We had hoped to test our mettle with the "just this side of hell" wings "so hot, you have to sign a "waiver of liability' to eat them" but they were unavailable when we visited, ostensibly because the key ingredient, sworn not to be habanero peppers, had become difficult to obtain from the restaurant's supplier. So we settled for the just plain "famous" wings, choosing the spicy-lime sauce option over the Cajun version, which essentially meant standard but well-prepared Buffalo-style wings with a little lime added to the sauce and a bunch of quartered, sliced limes spread on top. It was OK, but not as intriguing as the openly challenging hell version.
Another appetizer called "knot joe's" (say it out loud) was notable primarily for its sheer volume, a full-dinner-sized Mexican salad with lots of black olives and sour cream over lettuce and tomatoes, with the tortilla chips shoved underneath almost as an afterthought. "Triangles" (and it's not just me all the menu items are listed in quotes) were basically a pita pizza, with pieces of pita bread topped with melted mozzarella, jack and Parmesan cheeses, served with salsa and sour-cream dips.
By far the most interesting of the appetizers we tried was the "Santa Fe springsticks," eight cigar-shaped fried tortilla rolls filled with chicken, onions, cheese and peppers not overly spicy, but well balanced and tasty.
Penne rigate seems to be the pasta of choice at Three-1-Three, showing up on no fewer than four of the seven regular-menu entrees and used in great quantity on the two we tried. Both the "herb & lime roasted chicken with penne pasta" and the slightly malapropist "classic chili mac" (the "mac" of choice certainly wasn't "classic") made appropriate use of the pasta as a background texture, flavoring it in the one case with chicken that had significant evidence of the lime marinade and in the other with a full-bodied, slightly spicy but not at all salty red-and-black-bean chili.
The "chile (and it was good to see a restaurant that knows the difference between chili and chile) rubbed prime rib and grilled shrimp skewers" were the best of the bunch that we tried, an under-$10 feast that included a small but well-cooked thin piece of rib and seven medium-large shrimp with both citrus and spice overtones. The "Cajun roasted Alaskan white fish," on the other hand, just didn't work right, the mild fish completely overwhelmed by the drenching cayenne sauce.
There are about a half-dozen beers on draft, plus another couple of dozen in bottles, and an entire menu is devoted to specialty drinks. Belleville's heritage is celebrated with a neon "Stag Beer on Tap" sign, and plenty of other interesting memorabilia is scattered throughout the restaurant.
Service was perfect on both of our visits, coming each time from a pleasantly sarcastic guy who doubled as the barkeep at one point, he told us that our appetizers would be out in "three minutes and 47 seconds" but it should be noted that we ate early both times, and Three-1-Three doesn't draw its primary business until later hours. Most of the patrons on our first trip were clustered at the bar watching a live wrestling match on the TV.
Still, this merely added to the quite charming atmosphere, both from the old Main Street U.S.A. feel of the exterior and the "Nighthawks" diner feel of the interior. Three-1-Three isn't trying to be anything fancy just a little unexpected and a lot of fun. And at this, it succeeds admirably.
THREE-1-THREE, 313 E. Main St., Belleville, Ill., 618-239-6885. Hours: 11 a.m.-midnight Mon.-Fri., 5 p.m.-midnight. Sat.-Sun. Entrees: $7.95-$9.95.