Jan 22, 2017

A commoner dines at Bill’s Toasty Shop, Taylorville, Ill.

If there’s one eating establishment the residents of the central Illinois town of Taylorville, Ill., consider an institution, it would have to be Bill’s Toasty Shop.  Anyone I know who lives in or around Taylorville raves about the place.  But what gives this downtown diner local legend status?  Last week, Punky and I decided to find out. 

To find Bill’s Toasty Shop, we headed for Taylorville’s historic downtown square, spun around a few times, and suddenly, like a place stuck in time, we noticed the signs and storefront at 111 N. Main, just off the square. 

From the street, you can see Bill’s Toasty in its entirety.  It’s not much, but it’s everything we’d hoped for in a classic diner from a bygone era. Open 24 hours?  Confirmed.  No credit cards allowed?  They didn’t exist in the 1930s, so why start accepting them now?  An interior practically unchanged for 80 years?  Perfect!  We stepped through the door and back in time.

We had our pick of the 10 counter stools available and chose a pair opposite the left menu board.  A pair of employees who were keeping busy behind the counter greeted us warmly.  Picking up on the obvious, they asked if it was our first time at Bill’s Toasty.  We quickly got to talking about the history of the place.  At one point, one of them proudly stated, “We’ve been open and running since 1932.  We’re open 24/7 and we never close, because we don’t need to.”

With just those 10 counter stools and a pair of two-seater booths, I can imagine the atmosphere in Bill’s Toasty can get quite … umm … toasty during peak hours.  The place seems to do a steady carryout business, however, as several people came in to pick up orders during our visit.  I learned Bill’s still maintains a dedicated crowd of regulars, as well as a late-night crowd on weekends looking to fill up on food after a night of drink. 

Eventually, our thoughts turned back to lunch, so we ordered cups of coffee (the perfect diner drink) and studied both menu boards.  Although I was tempted by the thought of breakfast made on their grill, I eventually realized I’d be completely missing the point of coming to a place called Bill’s Toasty for the first time and not having some sort of toasted sandwich with grilled cheese.  Gauging my appetite, I ordered a ham and cheese with a cup of chili.  

Punky never misses an opportunity to order a cheeseburger off the grill, so she ordered a small (if a quarter-pound burger can truly be considered “small”) with a side of fries and her own cup of chili.   

The cook began working the grill at the end of the counter – its top is tantalizingly in view from the storefront window – and I began to admire the sizzle and imagine countless years of seasoning going into every order. 

The finished products were everything we’d hoped for and expected.  Punky’s cheeseburger, with the works delicately balanced on top of each other, was all at once juicy, melty and completely satisfying. 

My ham and cheese was perfectly grill-toasted -- the taste of butter emanated throughout the bread, cheese stretched out and oozed down the bread as I pulled it apart.  The taste of it combined with the grilled sliced ham reminded me of the best of my grandmother’s comfort food on a rainy weekend day.    

The chili, though, was other-wordly good.  It had just the right proportion of meat and beans (yes, I believe it’s perfectly OK – and my preference – to have beans in chili).  Every spoonful had a velvety greasy yet smooth mouth feel (do they use beef suet?).  The spices are subtle; they complement rather than overpower.  You can even add those classic Lance restaurant crackers if you desire.  They’ve obviously perfected their chili recipe, and it’s another example of their classic diner comfort food. 

Everything about our first Bill’s Toasty experience was delightful.  The people running the place were very friendly.  The food was fantastic.  With a larger than average diner menu (including fried cauliflower and horseshoes, a Springfield tradition), we vowed to return soon.  We also promised our new friends behind the counter we’d save room next time for one of their epic milkshakes next time.  I’m looking forward to returning, with an even bigger appetite. 

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