There’s irony in the fact that on the very day Normal’s Town Council approved a generous sales tax rebate to bring Portillo’s to the Twin Cities, I also learned the future of the venerable Grand Cafe, by one definition Bloomington-Normal’s oldest restaurant, is very uncertain. Then just one day later, I was pleased to hear another restaurant, one that by a different definition could also be considered our most senior eatery, will be rebuilt after a devastating fire this fall.
Let’s talk Portillo’s first. This community seems to be Portillo’s-crazy. The gravy cooled a bit only after it became known the town of Normal will rebate $1.8 million in food and beverage and sales taxes to the developer that’s leasing the land to Portillo’s.
It chilled some more when word got out Champaign will get a new Portillo’s a few months before we do (another “tear-down” in a busy retail area a half mile from the interstate) without offering any tax dollars. Ouch. Normal’s plan also seems pretty rich in the context of contributions it plans to make to bring the Mitsubishi plant back to life.
At the very least, Normal council members should have balked at the 8 percent interest the town will pay the developer on whatever outstanding balance remains each year on the $1.8 million rebate. Better the developer get the rebate only as the town receives the tax money it will pass along — no interest added.
But the deal’s done and the math seems to work. A property that currently yields about $40,000 a year in tax money will now produce six or seven times as much, town officials estimate, maybe even nine times as much if you go by Portillo’s projections. Town officials also think Portillo’s arrival next year can spur re-development of nearby property, including Landmark Mall that will be vacated by Kroger in 18 months.
Yet, if I’m the owner of another local restaurant or a caterer (yes, Portillo’s does catering), I’m probably pretty miffed right about now. And if I’m a restaurateur thinking of locating here, I’ll probably be visiting city hall with my hand out.
Meanwhile, there will be a lot of disappointed people if the Grand Cafe in downtown Bloomington shuts its doors forever. Initial news reports indicated a planned New Year’s Eve closing would be followed by remodeling. But between customers one night this week, owner Ike Chiu would only tell me “everything is up in the air. We’re definitely closing Dec. 31. It could be for two weeks, two months, two years.” Maybe he’s looking for a new owner. Or a tax rebate.
The Grand Cafe has been at its present location for 40 years, but occupied multiple other downtown locations before that, perhaps as early as 1917. (A “Grand Inn Cafe” occupied the second floor of a building on the west side of the courthouse square a century ago.)
Today, there are more Chinese restaurants in Bloomington-Normal than there are McDonald’s, Steak ’n Shakes, Taco Bells and Burger Kings combined. But the Grand Cafe has many loyal fans of its old-recipe Chinese-American food. I love its Kung Pao Beef and rate its egg rolls the best in town.
By another definition, Parkview Food & Pub at the northwest corner of Miller Park can be described as the Twin Cities' oldest restaurant. That’s because what was once known as “the Parkview Inn” has been at the same location since the late 1920s. Route 66 ran right past it.
Fire extensively damaged the Parkview seven weeks ago. Owner Rick McCormick tells me what’s left of it will be demolished and an all-new and “lot roomier” Parkview will take its place next year.
I’m likely to see you in line at Portillo’s next fall. But I’m still a fan of home-grown establishments that have thrived for decades.