Grilled cheeses aren’t on Maple Street Grille’s menu, but the chef doesn’t say so when a table orders three of the sandwiches during lunchtime.
“How can you say no when everybody knows you by your first name?” JR Greenwood said with a laugh from inside his kitchen. “I know what they’re thinking, ‘Oh, we know JR, he’ll do that for us.’”
Greenwood didn’t seem to mind. The owner of the Orion, Illinois, restaurant already had a long list of orders to fill, including burgers, chicken sandwiches and sides of chicken tortilla soup and chili.
And as he does on most weekday afternoons, Greenwood, 37, was manning the kitchen alone when a group of 10 people walked in last Wednesday.
“Usually you expect to see the same faces, but you never know who’s going to show up,” he said while he grabbed slices of cheese.
“We’re just little old Orion,” Greenwood said of the village with a population of about 1,800 people. “Because of our size, you got to do more to get people out here, get their attention and keep them coming back.”
Since opening in October 2015, that’s exactly what Greenwood has aimed to do.
‘Family is first’
Since the day Michelle Greenwood met her future husband, he dreamed of opening his own restaurant.
“It’s inspiring to see him live that out,” she said of her partner, who has worked as a chef for more than 20 years in the Quad-City area, including a stint at Jumer's Hotel & Casino. “His way of cooking is so creative. He takes everyday things and makes it his own.”
Michelle, a teacher at Rock Island High School, works at Maple Street Grille on nights, on weekends and during breaks. The couple, who have been married for nine years, also enlist their two daughters for help.
“Family is first at a place like this and a town like this,” she said.
That goes for some of JR’s most loyal taste-testers: his in-laws.
Last Wednesday, Mike and Linda Leonard made the 25-minute drive from Matherville, Illinois, their home of 47 years, for lunch.
“I think this place is a plus for the community,” said Linda Leonard, citing her son-in-law’s “famous chili." “We like to try just about anything JR comes up with.”
It was good timing.
Just an hour before their visit, JR launched his newest burger of the month, "The Food Truck Burger," which pays homage to the area’s on-the-go eateries.
Mike Leonard was one of the first customers to order the sandwich, which starts with a half-pound patty and is piled with chihuahua cheese, chipotle-braised pulled pork, red cabbage slaw, fried tortilla chips and cilantro-lime mayo.
“I’ve tried every burger of the month and I haven’t had a bad one,” he said. “If you go away hungry, you’re missing something.”
'Comfort food with a twist'
JR describes his menu as “comfort food with a twist.”
His indulgent recipes include a sloppy Joe flatbread and maple bacon fries for appetizers. Another one, tater tot nachos, was inspired by a snack Greenwood made for his two young daughters at home. On the “Kinda Like Grandma’s Kitchen” section of the menu, you’ll find honey-fried chicken, cajun pasta, baby back ribs and chicken and dumplins. And don’t forget about fried ice cream and a chocolate-chip sundae.
Then there’s the burger of the month, where JR’s creativity shines. Previous specials have been topped with chili cheese fries, beer-dipped fries, maple bourbon jam and “Dorito dust.” One burger, called “The PB&J,” included homemade strawberry jam and pork rinds.
“I like to try new things and I can try just about anything here,” Greenwood said. “You throw things against the wall and see what sticks.”
'A destination place'
For Orion, Maple Street Grille sits on somewhat historic ground. It replaced The Factory Restaurant and Lounge, which closed in April 2015.
“People had gone there for years and years,” JR said. “A lot of people saw it as a sad thing and a thing that was probably inevitable.”
But the Greenwood family, who have lived in Orion for nine years, saw it as a chance to move Orion forward.
“Out here in Orion, we’re small and blue collar,” Michelle said. “We want all the nice things that the bigger cities have, but we like the country feel. For families like ours, there wasn’t a place we could bring the whole family for a nice affordable dinner without driving 20 minutes.”
They decided to mix a big-city menu with a "country chic" look.
Renovating The Factory came with a lot of work. Greenwood and a few family members spent two months gutting the former supper club, which opened in 1969.
“The way it looks now is completely different,” Michelle said. “It’s comfortable here, but also a little bit different than what people were used to in this town.”
Her husband says Maple Street Grille adds to the growing appeal of Orion.
“Orion by itself is a great place to travel to for a day,” JR said. “Orion is a destination place and so is our restaurant."
For him, getting people in the doors starts with small-town service. He takes suggestions for burgers of the month, soups of the day, and, sometimes, adds a grilled cheese to the menu on the fly.
"I want people to feel a little bit like it's home," JR said. "And plenty of people do."