Hungry Travelers Flock to Dell Rhea’s Chicken Basket on Route 66
In 1946, Nat King Cole first sang, “Get your kicks on Route 66.” That same year, the Chicken Basket opened its doors at the corner of Route 66 and 79th Street in what was then rural Hinsdale.
More than 66 years later, the historic roadside restaurant has its own take on that old favorite: “Get your chix on Route 66.” The “chix” refers to its signature fried chicken dinner, a recipe that earns the Chicken Basket praise from local customers, food critics and even fellow restaurateurs such as the Food Network’s Guy Fieri of “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives.”
“We take great pride in providing quality food, made fresh and at a fair price,” says Patrick Rhea, current owner of the Chicken Basket. He learned this lesson from his parents, Dell and Grace, who bought the restaurant in 1963.
“Back in the early 1960s, this area was very busy,” Rhea says. “There was an airport across the street, a miniature golf course, several restaurants, and the Chicken Basket was even a Blue Bird Bus stop. The restaurant was packed from morning until night with all that traffic. All you needed was one car out of 100 to stop.”
The restaurant’s ties to the automobile began even earlier. Founder Irv Kolarik managed a gas station on the property next door to the current Chicken Basket. In those days, families had only one car, Rhea says, so while it underwent repairs, they had to wait at the gas station. Kolarik put in a small counter to serve pie, coffee and cold sandwiches. Two local farm women suggested he turn the gas station into a restaurant. They said they’d provide their fried chicken recipe if he purchased his chickens from them. He agreed, and the Chicken Basket was born.
Road Less Traveled
When the Rhea family bought the restaurant almost 20 years later, Interstate 55 had just opened, changing the traffic pattern on Route 66 overnight. The former main highway – a perfect stop for hungry travelers on their way to and from Chicago – quickly became a quiet back road.
The change in traffic didn’t deter Dell Rhea, a well-known local businessman who had served as the executive director of the Chicago Convention and Visitors Bureau. He bought the Chicken Basket from the bank, put his name on it and worked to attract customers who appreciated home-cooked food and friendly service.
Fifty years later, his son carries on that tradition in the same building, now on the National Register of Historic Places, with the same sign, the same fried chicken recipe and the same determination. But a few things have changed.
“We have a full menu of fresh, additive-free comfort foods,” Rhea says. “In addition to our famous chicken, we are known for our wings, our macaroni and cheese, and our fresh, homemade soups. We make our chicken stock in house and prepare our own wing sauces.”
Rhea estimates that they cook about 2,000 pounds of chicken a week to serve the lunch and dinner crowds that flock to the Chicken Basket. It may be off the beaten track, but people come because they know they’ll get a delicious, fresh meal, says Rhea. Not to mention a taste of history.
[infobox alignment=”full” title=”If You Go…”]Location: 645 Joliet Rd. in Willowbrook
Hours: Tuesday through Thursday and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Phone: (630) 325-0780