Maria’s Restaurant Feeds a Community
Nothing compares to the taste of fresh, natural ingredients or the aromas of home cooking wafting in from the kitchen. Dining at Maria’s A Great Place to Eat in Washington feels almost like home, but not like anywhere else. Owner and chef Maria Taylor uses a food supplier that sources ingredients from local farms.
“I believe that when you get good farm ingredients the old-fashioned way, your food doesn’t need a lot,” she says. “It tastes so good.”
At Maria’s, guests take their pick from a variety of salads, sandwiches, burgers, wraps and quesadillas made from simple ingredients. House specialties include spinach, bacon and feta quiche (the top seller) and her late husband Bob’s recipe for chicken puff pie.
“Some call it an upside-down chicken pot pie,” Taylor explains, “because the pastry puff is on the bottom, then we put the chicken on top of it – not your typical presentation.”
The dish won the 2011 Taste of Washington Award.
Maria’s started out as a tearoom in Peoria in 2001, but it closed while Bob, who helped run the kitchen, battled cancer. In 2007, the restaurant reopened with an expanded menu as Maria’s A Great Place to Eat on Peoria Street in Washington, just east of Peoria in Tazewell County.
With its new identity, Maria’s positioned itself to capture more clientele – specifically with a broader appeal to male taste buds by offering items such as the Irish Burger, a beef patty topped with corned beef and sauerkraut. Taylor says revenue went way up by simply adding burgers and fries to the menu.
Everything changed when Bob passed away in February 2013. And the following November, a tornado devastated the community of Washington. The storm displaced about 30 percent of Maria’s customers from their homes.
A pastor at Bethany Community Church came up with the idea of sending hungry disaster relief volunteers to local restaurants and footing the bill as a thank you for their help. Business had suffered during that time with $5,000 worth of food spoiled due to no electricity, not to mention the lack of customers dining out, so the idea benefited both the restaurants and the volunteers.
“If the church had not helped me, there’s no way my business would still be alive,” says Taylor, who stayed busy by feeding volunteers box lunches.
Several others stepped in to keep the restaurant afloat. Two friends volunteer every Monday to cut broccoli for the broccoli-walnut salad, the restaurant’s best-selling salad known for its secret dressing.
Taylor sees it all as God providing. “It’s bittersweet, but God is always good, no matter what we are going through,” she says.
Taylor scaled back the restaurant’s hours to be more manageable and also give her more time with her family. In addition to losing her husband and experiencing the tornado, her grandchild was born with health difficulties, and her son had just returned from Afghanistan after a difficult tour. “Our family needed time to heal, so we decided that scaling back hours was better than closing for good,” she says.
Now open just for the midday rush, Maria’s has carved a niche for itself serving the neighborhood lunch crowd, which mainly consists of local retirees, teachers and grandparents with their grandchildren. “For kids, we offer a teapot and teacup for them to have a special lunch, and unique desserts,” Taylor says. “So grandparents love to bring children with them.”
The restaurant sees anywhere from 60 to 100 customers a day, and Taylor doesn’t plan on extending the hours anytime soon. Being closed in the evenings allows them to host private events such as rehearsal dinners, and a new delivery system has broadened the lunch opportunities. Taylor still makes everything from scratch daily so that guests know they can always count on good, fresh food.
“We’re still healing,” she says. “The business continues to come back as more and more people move back to town, and new people find out about us.”
If You Go...
Location: 306 Peoria St. in Washington
Hours: Tuesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and for special events. (Closed on Sundays and Mondays)
Phone: (309) 444-7805