HIGHLAND PARK – Though Bluegrass is located off the beaten path at 1636 Old Deerfield Road, the cozy restaurant that serves everything from barbecue ribs to blackened grouper offers mid-casual dining with a twist.
“The tuna tartar makes dining fun,” said co-owner Jim Lederer. Under the tuna tartar plate is a bowl with a swimming Siamese fighting fish or Betta fish. “Two Bettas can’t be in the same bowl, because they really do fight. Another name for them is puddle jumpers, because they can jump from bowl to bowl.”
Lederer prides himself on Bluegrass’ unique presentations which often include martini glasses. The Szechwan calamari is in a huge 50 ounce martini glass, so it’s made for a table of four or six to share. The Bananas Foster is also served in a large martini glass, while taster sized desserts are served in small martini glasses.
Lederer opened Bluegrass in 2004 with his wife and business partner Joni Lederer. Lederer grew up in Highland Park and the couple raised their two grown sons here.
“It was never intended to be a family business,” he said. “I actually like my kids, and I’d rather be their father than their boss. We have one son who moved back to Highland Park after he got married. Mom’s much happier than I am. I lose food and beer and Mom gets to see the kids.”
Joni Lederer explained that she met her husband while she was a waitress at Don Roth’s in Wheeling and he was the manager. Then he decided to start his own restaurant, and the couple has been married for 27 years.
The Lederers work well together, because they focus on different aspects of the restaurant. “I’m usually in the front as hostess and manage the staff at lunch and Jim manages more of the kitchen,” she said. Joni Lederer also lets her husband manage their kitchen at home, by allowing him to do all of the cooking.
Lederer learned how to cook at a very early age. “Growing up my mom was disabled, so I had two choices: learn how to cook, or learn how to open up a can, or eat TV dinners,” he said. Lederer started cooking omelets when he was six or seven years old. His dad and everyone in the family also cooked.
Years later, Lederer said he taught his sons how to cook and is thrilled that “one can bake anything in the oven, while the other is a grill master, and they both know how to keep a clean kitchen.”
Lederer explained that Bluegrass was originally built as the Frontier Inn in the late 50’s, early 60’s on Deerfield Road before it became Old Deerfield Road, because Deerfield Road went straight to the highway.
The restaurant was built by masons not restaurateurs. “This building is all cinder block, brick and concrete with a concrete roof and concrete floors, so it’s kind of a neat structure,” said Lederer. “It’s solid as can be, and this part of town has morphed quite a bit.”
Lederer said after the Frontier Inn closed, the site housed three different Asian restaurants: Yu-Lin Chinese Dumpling House, Windows of Cuisine and Hayashi Japanese Restaurant. Bluegrass took over Hayashi Japanese Restaurant in 2004 which is still operating in Gurnee.
The Lederers seasonally change the menu to keep it “vibrant and current.” He explained that Bluegrass hosted a four-week Mardi Gras celebration with fried alligator, fresh oysters, po’ boy sandwiches and plenty of beads. The next celebration will feature two-weeks of specials for Cinco de Mayo, followed by a summer filled with new barbecue items such as bison and Texas links. Bluegrass also has a Fall Fest.
“We further separate ourselves by creating a larger menu, with more beverages including 40 different craft beers and 80 different small or independent wineries represented,” said Lederer. “We try to have fun with dining and be mid-casual which means Bluegrass is more than casual, and we actually pay attention to service, presentations and have a scratch kitchen.”
Lederer used to work for Crawdaddy Bayou and brought a “little bit of a southern twist with jambalaya and gumbo” to Bluegrass. “We’re not a Cajun restaurant, but we’re an all-American restaurant with items from coast to coast,” he said.
Bluegrass is located across the street from the Highland Park Police Department and enjoys serving “Highland Park’s finest.” Lederer said Highland Park Police Chief Paul Shafer’s favorite dish is between the shrimp & grits and the jambalaya, and he frequently orders salads.
Lederer said he likes the small town feel that the cozy restaurant provides and now in their 13th year, he appreciates serving the second generation of loyal customers.
Bluegrass is located at 1636 Old Deerfield Road in Highland Park. For more information call: 847/ 831-0595.