Taking a chance on Chances
BY ELIZABETH SNYDER
Chances are, if you live in the Kenosha area, you've never been to Chances.
But don't feel bad, it's only been there since 1843. Maybe you've just never found the time to head to the tiny town of Rochester in Racine County for dinner in the historic restaurant/tavern.
But chances are pretty good that if you do make the trip, you'll find something to enjoy -- especially if you are a rib fan.
We visited on a recent Sunday evening and found the place to be almost full -- and this wasn't even a busy Friday fish fry or Saturday all-you-can-eat ribs time. Both the smoking and nonsmoking dining rooms were about three-quarters full, and the bar in front was crammed with a noisy crowd.
This is a casual place, with tables grouped together loosely in the long, narrow rooms and country-style wall decorations that are for sale (small wreaths, prints, birdhouses, etc.).
Since Chances specializes in ribs, claiming on the menu to serve "The Best Ribs Around," I decided to take a chance and order them, although I usually shy away from ribs (too messy -- and often too fatty -- to eat).
I ordered the ribs/shrimp combo ($14.95). It came with four beer-battered shrimp and half a rack or ribs. The batter was a bit thick on the shrimp, but overall they were good -- crispy and flavorful. The ribs were a delightful surprise. The meat was not at all fatty, and it -- cliché be damned -- fell off the bones. The thick barbecue sauce had a good, spicy/sweet flavor.
My husband, Rex, chose not to take a chance. Instead, he played it safe and ordered his favorite, an 8-oz. filet mignon ($14.50). The filet came on a pile of fried onion strings, topped with shredded onions. "This is an excellent piece of meat," Rex said (And he would know -- he orders filet mignon every chance he gets). It was also done as ordered, medium-well.
Dinners at Chances come with a cracker basket and sharp Cheddar cheese spread, soup and salad, and a warm loaf of bread. The bread was excellent, very fresh tasting, and the cheese spread was a nice touch. The salads were the usual dinner salad, with iceberg lettuce and a slice of tomato.
Our soup choices were broccoli/cheese or black bean/rice. I had the broccoli soup, which was tasty and chock full of broccoli chunks, although I didn't taste any cheese. Rex had the black bean, a thick, hearty soup with a lot of flavor.
Appetizers include the usual assortment of fried vegetables (zucchini sticks, onion rings, mushrooms, cauliflower) for $5.25. Feeling a bit more upscale? Try the shrimp cocktail for $7.95.
Though Chances specializes in ribs -- serving them as a full rack ($16.95), half-rack ($10.95) or in combination with chicken, shrimp or an 8-oz. steak ($12.95-18-95) -- there are several other items also on the menu.
The seafood offerings include shrimp served deep-fried, breaded, beer-battered, grilled or scampi-style (with garlic butter and white wine) for $12.95-17.95; scallops ($13.95); frog legs ($14.95); crab legs ($21.95); lobster ($36.95); and rainbow trout ($10.95). There is also a seafood platter -- lobster, crab legs and choice of shrimp -- for $28.95.
If steak is more your taste, the selections include prime rib ($14.50-17.50), a 1-pound T-bone ($15.95), and Steak Au Poivre ($16.95-19.95), which is a pan-fried filet with Dijon mustard, peppercorns and heavy cream, flamed with brandy.
The extensive dinner menu also includes chicken -- baked, barbecued or fried -- a few pasta dishes, sandwiches and burgers.
If that's not enough, you can add a 5-oz. lobster tail to any dinner for $9.95 or crab legs for $6.85.
After all that, you'll probably be too full for dessert. If not, your server will be happy to recommend something, from dark chocolate torte to Uncle Harry's Ice Cream Pie.
Chances are, you'll enjoy it.
* Prices and items may have changed since the publication of this article. *
Great Food, Friends, and Indeed... Spirits!
by Debra Holmes
Tom and Debra Schuerman bought the establishment now known as Chances in Rochester, Wisconsin, eleven years ago because of its history. "I remember the first day Tom and I walked into the building," Deb said. "All I could see was the tin ceiling, and the oldness of the building. I love history, so that was like, hmm...kinda neat. And then the second thought was, "Oh my god, this building is old! It's going to take a lot of upkeep. It wasn't until we had actually purchased this site that we began visiting with the local people and hearing the stories of the building and that even made it a more interesting purchase; especially the ghost stories."
"So your building has a ghost?", I asked.
"Yes it does," Deb answered proudly. "We have quite a few! They come and go. They were gone for a while this year. We hadn't had anything going on for quite some time, and then all of a sudden a couple weeks ago they let us know they were back."
"What pranks do they pull?" I asked.
"It's mostly practical jokes," Deb shared. "Just a couple weekends ago, Tom was closing up. He was the only one in the building and had locked all the doors. He was going through his routine of turning off the lights but left the light in the men's room on. He went to the bar to finish cleaning up and about thirty minutes later he walked into the men's room and found the sink's faucet had been turned on full blast.
"Then I had remembered that a few nights before, one of our customers came up to me and said that the sink in the women's bathroom had been turned on and she couldn't shut it off. When I tried it, it turned off right away. I questioned her again, and she swore she couldn't get the handle to turn. So who knows? Either you believe it or not. I like to believe in them."
Deb said that sometimes they have various psychics come in just to check the place out. Deb and Tom have been told the ghosts are real and they would never do anything to harm anyone. They are here to protect and take care of the restaurant site. And then Deb proceeded to share many of the stories of protective events that have happened over the years.
"The ghosts have made themselves known to us," Deb said. "I guess just so we know they are here. When I leave at night I just say 'Good night. Take care of the place. Have a good time and don't party too hard.'" Deb shared that upon closing each night, the staff leaves the restaurant in good order and often they come in the next day and chairs have been pulled out, or her extra pair of shoes might be missing.
Customers come in regularly for updates on the mischief the ghosts have gotten into on any particular week. And no wonder it's haunted! The restaurant now known as Chances was built in 1843, replacing the original building that had been the first tavern in the western part of Racine County. Then called the Union House, it was the most popular stopping place along the well-traveled road that joined the Janesville Plank Road and the U.S. Territorial Road (Hwy.20) at Plucker's Corners and went through Rochester and on to Janesville. At this time, Rochester was the third largest settlement in the Wisconsin Territory with a population of 741.
The stone addition to the original log structure housed a dance hall upstairs that boasted of a spring floor, now one of the last in the state. During the Civil War, it was one of two stations in town for the underground railway, taking slaves to safety and freedom. Slaves were transported up the Fox River and entered a tunnel that led to the basement in present day Chances. There they stayed until they could be taken to the next safe house on their journey to Canada.
It is said that if you're lucky, you might see the lady in the green ball gown waiting for her Civil War soldier to return, or the lady in the blue dress, or even the soldier himself sitting at the bar. Deb shared a photo of a psychic drawing with me that showed the image of the present day building with modern cars parked on the side as well as the ghostly image of a horse and buggy parked where the cars were and people dressed in 1800s style clothing walking into the building.
Fact or Fiction?
The only way for you to make up your mind is to visit Chances yourself. Meet the owners, see the photos, and hear the locals tell their tales!
"Chances is filled with a lot of laughter, a lot of good times, a lot of love, and a great staff of people," Deb said. "Our employees are an extension of our family. Many have been with us almost since we opened. Our bonds of friendship are strong. And the bonds we have built with the community over the years are just as strong, too."
Deb shared endless stories of how people have helped her family, and in turn, Tom and Deb have helped the community. They are heavily involved in helping local youth, their church, neighbors, and customers. As Deb stated, "It's family and I don't know how else to say it. If we give all we can to our community, hopefully the community will give back to us, and," she added, "they always have."
So... besides friendship and a great time, what does Chances have to offer? Just the best Saturday Night All-You-Can-Eat Barbecued Ribs around! Tom and Deb put out a good meal for a fair price in portions large enough so you can take some food home. That is Deb's grandmother's philosophy. "Our portions here tend to be large," Deb said with a smile. "But that way, you'll remember us tomorrow!"
"Barbecue ribs are our mainstay here. It's the meal we built our reputation on. They are meaty and fall off the bone." Deb and Tom also serve great steaks of various cuts and sizes, fish and seafood, and for a reasonable price, you can add a lobster tail or crab legs to any dinner ordered. Other delicacies on the menu include chicken, pasta, "sammitches", soups, salads, appetizers, and of course, a Friday Night Fish Fry.
A current luncheon and soon to be dinner specialty is Buffalo Burgers. Grilled to your liking and served with French fries, you can order your burger with cheddar cheese, bacon, sauteed mushrooms and onions, or just have a cheeseburger with your choice of Swiss, American, Jack, or Cheddar cheese.
"We offer just good, simple food served in a small town, casual family atmosphere," Deb said. "We cater to health conscious people. Our steaks are lean and trimmed. We offer vegetarian dishes. Many of our customers have special dietary needs."
Sunday Dinner and family always went hand in hand at Deb's home, so at Chances, the Sunday Dinner Special is Grandma's Baked Chicken, with stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy and a vegetable on the side. What could be a more traditional Wisconsin meal? "Every Sunday at my Grandma's house we always had baked chicken with all the trimmings, and there was (and is) always more served than you can eat."
Reservations for Friday and Saturday nights are recommended. Please phone (414) 534-2772. Chances also caters to banquets and parties, both at the restaurant and out-of -house catering.
Excerpts from The Spirit of Geneva Lakes Magazine
Volume 10 Number 4
* Prices and items may have changed since the publication of this article.*