It seems that the Langs, formerly denizens of the Gravois area on St. Louis' South Side, were scouting a residence on the Southern Illinois prairies about a decade ago when they happened to drive by the vacant, for-sale Dreamland Palace building. Joan Lang now alternates between "diamond in the rough" and "totally crazy" when she describes the emotions that led the no-prior-restaurant-experience couple to emulate Eddie Arnold and Eva Gabor. (And, to be fair, despite all the open land immediately adjacent, Foster Pond is only about 15-20 minutes from the JB Bridge, and even closer to the expanding suburban enclaves of the Columbia-Waterloo area.)
However, in another piece of serendipity, although Joan's prior career had involved a grooming salon called Oodles of Poodles, she was genetically predisposed to cook, having sat at her German mother's and grandmother's knees since about the age of 7, dutifully memorizing and practicing the Old Country recipes. Mike had also been a self-employed entrepreneur, and no doubt his skill at envisioning beauty where others might not see it had been well-honed in his own previous career as a wedding photographer.
So, next thing you know, green acres they were there, first renovating the front rooms (including an authentic 1875 backbar, carved and assembled by the original immigrant community using no glue, nails or screws) and then sprucing up the 1920s-era dance hall in back as a party and banquet room that seats about 150. The entrance to the restaurant now leads off the gravel parking lot to the side, past an old smokehouse and through a central greeting area that serves as part curio store (Hot Wheels collectors, take note), part wall of fame chronicling the recent history of the restaurant.
Given that it's such a fun story, it's nice that the food merits the trip as well, especially given the relative paucity of German choices in the metro area. Mrs. Lang (née Follmer) pays excellent tribute to her foremothers, with all of the dishes we sampled certainly ranging toward the hearty end of the spectrum without slopping over into the ponderous heaviness that can sometimes characterize old-school German cooking.
As a prime example, I cite the poetic potato pancakes that come as a side dish to several of the entrees. Potato pancakes were a special treat when mein own Polischer mama made them when I was growing up, but Mom's style was closer to thick "house of"-style pancake, whereas Dreamland's version is lacy and airy, closer to a classic French crepe. This fineness allows the Dreamland potato pancakes to absorb but not be saturated by the various gravies and sauces that come with the various dishes.
Although lots of all-American items like broiled steaks and seafood round out the menu, we stayed completely in the German camp. The beef rouladen, two rolls of thin beef wrapped around onion, bacon and pickle, were like little deli sandwiches on rye (owing to the spicing) but without the bread. The schweinschnitzel, very thin cuts of pork tenderloin, came with a big load of bumpy spaetzel noodles that really sucked up the accompanying mushroom gravy. And the sauerbraten, which Joan marinates in a wine-and-spice brine for a full week according to the old family recipe, was a tangy treat, sort of a pickled roast beef, tenderizing a secondary cut of beef and giving it a gentle vinegar-and-salt undertone that balanced well with the additional sweetness and tang of pickled red cabbage and applesauce served on the side.
It's even possible to stay relatively light ("light German" being right up there with "jumbo shrimp," "military intelligence" and "Civic Progress" in the pantheon of oxymorons) on the German side of the menu with the Black Forest schnitzel, a pounded breast of chicken wrapped around a modest portion of ham and cheese. Have them hold the hot German potato salad (although this would be your loss), and you can almost pretend that you're eating German and sticking with your diet.
Don't even bother pretending, though, if you want something from the dessert selection, which is heavy, in many ways, with cake and cream choices -- one positively glowing with a sheen of chocolate sauce, another bursting with both whipped cream and Bavarian chocolate cream.
The dining space itself is packed solid with everything from an assortment of cuckoo clocks and Jim Beam bottles to tapestries of life in the German kingdoms, circa 18th century, and even a personal letter to Jim Lang from local royalty, the late King August II of the province of Pestalozzi. (You can glance at it on your visit to the soup-and-salad bar, which accompanies all dinners.)
Both Langs are serious talkers with bubbly enthusiasm for their mission, so you're likely to hear a wealth of stories during your dinner, including the one about how locals still like to come in and gaze out the plate-glass windows, over toward the rock building that used to be the stagecoach hotel, and comment about how the view probably hasn't changed in more than 100 years. If the weather is still mild enough, leave your windows cracked on your trip home to wherever it is you came from, because the fresh farm air is almost as much worth savoring as the aroma of the sauerbraten.
DREAMLAND PALACE, Highway 156, Foster Pond, Ill. Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Wed.-Sat., 11 a.m.-8:30 p.m. Sun. Entrees: $7.95-$16.95.
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