A Publication of WTVP

The best bistro (Too many of) you haven’t been to

by Phil Luciano |
Garden Street Café
The Garden Street Café, 1317 W. Garden St. in Peoria, recently marked its 40th anniversary under the ownership of the Burr family. The diner is one of just a handful of restaurants on the south end.

Garden Street Café dishes good eats at a great price, and it’s an anchor of Peoria’s South Side.

The Garden Street Café might be the tastiest place you’ve never visited.

“There’s a lot of people that say they’ve never even heard of it,” owner Richard Burr said with a slight grin. “And we’ve been here 40 years.”

What’s the recipe for the diner’s long-simmering success?

“You can come in and get a good meal at a cheap price, said Burr, 65. “And you don’t walk away hungry.”

Brittney Sargent
Brittney Sargent paused between taking orders at the Garden Street Café. In her sixth year there, Sargent says she enjoys playful interactions between customers, many of whom are regulars.

Forty years is an eternity in the restaurant industry. According to pre-pandemic statistics cited by USA Today, the average lifespan of a restaurant is five years. By some estimates, up to 90 percent of new eateries fail within their first year.

Yet Burr, a low-key fellow with an easy grin, recently marked his family’s fourth decade of ownership of the café, one of just a handful of restaurants remaining on Peoria’s South Side.

“There’s not many places like this, like the mom-and-pop-type places, you know?” Burr said.

His family got into the business by necessity. His father, Leroy Burr, had worked for the Hiram Walker distillery right up until its shutdown in 1981. The next year, Leroy Burr and his wife, Sharon, bought a longtime diner at 1317. W. Garden St. Day by day, they learned the trade.

Eventually, Richard Burr and two brothers started working there. He fondly remembers that era, when the neighborhood still boasted a thriving economy.

“It was good,” Burr said. “It was really great when Szold’s was open—a lot more restaurants, a lot more businesses too.”

Richard Burr cooks through another breakfast shift.
Inside the order window at the Garden Street Café, owner Richard Burr cooks through another breakfast shift. Burr, whose family has owned the business for 40 years, is the diner’s lone cook, six days a week.

These days, though, Peoria’s south end can count just a few eateries outside the Warehouse District. The Garden Street Café remains a stalwart, open 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., Monday through Saturday. Burr’s parents and brothers have passed on, leaving the diner in his hands. Six days a week, you can find him getting ready in the kitchen around 5 a.m.

“I’m the only cook who cooks here,” he said.

The café survives in part because of cheap eats. For example, a cheese omelet with toast runs just $4.50.

Garden Street Café breakfast
The Garden Street Café might serve the cheapest breakfast in town. A cheese omelet and toast runs $4.50.

But the low-dough menu isn’t the only reason the diner maintains a legion of regulars. Many appreciate that every time they walk in the door, they know what to expect.

“They treat you decent,” said Arricka Triplett, 55, who often walks from her nearby home to have breakfast. “It’s old school. Other places change. Here, nothing ever changes.”

Waitress Brittney Sargent, one of a handful of employees, enjoys the morning chatter among familiar faces and newcomers alike.

“Everybody who comes in here, even if they come in separately, they see somebody they know and they start talking to ‘em,” said Sargent, 30, who has worked there six years. “Somebody’ll pay for somebody’s breakfast, and they don’t even know ‘em.”

Burr is proud of what the diner means to neighborhood residents.

“There’s not hardly any places around here for them to go,” Burr said. “It keeps me busy. I’m not gonna get rich, with the economy right now. But we survive, you know, and do a good business.”

But he’d like to be less busy, which is why the café is for sale. That’s not to say Burr would vanish from the neighborhood. He owns the Garden Gate Tap, two doors down, and he plans to keep running the joint. But he’d like to hang up his diner apron.

“Just slow down, enjoy a little bit of life,” he said, grinning once again. “I’ve worked long hours most of my life. So, you know, it’s to relax and spend time with the grandkids and stuff like that.”

Phil Luciano

Phil Luciano

is a senior writer/columnist for Peoria Magazine and content contributor to public television station WTVP. He can be reached at [email protected]