A Publication of WTVP

Hearth and Home

by Nick Vlahos | Photos by Ron Johnson |
Hugh Higgins is the owner of Hearth restaurant in Peoria Heights
Hugh Higgins is the owner of Hearth restaurant in Peoria Heights

It’s a family affair at the Peoria Heights restaurant, where the unique entrees and a vast spirits selection turn diners into regulars

According to various sources, about 60% of new restaurants fail within a year of their grand openings. Almost 80% close within five years.

Those statistics suggest Hearth is an outlier.

One of the anchors of Restaurant Row along Prospect Road in Peoria Heights, Hearth is celebrating its 10th anniversary this month. The restaurant combines fine-but-casual-and-affordable cuisine with an impressive array of whiskeys and wines.

Hearth has survived changing trends in dining, national and regional economic fluctuations and the coronavirus pandemic. That might speak to the quality of the food, but at least one longtime frequent customer believes there’s more to it.

Dining room at  Hearth restaurant
Dining room at Hearth restaurant

“The service is fantastic and always has been,” Peoria resident Phil Lundquist said. “They’re incredibly personable. We probably eat here four or five times a month, and the food, I’ve never had a bad meal. The food’s always good.”

Lundquist spoke as he, his wife and two of their grandchildren were finishing lunch at Hearth one recent, rainy afternoon. Hearth Manager Tim Downey has committed to memory their usual drink orders, but he suggested such regular patronage isn’t uncommon.

“We have a lot of people who come in every day,” Downey said. “They’re regulars. They know our names and we know theirs.”

It’s also something of a dream come true for Hearth owner Hugh Higgins, who at age 58 left behind a three-decade career in wine and spirits to pursue his restaurant passion.

“It’s wonderful,” Higgins said. “We have tremendously loyal customers that you develop relationships with. They have their favorite table. They have their favorite cocktail. They have their favorite dishes.

“We’re in the hospitality industry. You need to be hospitable and you need to flex, you need to please. It’s like going to ‘Cheers,’ where everybody knows your name. People love that.”

For a long time, Higgins loved his jobs in liquor distribution and wholesaling. The business provided an opportunity to travel from a Peoria base and to sample some of the finest food and beverages on offer.

But industry consolidations led to a revolving-door situation regarding Higgins’ supervisors.

“The last boss I had just made my life miserable,” Higgins said. “I didn’t like what I was doing anymore, and I just needed to get out. So what do (I) want to do?

“I always wanted to do this.”

Before his days in the booze business, the Heights-bred Higgins was a restaurant cook. He started as a teenager chopping vegetables at a Chinese restaurant in downtown Peoria. Then Higgins moved to Boston, where he became chef at an Italian place. But the business didn’t mesh well with the family life of a newlywed.

Still, Higgins never lost his restaurant connections. When he heard the old French Toast eatery in the Heights might be for sale, Higgins knew he couldn’t bypass the opportunity, even if some in his family might not have been fully on board at the time.

“It was a hard sell at home,” Higgins said. “My youngest kid was in college. I cashed in one of my retirement plans, refinanced my house, borrowed money. … I thought, ‘I won’t forgive myself if I don’t try it.’”

Perhaps the same can be said about Hearth customers as they peruse the restaurant’s menu.

Hearth offers hearty entrees, including ribeyes, filets and pork chops. But also on the bill of fare are jambalaya and shrimp and grits, Southern-tinged dishes not often found in Peoria restaurants. Even a seemingly standard item like meatloaf features three meats (ground beef, ground lamb and bacon).

The menu is designed to appeal to those who know what they want and to those who want to be adventurous, Higgins suggested. Illinois Central College student Isabell Fanning, one of the Lundquists’ grandkids, might fit in the latter category.

“I usually try different things, to try to figure out something new,” she said. “They’ve all been really good. I’ve never had anything bad here.”

Said Higgins: “I’m pleasantly surprised at the envelope we’ve been able to push and make this market a little bit different. We’re not just steak and potatoes.”

Hearth also harkens to Higgins’ former livelihood. The restaurant offers about 300 whiskeys — bourbons, ryes, scotches. It also stocks about 100 wines by the bottle and 16 to 18 available by the glass. Wine and whiskey flights are available. The drinks are the focus of a customer-reward program.

All of it keeps Higgins busy at a time in life when retirement can beckon. A Hearth succession plan is in place. Higgins’ son Seth is the restaurant’s executive chef. Daughter Rachel Klein works at the front of the house and is assuming some behind-the-scenes responsibilities, too.

Their help is setting the stage for what might be Higgins’ closing act.

Before Higgins turns 70, he wants to set aside several days a week to travel to Chicago to audition for acting jobs. It doesn’t matter if they’re in television, film or live theater. Higgins already has local performance credits with Peoria Players and Corn Stock Theatre.

“I’ve enjoyed that,” Higgins said about a notoriously tough profession to enter. “I’ve always thought I should really give it another go, or really try sometime.”

Why not? After all, age and long odds didn’t deter Higgins from opening a dream restaurant a decade ago.

4604 N. Prospect Road
Peoria Heights
(309) 686-0234
11 a.m.–2 p.m. Tuesdays–Saturdays
5–9 p.m. Tuesdays–Thursdays
5-10 p.m. Fridays–Saturdays

Nick Vlahos

Nick Vlahos

is a longtime Peoria print journalist and a regular contributor to Peoria Magazine.