After roughly a three-month hiatus, Keepers Quarters is back in business in Carbondale – and bigger, better and more robust than ever.
The restaurant first debuted inside Key West Bar & Grill in Carbondale in early June, serving large plates like slow-roasted pork shoulder with creamy polenta, shaved Brussels sprouts and a pistachio salad as well as hearty and creative sandwiches and burgers. Chef-owner Doug Robinson says that after just 21½ days in Key West, it was time to find a permanent home for Keepers Quarters.
"It’s just been very crazy," Robinson says with a laugh. "I didn’t imagine that we’d be here with this building of our own this fast. When we opened in Key West, our plan was to be fluid, not knowing if we’d need a building of our own; we thought we might stay at Key West and get a food truck or something, and the success was just surprising and great."
Robinson and his brother and business partner, Eric, quickly identified that new home: 817 S. Illinois Ave., formerly home to House of Kaya and before that, a McDonald's. After more than three months of renovation to the building, Keepers Quarters celebrated its grand opening on Oct. 16.
"Now you walk in and it’s a restaurant with a bar, instead of a bar with food," Robinson says. "The ambiance now is restaurant. I’m excited with the way it turned out. When I walk in Keepers Quarters, I see a restaurant that you could see anywhere – St. Louis, Nashville or anywhere. That’s what we did with the food at Key West, so that’s what we’re doing with the full restaurant."
The floor-to-ceiling remodel included installing new flooring in the dining room, extensive plumbing work, painting walls in the dining room, a new lighting system to replace the former florescent lighting and a beautiful new bar that Eric built and stained himself.
"Eric looked at me the other day, and he was like, ‘We just renovated a commercial building from floor to ceiling,’" Robinson says. "It was a lot of work for two people to do, but it was well worth it. Doing it ourselves and really owning it – it makes you feel good. You can walk in and see everything you did instead of walking into something finished and saying, ‘So-and-so contractor did this… No, we did that.’"
The space includes some nautical decor as a nod to the restaurant's name; in the days when lighthouses had keepers reside on premise, they lived in the keeper's quarters. Although the restaurant got its start in Key West and has kept its coastal-inspired name, Robinson says that Keepers Quarters isn't a seafood restaurant. Instead, fans of the former menu can expect the same creative, made-from-scratch fare. The menu at Keepers Quarters' brick-and-mortar has also been reimagined, although Robinson says fans of the original will still see some fan favorites.
"There are some staples, like a lot of the sandwiches, that even though they’re not seasonal, they’ll stay – our Reuben, the Cuban and a few appetizers," Robinson says. "We’ll doctor up the entrées for the season and bring some new adventurous appetizers."
Some of those other beloved staples include burgers like The Bleus, a half-pound beef patty topped with caramelized onions, blue cheese, a smoked garlic aïoli with "blue cheese-studded" spinach, which is served on the lunch and dinner menus. As Robinson notes, the El Cubano and The Best Reuben in C-Dale remain on the lunch and dinner menus, joined by new options like the The Fall Greek, a seasonal update that stacks curried cauliflower and almond spread with tarragon-roasted blue oyster, shiitake and pioppino mushrooms with charred scallions and a citrus-caramelized honey vinaigrette on housemade rosemary focaccia.
Elsewhere on the menu, fans are likely to notice new items: On the dinner menu, recent additions include the "New York" Pork, a 10-ounce smoked poblano- and coffee-rubbed bone-in pork chop with cumin-coriander sweet potatoes, caramelized fennel and chestnut mushrooms, as well as the pan-roasted duck breast with stewed duck leg, white beans and turnips, Napoli carrots, French sorrel and currant agrodolce. As much as possible, Robinson is sourcing produce and goods from local farmers and producers, something he didn't have as much time to do at the old location. "That’s what I’m really excited about, too, is getting the chance to utilize [products from local farms]," he says.
Behind the gorgeous new bar, guests can choose from draft and bottled beer as well as a curated wine selection. Local options on the beer list include Schlafly Beer in the St. Louis area and Scratch Brewing Co. in Ava, Illinois; currently, the bar's four taps are all dedicated to Scratch beers: a cedar oak ale brewed with juniper berries, cucumber wheat, honey saison and grapevine sour. A selection of soda, local apple cider, iced black tea, hot teas and coffee is also available.
Yet for Robinson and his brother, opening Keepers Quarters is more than realizing a three-month dream – it's also carrying on a family legacy. Their paternal grandfather operated Big John's BBQ in Peoria, Illinois, from 1948 to 1993, so in a way, Keepers Quarters feels like coming home.
"He really built an empire, even though it was one restaurant; he owned the barbecue joint in Peoria from 1949 until the early '90s," Robinson recalls. "He started out with a shack and built everything himself, and he was always there. And for my brother and I to get our first restaurant and actually truly build it ourselves feels really good."
Keepers Quarters is open Tuesday through Thursday from 11am to 9pm and Friday and Saturday from 11am to 10pm.
Keepers Quarters, 817 S. Illinois Ave., Carbondale, Illinois, 618. 529.0990, facebook.com/keepers-quarters-198362474323822