Big Flavors in Union
Alex Camen brings a European touch to downtown Union’s beloved Checker’s II restaurant.
Outside, it’s quiet. A red light blinks above the intersection of Jefferson and Main streets in downtown Union. Brick buildings — some more than a century old — huddle together in the damp chill of a country night. Nothing is moving, not even the illuminated clock on one of the buildings. It’s stuck at 12:18.
At this quaint crossroads, time rolls backward. News comes from the person next to you, not a smartphone. The daily entertainment comes in the form of sitting on a bench near the street, watching the world go by.
It’s exactly how Alex Camen likes it. He’s from the old country, a Swiss who grew up near the Bodensee, a lake bordered by Switzerland, Germany and Austria. Former owner of Deeter’s in Woodstock, which he operated for more than 25 years, Camen now runs Checker’s II in Union. “[It’s a] good old-fashioned diner,” he said.
It’s a small space. Camen said customers often say it’s a lot like Cheers, the bar from the popular 1980’s TV show. “It’s quaint and cozy,” he said. How cozy? Try a bar with 10 chairs, combined with a dining room that features five tables, five booths and a private party room that seats 20.
It’s appointed with stout wooden chairs covered in green vinyl and brass tack. Thick venetian blinds shade the windows and a big wreath hangs on the front door. You half expect to see a coat tree at the entry covered in fedoras and overcoats, and a big radio instead of TVs providing background noise.
Camen said people come to Checker’s II because it is out in the middle of nowhere, for the food and the personal connections that are made. They come for the old-time atmosphere. “It’s like stepping back in time 60 years,” Camen said.
From Apprentice to Chef
Camen is stern and serious looking with a heavy handlebar mustache and spiky salt-and-pepper hair. All that initial gruffness fades when he goes to shake your hand. Camen reaches out, palm up, facing the ceiling, in the one of the ultimate gestures of openness. His broad face stretches into a smile, made larger by the mustache. This is genuine old-world hospitality.
Camen lived in Switzerland until he was 22. He was trained there as a chef, learning to cook in an apprenticeship that took three years to complete. He’s also proud to say that he completed a two-year program to become a professional waiter.
“It’s now my second nature,” Camen said of cooking. “I like creating new dishes.” In his off time, which is rare, he watches cooking shows or searching the Web for new recipe ideas or inspiration.
“As a Swiss, you always want to better yourself,” he said. “It’s a matter of personal pride.”
Specials Worth the Trip
Checker’s II has been a fixture for years in Union, known for its sandwiches and specials like all-you-can-eat broasted chicken on Thursdays.
When Camen took over the business in August of last year, he said he “modified the menu and brought a Euro touch to it.”
The famous specials and sandwiches are still available, but Camen added items like Oysters Rockefeller, Casino and Louisiana. “One of the surprise specials is the oysters,” Camen said. “We sell a lot of them out here.”
People come from all directions to dine at Checker’s II, some from as far away as Peoria and Springfield. Camen said it’s not uncommon to wait 40 minutes for a table. Even though there can be long waits, the restaurant does not take reservations.
House specialties include the German Sausage Platter with bratwurst, knackwurst, pfaelzer served with sauerkraut and Hunter Schnitzel, a pork cutlet topped with onion, bacon, and mushrooms in brown gravy served with spaetzle and fresh vegetables.
He’s proud of the personal touch when he prepares food. “All of the meat is hand cut by us at the restaurant and we cook our own sauerkraut,” he said. All of the sausages come from a butcher he trusts in Wheeling.
Another part of his past that he likes to share is Oktoberfest. It’s a big deal. He works hard to create the same experience as back in Switzerland.
Camen puts up a big tent in the parking lot and hosts the event every Friday and Saturday in September. There’s traditional German music and beer, as well as his authentic German schnitzels and wursts. He said he’s very proud of the tradition. “I can represent the fun of Oktoberfest time with my experience,” he said.