Last updated: June 6, 2022
Illinois: Ariston Café
Starting up a business in the depths of the Great Depression during the 1930s might strike most people as foolhardy at best, but this is exactly what Pete Adam and his partner Tom Cokinos did in 1935, when they opened the Ariston Cafe along Route 66 in Litchfield, Illinois. Upon closer examination, however, their venture was far from rash.
During the Depression, even though millions of people were out of work, some pockets of the economy remained afloat. A service sector start-up such as a cafe remained a relatively inexpensive venture, and founder Pete Adam was no novice. As a veteran restaurateur, he knew the viability of a good restaurant even in hard times. He also seemed keenly aware of the business possibilities of Route 66 in Illinois. The original Ariston Cafe opened in 1924 in nearby Carlinville, a town along the original Route 66. After 1930, the highway realigned to the east, bypassing Carlinville and going straight through Litchfield, which prompted the move of the cafe to Litchfield. The Illinois segment of the Mother Road at this time was a major transportation corridor between Chicago, then the nation’s second largest city, and St. Louis, at that time America’s seventh largest city. Even during the Depression, traffic on this well paved road remained steady. In 1936, the State of Illinois reported that Route 66 was the heaviest traveled long-distance highway in the State.
Henry A. Vasel built the current Ariston Café at a construction cost of $3,625.36. The cafe opened its doors along Route 66 on July 5, 1935. Adam installed two gas pumps in front in hopes of attracting more customers, a practice typical of Route 66 restaurants during this period. A full service menu from 1938 offered diners porterhouse steak at 85 cents, bacon and eggs or a BLT for a quarter, and a glass of Budweiser for 15 cents. Today, the cafe is still going strong, although the gas pumps are gone and the food prices have risen. Over the decades, there have been some changes and renovations to the cafe, but the visitor to the Ariston Cafe still makes a step back in time. Despite the addition in the 1970s of a banquet wing on the north facade and some new front doors and awnings, the original building--in its stark, utilitarian commercial style of the period--still stands proud. Noteworthy is its Alamo-like parapet with glazed terracotta coping and its finely crafted exterior brickwork. Two original metal and neon signs announcing the Ariston Cafe and advertising Budweiser beer adorn the front facade. The interior dining room, which seated up to 100 customers in 1935, still retains much of its original decor, including a stunning Art Deco wall cabinet along the north wall, chrome stools, and original light fixtures in the booths. The original dining section still retains its 1935 acoustical tile ceiling.
The rear exterior of the restaurant tells an interesting story about the need for adaptation and creative thinking when doing business along the Mother Road. In 1940, as the Depression lifted and traffic became congested, the two lane Route 66 that passed in front of the cafe was replaced with a four lane bypass running behind the restaurant. Physically turning the restaurant around was not an option, so Pete Adam simply put up attractive neon signage on the rear of the building, beckoning Mother Roaders to drive around to the front. It worked, and the restaurant has been open for business since 1935.
When founder Pete Adam died in 1966, his son Nick took over the operation for nearly 50 years, making the Ariston Cafe a rare survivor of family-run restaurants that flourished along the Mother Road during the mid-20th century. In July 2018, the cafe was purchased by new owners who continue the cafes long tradition. The Ariston Cafe was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in May 2006. The cafe building and signs have been restored with assistance from the NPS Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program.
The Ariston Cafe is located at 413 Old Route 66 in Litchfield, IL.For more information, visit the Ariston Cafe website.
See the Ariston Cafe National Register nomination form.