Amy Morton has been doing a lot of driving lately. “Trust me, the Aurora Holiday Inn and I have become very, very good friends,” Morton laughs.
That’s what happens when you open a restaurant an hour away from home, in a city that’s the second-largest in Illinois but not particularly known for destination dining. But Morton’s new steakhouse, Stolp Island Social, might revise that reputation.
The genesis for Stolp Island Social (5 E. Galena Blvd., Aurora) stems from Aurora’s booming theater scene. The Paramount Theater, run by executive director Tim Rater, now hosts musical theater performances in a stunning restored space 250 days a year, drawing travelers from all over the region. Rater is also working on another theater and a music festival, but there was no great pre-theater dining destination in Aurora to host the legions of hungry viewers.
Stolp Island Social is located within the Aurora Arts Center, a complex of studios and artists’ lofts across from the Paramount, and occupies a space that once housed the Block & Kuhl department store back in the 1920s and 1930s. That was during Aurora’s heyday, a time that Morton hopes to evoke with a vibe she describes as “1920s Aurora meets Coco Chanel.”
The restaurant combines what Morton calls a “seasonal kitchen” — a somewhat Mediterranean-leaning menu of pastas and starters — with a selection of steaks that looks a lot like the meat menu at Morton’s other steak place, the Barn Steakhouse in Evanston. Because of the focus on pre-theater dining, Morton’s entire team staged at Petterino’s to learn how to do pre-theater service without sacrificing quality.
“The challenge was how we handle doing the quality food that I’m committed to while getting everyone in and out at the same time,” she says.
The menu has been subtly designed to allow for a lot of advance prep, and instead of dishes being fired by servers, everything is run centrally by the chef in the kitchen in order to keep service moving quickly and efficiently.
Pre-theater diners will see some serious bargains — something Morton pushed for, in order to attract a diverse audience to the restaurant. “I want to reach a market of people who might go out once a year or might go out five nights a week,” Morton explains. That’s why the three-course prix fixe (which actually gets you five different dishes) is just $34, while kids dine for $12 and kids under five are free.
If you’re a theater-going family, even though this is a more “upscale” restaurant, Morton hopes it’ll be approachable. “We wanted to make sure we priced it so that nobody felt like they can’t go.”
Crowd-pleasing appetizers like crispy chickpeas and twice-fried chicken wings with honey fill the menu, alongside a full selection of steaks (offered in both “house” and “reserve” varieties) and pastas. The entire beer menu comes from within five miles.
Fittingly enough, Stolp Island Social sits on Stolp Island, in the middle of downtown Aurora. That was part of the charm for Morton, who fell in love with the area after trips to the theater.
“It’s my little Île de la Cité, like in Paris,” she says.
And while a restaurant focusing on pre-theater is always a little risky (how will the seats get filled the rest of the time?), Morton is excited to be part of what she sees as a renaissance period for the city.
“For the last 20 years, people in Aurora have been dining in Naperville or St. Charles,” she says. “We are hoping to change that.”