Green describes more than the fresh produce at this Crystal Lake restaurant, where the idea of fresh ingredients takes on a whole new meaning.
Duke’s Alehouse and Kitchen, 110 N. Main St., Crystal Lake, serves up tasty burgers and sandwiches, fresh salads, great flatbread pizzas and generous entrées, ranging from beef, pasta and seafood to vegetarian and gluten-free items. The bar features a rotating selection of 150 artisan beers, with more than 20 on draft, a respectable wine list and a signature cocktail menu offering drinks like an Organic Pomegranate Cosmpolitan. Every weekend, local bands perform on its stage, and the outdoor patio, opened 10 years ago, is always a popular spot.
With a 19-year history, Duke’s is more than a neighborhood nightclub known for fantastic food, music and libation; it’s an earth-friendly eatery featuring local-sourced ingredients. This year, it received its three-star certification from the Green Restaurant Association.
Duke’s is run by the Dolezal family – parents Mark and Pamela and son Zak – who possess a wealth of knowledge and experience about their business.
“I started Durty Nellie’s in Palatine 24 years ago, with my brother Jimmy,” Mark says. “I opened this place, which used to be Duke O’Brien’s, in 1994.”
Zak learned at his father’s elbow. “He was playing guitar and clearing tables at Durty Nellie’s at age 7,” says his father.
“I grew up in this business,” says Zak, head chef and general manager. “I was good at it and wanted to get better.” He attended culinary school at Kendall College in Evanston, became a chef and worked at Duke’s for six months, before returning to college at Purdue University, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in hospitality management.
“I then cooked at restaurants and hotels all around the suburbs, to get as much experience as I could,” Zak says. “Then, an opportunity came up here, and the timing was right.”
Now executive chef and general manager, Zak wasn’t a shoe-in for the job; he had to apply and go through the interview process along with other candidates. “In the restaurant biz, you need to have a passion for it, and Zak has that passion,” his father says. “When he came along four years ago, he had great ideas and he changed our entire concept.”
“I originally had fine dining in mind, but that just wasn’t our customer base,” Zak explains. “So I switched to comfort foods and sandwiches, using fresh, local-sourced and organic ingredients. Along with providing a great dining experience, we want our customers to become more educated about their food sources and the impact even small choices can have.”
Zak formed connections with area farmers and green grocers, and worked on sustainability.
“Behind the bar, you can imagine the number of glass bottles and aluminum cans we accumulate in just one day,” Mark says. “For a long time, we couldn’t find anyone to recycle for us – the big waste companies didn’t want the extra work of sorting. But then we found Prairieland Disposal & Recycling.”
“The amount of food waste in the restaurant industry is staggering,” Zak continues. “That was the hardest thing to deal with. It recently became easier for restaurants to compost, and now, with Prairieland, we compost everything.”
The list of local providers, which includes Nichols Farm & Orchard, Slagel Family Farm and Blackwing Meats, continues to grow. Duke’s even has its own greenhouse, so that Zak and his kitchen staff can access fresh vegetables past our region’s growing season. “Just over half of our products are locally sourced, because in winter, we’re just unable to do that,” Zak explains. “So, we don’t have a seasonal menu, necessarily, but we change it often.”
The Dolezals train their staff thoroughly and rely on servers to provide their diners with information about the ingredients and dishes. Crowd favorites include the fried goat cheese salad, burgers (both grass-fed beef and bison), Zak’s special handmade flatbread pizzas, Mama Duke’s Meatloaf and, surprisingly, the beet salad. “The beet salad is one of our most popular items,” Zak says.
“People think they don’t like beets, until they have Zak’s beet salad,” his father brags. “That’s the biggest compliment a chef can get.”
Duke’s serves lunch and dinner Sunday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. – 9 p.m., and until 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. The bar is open later.