Owner of historic Chicken Basket restaurant dies

Grace Rhea with her husband, Delbert, in the restaurant they owned, Del Rhea's Chicken Basket on historic Route 66. | Provided.

Grace Rhea | Provided

It’s no surprise to hear that Grace V. Rhea, the woman who bought the Chicken Basket restaurant with her husband 51 years ago, loved to cook.

“She was an awesome cook. She taught me to cook,” said her son, Patrick Rhea, who owns the restaurant now.

“She loved it when people took second and third helpings.”

His mother not only cooked chicken for her family, but dishes true to her Polish and German ancestry, such as galumpkis and dumplings.

“And soup, she was the soup queen,” Rhea said. “We still serve the same chicken and dumpling soup from her recipe.”

Grace V. Rhea, nee Helma, was 86 when she died on her birthday, Feb. 17.

She grew up on a chicken farm on 75th Street, west of Cass Road, across from where Eisenhower Junior High School is today, her son said.

Mrs. Rhea’s father sold chickens to the Woodbine Restaurant in Willowbrook, owned by Delbert Rhea. Her father suggested his daughter work as a waitress in the Woodbine, (located where the Kerry Piper is now), and that’s where Grace Helma and Del Rhea met and fell in love.

They got married and ran the Woodbine until 1953.

Wanting a quieter lifestyle, they moved north and bought the Terrace Lawn motel on the Wolf River in Winneconne, Wis. They stayed there four years and had a son before returning to Illinois and the Helmas’ chicken farm.

When the Chicken Basket restaurant, on historic Route 66 and 79th Street, went up for sale, Del and Grace Rhea decided to return to the restaurant business and bought it in 1963.

The restaurant had grown and evolved from a gas station lunch counter in the 1930s and 40s, to a popular stop for people going to and from Chicago. But the traffic was bypassing the restaurant by the 1960s and business was down, Rhea said. “It was dead.”

“My father was very well known in the area. He used his reputation and his and my mother’s hard work to build the business back up,” Rhea said. “My mom is a hard-working woman.”

To this day they use the same fried chicken recipe they inherited from the previous owners. The only difference is it’s fried in healthier oil.

“My mother taught me to always use good quality ingredients. If you could buy 50-cent chicken or 40-cent chicken and have money left to paint the dining room, she would say, buy the 50-cent chicken. Spend the money on the food.”

The better quality will result in more sales and therefore extra money to paint the dining room, Rhea said.

Mrs. Rhea retired from the Chicken Basket in 1986.

“One of the sad parts about getting old was she could not stand to cook anymore,” Rhea said.

After his father passed away, she came back to work at the restaurant in 1993, helping with the bookkeeping and pitching in where needed for a time.

By that time the Chicken Basket had been inducted into the Route 66 Hall of Fame. Its longstanding presence on Route 66 has made it a national and international tourist destination. In May 2006, the Chicken Basket was inducted into the National Register of Historic Places.

But for Grace Rhea, it was always about the food.

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