I assume that most people connect Wheaton with a church on every corner and a resident angel and devil—Billy Graham and John Belushi. After all, every resident of the town—myself included—has a story about either one or the other: My wife's uncle and aunt live next door to the good reverend during his college years, and just about every parent claims to have shared a class with a Belushi.
Flash-forward to the Wheaton of today and you'll see plenty of traditional small-town places alongside concessions to modern times. As a born-and-raised west suburbanite, I remember the time when you couldn't even buy a beer at a downtown restaurant. Now you'll find Irish-theme restaurants where the Guinness flows like Graham's sermons. Even this former "I gotta get outta this town" teenager has to begrudgingly admit that there's actually some stuff to do out here, so I set out on a trip to find just what that is.
Downtown Front Street reminds my inner kid to speak up. Wedged between two buildings in an old alley bearing the quirky address of 111 ¼ Front Street, the Popcorn Shop hosts crowds of kids picking through jars of candy and heaping bags of popcorn. I broke out the coins from my piggy bank to load up on Swedish fish, peanut butter cups, licorice sticks and once-upon-a-time candy cigarettes. Before squeezing out the door with my goodies in hand, the staff tallied my selection the old-fashioned way: mental math.
Muldoon's is an infant compared to the multi-decade run of the Popcorn Shop but has become a local downtown favorite. After so many years of hearing about the moratorium on alcohol, I was shocked to come in and witness (gasp) imbibing! Someone call Carrie Nation, these people are getting buzzed! Shock number two: The restaurant not only serves drink but does a pretty damn good job of it: The Chicago Bar Project deemed it one of Chicagoland's best suburban bars. After I stared at the veritable museum photo gallery of Wheaton's history on its walls over a frothy pint, it became clear that Muldoon's is in it for the long run.
Speaking of history, the DuPage County Historical Society presents a museum on Main Street that should keep the well-under-21 set entertained. The upper floors host exhibits about prairie life in DuPage throughout the years, including Civil War memorabilia and photographs dating back 170 years to the town's inception in 1837. The big draw, however, is the bad-ass model railroad in the museum's basement. Stretched across 2,000 feet of track in an enormous diorama, the train runs on scheduled dates by members of the local society of Model Engineers. This will put your Christmas-time round-the-tree setup to shame: With multiple tracks and tons of detail, it makes the $3 admission fee well worth the trip to the 1870s-era stone building.
After taking a mental trip back to my boyhood while watching the train in amazement, I was ready to get some nostalgia-laden beer in my blood and headed to Rosie O'Reilly's, 131 Gary Avenue. As high school students, we knew this place as the Gables, and we talked a good game about ditching class and sneaking in here for a beer. To my knowledge, no one did, but it turns out it was a pretty kick-ass place back then: loud music, tons of smoke and cheap drinks.
After the Gables shut down in 2006 for a complete remodeling, the place turned into a respectable, classy joint…And it just ain't the same. Unlike the old Gables, where you could usually snag yourself a seat at the bar, O'Reilly's was packed solid. A local explained the place's popularity: "This is the only place in town where you can still smoke."
As I left the bar, I thought that Wheaton's done a good job of bringing itself into the modern age while still keeping a quiet front. It will never lose its "church on every corner" label, but Wheaton ain't as uptight as it used to be.