Hillside restaurant to close, new business to come


Tim Dodge

The Hillside Restaurant in operation over the weekend in downtown DeKalb. The restaurant will be officially closed after March 4. (Tim Dodge | Northern Star)

By Rachel Cormier, News Reporter

DeKALB – Creamy chicken alfredo, blue ribbon chocolate cake and a 68-year legacy are coming to a close.

The Hillside Restaurant, a cozy, cottage-like eatery that has been perched next to the Egyptian Theatre since 1955, is finally closing up the kitchen. Married co-owners Gavin Wilson and Mary Wilson announced their restaurant’s last day would be March 4 via the restaurant’s Facebook, alongside plans for their retirement.

“It was time to retire. My husband has a good job, so we just decided it was time,” Mary Wilson said.

News of the Hillside’s closure was met with over 400 comments on the restaurant’s Facebook post, sharing memories and best wishes from long-time diners and NIU Huskies alike.

Pam Tyska, the retired NIU women’s golf head coach of 26 years, was one of those commenters. Tyska shared the story of her first interview that took place at the Hillside, which landed her the position as head golf coach at NIU.

“I had my job interview to be a golf instructor in 1986, with Ruth Heal and Marybeth Barris. I wanted to impress the ladies so much and hopefully get the job that I didn’t get to finish my chicken alfredo. So I told myself, I would go again to finish it,” Tyska wrote.

Before they took over the restaurant in 1989, the Wilsons originally worked part-time together while living as students at NIU.

“I came to DeKalb and worked my way through college where I originally planned to be a teacher – and the next thing I know I’m running this restaurant, the love of my life, and I met the love of my life, Gavin,” Mary Wilson said.

The Hillside has since maintained its reputation as one of the “most well-established restaurants” in Northern Illinois because it was founded in 1955. The location has fed prominent celebrities, including Cindy Crawford, and is well-known for popularizing lasagna in DeKalb.

The Hillside even had a role in the 2000 Hollywood film “A Thousand Acres,” where it supplied and catered all the food used in every scene.

While Hillside’s history and loyal diners have kept it busy for years, the restaurant wasn’t spared from losses during the pandemic. The business, like several “family-owned” restaurants throughout Illinois, were forced to adapt to alternative serving options when indoor dining was restricted in Illinois.

The Hillside saw its hours limited to five days a week during the pandemic from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday. With the benefit of their patio seating, the owners began offering most of their menu as carryout options and relied heavily on curbside pick-up.

The owners attribute another reason for retirement to labor shortages.

“We make everything homemade, peeled and cut here. Nothing comes out of a bag here, but now there’s more of a need for convenience and carry-out,” Mary Wilson said. “I applaud anyone who takes it on their own.”

A new restaurant has already set its sights on Hillside’s location, but the new owners will be rebranding the new location.

Mary Wilson has plans to create a cookbook with recipes for several of their signature dishes, including their award-winning chocolate cake.

“It’s about time they (the Wilsons) finally have a turkey dinner without all of DeKalb in their rear view mirror,” Tyska said.