In a 2012 article in the Washington Post, Rick Nielsen said about his Rockford home, “I could’ve gone anywhere. I could have moved to Hollywood. But I stayed here. This is an authentic place.”
Real. Original. Rockford is indeed, authentic and one need look no further for proof than to consider this is where the region’s favorite sons - the fabulously talented and untiringly ambitious Rick Nielsen, Robin Zander, Tom Petersson and Bun. E. Carlos - cut their musical teeth. From their Rockford roots, they launched Cheap Trick to worldwide fame manufacturing honest punk-tinged power pop that inspired legions of hardcore fans.
Bun E. Carlos and Rick Nielsen have lived in Rockford most of their lives, and it’s Rick Nielsen who’ll serve as our tour guide today. Here are a few of his favorite places in and around Rockford. Check them out in person!
For breakfast, Rick heads to the Stockholm Inn (he’s part-owner) for the famous “Swedes:” Swedish pancakes with lingonberries. The friendly Scandinavian atmosphere, accommodating servers, homemade recipes and economical prices keep over 10,000 fans coming back week after week. The restaurant was opened in 1968 and was a favorite of Rick’s parents, Ralph and Marilyn Nielsen, as well. The family ate there often when Rick was a child at its original location. Give Rick’s Hamer guitar (painted like the Swedish flag) a strum on your way out the door for good luck. Rick is one of the original members of The Lingonberry Group, a corporation of owners who swept in to save the historic Rockford favorite when it was in danger of going out of business in 2002.
Occasionally, Rick surrenders to his love of sports and catches an IceHogs game at downtown Rockford’s BMO Harris Bank Center, where Cheap Trick has performed on several occasions since it was opened in 1981. The IceHogs are the Chicago Blackhawks’ direct American Hockey League affiliate and many ‘Hawks with Stanley Cup rings on their fingers skated on that same sheet of ice during their AHL days.
Rick has been known to take in a game or two in Rivets Stadium where the Northwoods League (collegiate summer league) Rockford Rivets grace the field to the snap of the gloves and cracks of the bats. Heckling the opposing team and signing autographs works up an appetite, so for dinner Rick suggests Japanese food…
Outside of the US, Rick’s favorite country is Japan, where Cheap Trick made history with Cheap Trick at Budokan in 1978 - a live recording of their ground breaking performances in Tokyo and Osaka that same year. The shows and album were widely considered responsible for launching Cheap Trick’s international fame. Consequently, it’s no surprise one of Rick’s favorite spots for dinner is JMK Nippon, with its delicious, authentic Japanese cuisine and atmosphere. Whether you eat in the Masa Cafe & Sushi Bar or the beautiful, spacious dining room at a teppan table (complete with lively performing chefs), you’ll have fun. You won’t go home hungry, and even if you’re not a rock star, Rick’s friend Mas (owner) and his staff will treat you like one. Be sure to try the Rick ‘n Roll appetizer, named after guess who. Another Japanese restaurant on Rockford’s east side that Rick and his wife Karen also love is Shogun, which also features a low key cafe experience called Izakaya 88. JMK Nippon and Shogun/Izakaya both have ardent followers among Rockford citizens. Try them both!
Keeping up with Rick is tough. He moves pretty fast – but not as fast as the auto racers at the Rockford Speedway in adjoining Loves Park, some of whom Rick has sponsored over the years. Since the inaugural season in 1948, the high-banked quarter mile oval has been tabbed as “Mid-America’s Finest Racetrack.” A wonderful piece of Americana, it has attracted hundreds of thousands of fans, including Rick’s bandmate Robin Zander, who along with family and friends also loved the Speedway growing up in Loves Park.
Grab a sandwich for the ride home at Mead Longwood Meat Market, an old-fashioned market complete with creaky wood floors and delicious home-made sandwiches and hand-cut meats. Don’t be surprised if you run into Rick. He picks up lunch there often.
Rick used to be an avid runner and although he mostly uses his custom running shoes for plying the stage with Cheap Trick these days, he used to go running nearly daily on Rockford’s beautiful riverside Rock River Recreation Path. The, “bike path,” as it’s known to most locals, stretches for miles from downtown Rockford up into Loves Park to the north. It’s a wonderful, scenic place for a walk, run or ride.
If you work up a real sweat and get hungry, try one of Rick’s favorite spots for a kitschy experience and take-out deliciousness: Uncle Nicks. This Real. Rockford. Original. joint, opened in 1980 at their downtown location, specializes in gyros, Italian beef, pizza puffs and good-old-fashioned rough-around-the-edges vibe. The original location hasn’t seen a lot of updating since then and that’s just the way Rick and all the other locals like it.
In 2013, the Burpee Museum of Natural History played host to a 6,000 square-foot multi-media extravaganza of an exhibition about Rick’s life and times in Cheap Trick called Rick’s Picks: A Lifelong Affair With Guitars & Music. The Riverfront Museum Park, where Burpee is resident, also features the Discovery Center Museum and Rockford Art Museum. All three are visit worthy and have world-class features. Rick and partners are currently planning the exhibition’s return to the limelight in future venues, but you can visit a very small Cheap Trick display at Midway Village Museum on Rockford’s east side, as well as explore other exhibitions about notable Rockford history such as the Rockford Peaches women’s baseball team that competed stateside during WWII.
On Rick’s way home from Burpee and Riverfront Museum Park is his favorite local spot for take-out pizza and other Italian delicacies: Altamore Ristorante. This place is so old school, the restaurant is only open for sit-down dinners on Thursday nights, but you can order carry-out most other evenings. Call first for details. And, tell ‘em Rick Nielsen sent you.
When Rick wants to reminisce about the girlfriends of his youth, he visits his custom checkerboard chair (a fundraising gift to the theatre) in the upper balcony of the Coronado Performing Arts Center, a lovingly restored vaudeville theater built in 1927 at a then-whopping cost of $1.5 million. The theater is purported to be haunted by a ghost or two, but they are said be shy and never seem to mind when Cheap Trick plays there, as it has on more than one occasion. During a performance in the 1990s, Rick famously cut off his braided beard on stage and auctioned it off for charity. To this day, the building plays host to a wide variety of entertainment from symphonic music to rock and is a wonderful place to take in a show.