CARBONDALE — High cuisine is not usually what one thinks of when going to Key West in Carbondale.
Pool? Yes. Karaoke? Absolutely. Chorizo-stuffed dates? Hold on.
But that’s what chef Douglas Robinson and his brother, Eric Robinson, have brought to the out-of-the-way townie bar on Carbondale’s west side with their restaurant, Keepers Quarters.
Inspired simply by food that he loves and wants to share with people, Douglas Robinson said he is OK with the atypical clientele he serves.
“It’s almost exactly what I want,” he said. He said he likes that his customers can come in wearing flip-flops and a T-shirt to enjoy his food.
“Eat what makes you feel good in what makes you feel good,” he said.
Robinson said almost 95 percent of the food that comes from his kitchen is made from scratch. They cure their own bacon, and grind their own sausage and hamburger. He was pulling fresh-baked focaccia — a house specialty — out of the oven as he was interviewed by The Southern, fresh rosemary perfuming the kitchen as it mixed with the hot olive oil on top of the dimpled crust.
He said business has been a bit slow in the three weeks since they opened their doors. But still, he sees promise. The word of mouth has been electric.
One customer he spoke with told him that a friend he had not seen in years stopped him in the grocery store, asking if he still played pool at Key West. When the long-lost friend found out the man did indeed, he went on, raving about the stuffed dates, a treat he ate despite a restrictive diet — they were that good.
Robinson said they are working to spruce up the dining room some and hope to have more tables soon.
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The two brothers have never worked together, but said things have been going well so far — though Eric Robinson admits that he simply puts components together, saying his brother is the creative force. Still, his ideas get in, too. Douglas said his brother insisted that he not compromise his food simply to cater to what he thinks people in Carbondale might want to eat. Eric wanted his brother to stay true to his principles of what he believes food should be.
Eric Robinson, who has lived in Southern Illinois for nearly 20 years, knew that the city was hungry for a restaurant like theirs — no-frills, honest food made by hand. Both said coming to the west side has been a plus, too. Locals have thanked them more than once for bringing more than a chain restaurant to their side of the city.
The Robinsons come from food. Eric Robinson said his grandfather, a black man, grew up in Mississippi and brought his knowledge of barbecue with him to Peoria. There, he made Big John’s BBQ an institution, elevating his status in an era in which he was entitled to less than his white counterparts. Robinson said food paved the way for his family to make their way in the world.
Still, he said growing up in the kitchen made him run away from the life of a cook. But, here he is.
“I tried not to go back into kitchens,” he said.
Both Robinson brothers said they are hopeful their restaurant will help elevate Carbondale. Eric Robinson said the arts are strong here, but restaurants have traditionally had a hard time making it. He hopes Keepers Quarters will help change that.
Coming from Bloomington, Indiana, as a part of the Feast Restaurant team, Douglas Robinson said he saw how farmers, and chefs and customers can come together to support one another in incredible ways. He hopes to be part of growing that community in Carbondale.
Eric Robinson has the same hope. Both said they see an opportunity for Carbondale’s food culture to blossom, and they hope Keepers Quarters will be a part of it.
“Food will create community and culture,” he said.