Maddie Litt and Laura Hollingsworth don’t have to think long about their favorite menu item at Sgt. Pepper’s Cafe in Edwardsville.
No matter what else they order, they always get cheese fries with housemade spicy white cheese sauce.
“They’re the best,” said Maddie, 17, a student at Edwardsville High School.
“Their steakburgers are good, too,” said Laura, 18, a student at Illinois State University in Normal. “And the coffee.”
The teens were catching up over Labor Day weekend before Laura had to go back to college.
The restaurant has a Beatles theme with Fab Four photos, record albums, magazine covers and even a “Yellow Submarine” throw on the wall. Shelves are lined with figurines, an alarm clock, lunchbox and other memorabilia. A variety of ’60s music plays on the stereo, not just The Beatles. A glass case by the counter holds eight flavors of Schoep’s ice cream from Wisconsin.
“I just like the environment in here,” Laura said. “It’s chill. It’s not stiff or stuffy. It’s happy.”
Owner Tarek Samara, 35, opened Sgt. Pepper’s 10 years ago in a shopping center and moved it downtown in 2011. He does most of the cooking. The restaurant is perhaps best known for serving breakfast all day.
“We sell a lot of pancakes,” said server Teghan Duhigg, 22, of St. Louis. “And the biscuits and gravy are delicious. I’m picky about my biscuits and gravy, and I like these.”
Sgt. Pepper’s is one of the few places in the metro-east to serve horseshoes. The open-face sandwiches on Texas toast are stacked with a choice of meat and crispy fries and smothered in white or yellow cheese sauce.
Also on the menu are burgers, other sandwiches, wraps, Tex-Mex meals, salads and appetizers.
“We just like it because the people are friendly,” said customer Colette Cowan, 63, of Edwardsville, who recently dined at a big round table with her husband, children and grandchildren.
“The servers are always pleasant,” she said. “We like the atmosphere and the music. We see a lot of people we know. And we love the Swiss Farms salad.”
The salad features a bed of lettuce topped with ham, turkey, diced cheese, egg, tomatoes and cucumbers.
“The poppyseed dressing is great,” said Colette’s husband, Mark, 61. “You could drink it.”
Sgt. Pepper’s has two locations. Tarek’s father, Ziyad, opened the first one in Springfield 16 years ago. He’s a Palestinian immigrant who came to the United States in 1971.
“He worked at a restaurant (in Chicago),” Tarek said. “He didn’t know how to speak English, so he worked in back washing dishes. Remember Lum’s? It was a chain in the ’70s. That’s where he worked.”
Ziyad and his brother eventually bought a Springfield Lum’s, where the whole family worked. They sold it in 1993 to make way for a Hardee’s parking lot.
It was young Tarek who came up with the name “Sgt. Pepper’s.”
“Everyone knows The Beatles,” he said. “Even when (my father) was living overseas, he knew The Beatles. They reached to every corner of the world.”
Tarek picked Edwardsville for a second location after earning his political science degree at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and deciding against law school.
“It was before there were any restaurants in Edwardsville,” he said. “It was before the boom. After that, there were five or six opening each year.”
Tarek lives in Edwardsville with his wife, Deena, and two children. They bought the downtown Edwardsville building in 2010 and renovated it, leaving a brick wall exposed.
Sgt. Pepper’s has become a lunchtime favorite for Madison County Courthouse employees. One group of women is hooked on the Barbecue Chicken Nachos.
“Our nachos are really good,” Tarek said. “We make the tortilla chips fresh to order.”
At a glance
What: Sgt. Pepper’s Cafe
Where: 218 N. Main St. in Edwardsville
Hours: 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sundays through Wednesdays, 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursdays and 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays
Information: Call 618-692-1345 or visit www.sgtpepperscafe.net
On the menu
Breakfast Pony Shoe — Two eggs, choice of sausage, bacon or ham and crisp hash browns or country potatoes, covered with gravy or cheese sauce, $8.25 ($7.25 with no meat) or $12.99 horseshoe-size
Buffalo Chicken Horseshoe — Tender buffalo chicken on Texas toast, stacked with golden crisp fries and topped with cheese sauce, $8.99 small or $11.99 large
Frisco Melt — Eight-ounce burger or chicken filet on grilled Texas toast with Swiss cheese, two bacon strips and American cheese, topped with special sauce, $8.99
Barbecue Chicken Nachos — Plate full of freshly made tortilla chips on a bed of shredded lettuce, topped with chicken, sauteed onions, barbecue sauce, choice of spicy white or yellow cheese sauce and sour cream, $9.99 full or $7.99 half
Southwestern Mexican Salad — Garden fresh lettuce, diced tomatoes, bell peppers, black beans, corn, seasoned grilled chicken, shredded cheese, a layer of cool mexi-ranch and tortilla curls, served with bite-size cheese quesadillas, $9.25
Mediterranean Omelet — Made with three eggs, grilled chicken, tomatoes, spinach, red onion, black olives and feta cheese, served with toast and jelly, $7.99