Josef Schwaiger has traveled the world studying the culinary craft, which is on full display inside his five-star hidden gem of a restaurant.
When you imagine a strip mall, you probably don’t picture a five-star restaurant. That’s why Josef Barbados Steakhouse and Oyster Bar, located at 6860 Spring Creek Road, Rockford, is a hidden gem when it comes to quality dining. Renowned Austrian chef Josef Schwaiger has been serving up an unexpected, world-class menu to the Rockford community since October 2005, and this autumn’s assortment of seafood and steak is nothing short of culinary artistry.
“There’s nothing else like this in our area,” says Cherri Schwaiger, Josef’s wife and restaurant co-owner. “From the outside, people don’t expect the white linen elegance and high-caliber menu that we have here. But once you step inside, you quickly realize this is one of the best places in town.”
Josef has been mastering his culinary craft for more than 40 years. He began his formal training in European classic cuisine and catering management at age 15, and soon began traveling the world to expand his knowledge. After working in Austria, London, The Channel Islands, Germany, Switzerland and Africa, Josef arrived to Barbados in the early 1980s, where he established three upscale restaurants. There he met his wife, Cherri, a Rockford native. The two soon began a business and a family together.
“I knew she loved her teaching job at Rock Valley College, so I insisted on moving here,” Josef says. “I still have my restaurants in Barbados, but we spend most of our time in Rockford.”
Josef uses fresh, seasonal ingredients in every dish that he prepares. Fish arrives daily to the restaurant, and Josef himself frequents local farmers’ markets to find the freshest produce for his creations. This fall, customers will be able to enjoy Chilean sea bass, salmon and, while its available, halibut. Josef personally cuts the prime Angus steaks in house.
“In fall we crave comfort food,” Josef says. “On Wednesdays, I prepare Wiener schnitzel, my favorite Austrian dish. I like to serve it with cranberry sauce, like my mother does. In fall, the root vegetables and squash are amazing, and local apples and fresh pears make their way onto the dessert menu with our handmade strudels. We’re really proud of how fresh our food is.”
The restaurant additionally prides itself on working around any food allergies or intolerances. Customers who require special orders have their restrictions noted immediately to the chef, both verbally and in writing.
“We take food preparation very seriously,” says Tammy Siegworth, Josef’s head server. “We work with restrictions for vegans, vegetarians and anyone with allergies. I have people who come here who declare they never go anywhere else, because they know they can trust us.”
In addition to the exquisite seafood and steak menu, the restaurant also offers a more casual bar menu of affordable classics made with an elegant twist. One of Siegworth’s favorite dishes is the eight-ounce, freshly ground Josef Burger. The Angus beef is topped with a confit of short ribs that are cooked for 12 hours in wine, and served with a side of French fries, making it a casual, yet enhanced American meal. Another popular item is the buffalo shrimp, which Siegworth refers to as ‘a delicious seafood take on buffalo chicken.’
“People are sometimes intimidated by the white linen experience, so it’s important to know that you can be casual at Josef’s too,” Siegworth says. “People often come here for anniversaries, birthdays, proposals and other special events, but there are also plenty of people who come in jeans on a normal day to enjoy our bar area.”
As for the future, Josef and Cherri hope to continue their success of bringing a high-quality dining experience to Rockford and have recently welcomed Josef’s son, James, to join the team.
“I think we bring an international flare to this area,” Josef says. “We’re exotic, yet affordable, and I think coming here with out-of-town guests is a great way to show people the best of Rockford. We’re celebrating our 10th anniversary this year, and we’re looking forward to another 10 years.”