All aboard at a trail-blazing, model-train restaurant

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the parenting column

For many families, creating a new tradition can be tricky. If you find something that fits and you run with it, the rewards will be copious. For the last few years, my family has frequented The Choo Choo restaurant in Des Plaines to celebrate the birthdays of my three little boys. They've relied on the sweet expectation that when they turn another year older, they will get to see a model train bring them their food and then that same trusty engine will come around the track with cupcakes to the tune of the Happy Birthday song.

Customers will usually find the owner, Jean Paxton or her daughter, Jamie Kadar, behind the track talking to customers, pulling the long cord attached to the train whistle or serving up flavorsome meals and treats.

"This place is so great because of the fact that we are still here. People who came as kids are now bringing their own kids to The Choo Choo. It's cool to see new generations come in," said Kadar. "This is the only place I've ever worked where people will thank you just for being here."

Paxton has diligently and heroically kept the restaurant alive and running since she purchased it more than a decade ago, even when there was a threat that the restaurant would be forced to move so that a new police station could take its place. Paxton was steadfast in her belief that The Choo Choo should stay put in order to keep up with its mission of providing joy to kids while maintaining its iconic history for the community of Des Plaines.

"The previous owner wanted to sell the property to her [Paxton] because he knew she would keep it the same," said Kadar.

Among Des Plaines' oldest restaurants, with its inception in 1951, and arguably the most authentic, The Choo Choo is stocked full of charm and character with its vintage mechanical train ride, stainless steel equipment, wood paneling and naugahyde stools. A few other model train restaurants have popped up, but The Choo Choo is a stand out not only because of its unique and genuine Americana atmosphere that the petite freestanding building and '50s interior provides but also because of the welcoming and affable service.

The Choo Choo will be etched in my kids' memories for years to come, and I hope to keep it that way.