Dec 27, 2011

A Big Easy birthday bar crawl

Considering how it’s been almost a month since my birthday, I figured I’d better wrap up the series of New Orleans blogs with the night of bar hopping that concluded the trip (well, except for the following day we used to recover).

As fate would have it, I was accompanied on my drinking tour by a mysterious and exotic Gypsy who happened to be falling more in love with New Orleans with every day we spent there.  Lucky me, as it bodes well for our future, no doubt J.  We began the night still full from our Jazz brunch at Court of Two Sisters, which served as a good base.  I would eventually need it, too because I didn’t start lightly.

First stop:  Pat O’Brien’s and their main bar to the left side of the entrance on St. Peter Street.  The drinks are always a little cheaper there than if you order them in the courtyard of piano bar.  It was a chilly night, so sitting beside the flaming fountain in the courtyard wasn’t going to make or break the experience.  Besides, you get plenty of bar feel inside with the enough German beer steins hanging everywhere from the ceiling and classic pictures dotting the walls from years gone by.  I started with a signature hurricane …

Dec 22, 2011

Things Discussed at the Brewhaus, Episode IV: A New Hope

We interrupt our regularly scheduled series of New Orleans blogs for a new list of fascinating and thought-provoking subjects discussed within the past few weeks at my favorite watering hole: 

Dec 18, 2011

A Big Easy birthday brunch

I figured I should get around to posting about my birthday before my memory begins to fail me.  Besides, I lost enough brain cells that night as it was.  New Orleans is a city that celebrates gluttony, and I certainly did my part on my birthday.  And, as fate would have it, I was accompanied by a mysterious and exotic Gypsy who helped me along the way.

As my last blog entry might have led you to believe, we got a late start to the day (I didn’t even cover dinner and bar hopping from the night before … perhaps fodder for another future blog?).  But we started it off in style with the famous jazz buffet brunch at Court of Two Sisters.  What makes it a jazz brunch?  These folks …

Dec 13, 2011

Monday means Magazine Street and St. Charles Avenue

When we first checked into our hotel, my mysterious and exotic Gypsy co-pilot and travel companion got a tip from the concierge about a great bead shop on Magazine Street.  Apparently, she had made an impression with the jewelry she was wearing, and the concierge was rightfully impressed.  These sorts of things have been known to happen.  So, on our first full day in the Big Easy, we decided to get passes for the St. Charles Avenue streetcar and head toward the Garden District and other points Uptown. 

Based on our tip from the concierge, we got off the streetcar at Napoleon Avenue to walk down to Magazine Street, and as fate would have it (fate often plays a key role when traveling with a Gypsy), we passed St. Elizabeth’s Asylum, which was an orphanage back in the day but more recently famous for having been purchased by novelist Anne Rice as a private residence. 
See, the plaque shows I'm not kidding.
Notice the Gypsy in the corner checking out the entrance.

Dec 10, 2011

A relatively slow Sunday night in the Big Easy

As fate would have it, not even traveling with a mysterious and exotic Gypsy could keep the rain away for most of the two days on the road on our way down to New Orleans.  So, by the time we approached the Big Easy Sunday evening, we were ready to reward ourselves with a stop at Middendorf’s on the bayou and some of their outstanding barbecued oysters. 

I intended to take a picture of these masterpieces, but what can I say?  I ate my half dozen before I had the chance.  But I did take a couple of pictures of the place all decked out for Christmas. 
The "thick or thin" refers to Middendorf's famous catfish.  I always go thin.

After our pit stop at Middendorf’s, we made our way into New Orleans on I-10 with a Lake Pontchartrain sunset behind us.  Things were looking up. 

Dec 5, 2011

A commoner reviews Jake & Rips, Grenada, Miss.

There are 289 miles of Interstate 55 from Memphis, Tenn. to the Louisiana state line and a whole lot of nothing in between.  But at least it’s a scenic “nothing” compared to Illinois, an equally long state north to south, and I’d much rather look at Mississippi’s pine trees, rolling hills and the occasional magnolia (when in bloom) than flat land, corn and soybeans.  Still, if you’re heading southbound in a driving rain like we were on the Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend, it starts to get a little monotonous after the towns start disappearing about an hour past Memphis. 

One of the few major spots of civilization in rural northern Mississippi is Grenada, or Exit 206 if you’re counting the miles.  That’s where I first discovered Jake & Rips several years ago.  I’ve always had an excellent dining experience every time I’ve visited, and this day was no exception. 

Dec 4, 2011

A rainy November night in Memphis

An old adage says the only certainties in life are death and taxes.  I’d like to add to that copious amounts of rain whenever I visit Memphis, Tenn.  Such was the case for the first day and night of my birthday trip. 

After a six hour drive in consistent rainfall, we checked in to the Econo Lodge in downtown Memphis where I got a very good deal for a Saturday night.  Maybe it was because of Thanksgiving weekend and they expected slow tourist traffic, but for whatever reason I wasn’t complaining. They even left us a nice welcome on the bed.
OK, we put the guest directory there ...

Nov 4, 2011

Five hotel bars worth drinking at for a round (or more)

When it comes to hotel bars, too often they all have the same generic look.  The clientele usually consists of stranded or unadventurous tourists, tired businessmen and businesswomen, barflies with expensive tastes and off-duty hotel staff.  And the drinks are typically overpriced and under-poured.  Rarely is the bar a reflection on your destination or the character of the locals. 
Fortunately, there are exceptions.  Sometimes those exceptions happen because the hotel is actually an exciting part of your destination.  Sometimes the bar is even more famous and more visited than the hotel.  Sometimes there’s no rhyme or reason to it at all … it just happens.  So, while I am in the midst of a travel lull, I decided to share my five favorite hotel watering holes.  
5. Empire Bar, Glacier Park Lodge, East Glacier, Mont. – When my son and I took the Amtrak to Glacier National Park a few years ago, this lodge was across the street from the depot, and it turned out to be an excellent choice.  Of course, not many other choices to choose from, but it still delivered a great, classic lodge experience.  Huge timbers and a high ceiling create a majestic lobby.  And the views of the mountains from the back of the hotel are breathtaking. 

The lobby of the Glacier Park Lodge.  If you look closely, you can see the entrance to the bar off to the right at the end of the lobby.  The restaurant entrance is straight ahead.  Sorry, not my photo ... I'm borrowing liberally from the Internet for this blog. 

Oct 11, 2011

Bloody Marys the Watts way

For this blog topic, I decided to steer away from travel and focus more on another favorite pastime of mine – mixology.

Believe it or not, I’ve had several people say very complimentary things about my Bloody Marys. I do have my own “recipe” which I like, but it’s by no means a closely guarded secret. In fact, if there’s one thing I know about a Bloody Mary, it’s that there are a gazillion ways to make one. Still, a few people have thought enough of my Bloody Marys that they suggested I include it in a blog, so what the hell.

And, as you’ll notice on the list of ingredients, I don’t even make my mix from scratch. I use Zing Zang as the base and work from there. That may be considered cheating, but it works for me.

This may take some tracking down of all the ingredients, but here’s what I use:

Oct 7, 2011

A pit stop at the Rib Shack in Saint Louis

One of the reasons I decided to blog was to have a journal of sorts of my observations from various trips and travel experiences.  So, my recent shortage of blogs is in direct correlation to the fact that I simply haven’t had that much to blog about lately. 
My favorite Gypsy, on the other hand, recently hitched her wagon to an American airlines flight to Paris to spend a week drinking wine, eating fine food, enjoying music and shopping at the flea markets.  And as much as I’d love this blog to be about Paris (and you’d probably prefer that, too), you’ll have to settle for a blog about my ongoing search for great barbecue in off-the-beaten-path places.   
That brings me to the Rib Shack, conveniently located on Natural Bridge Road in Saint Louis, not far from Lambert International Airport.  Before I drove Gypsy to the airport, I researched possible places to have lunch in Saint Louis on two websites I recommend – Roadfood  and Urbanspoon.  On the barbecue front, I narrowed my choices to the Rib Shack and Pappy’s Smokehouse, which has been featured numerous times on the Travel Channel but would have taken more time to find.  Since Gypsies tend to not favor barbecue, I decided I would only dine at one of the locations if we were running late and did not have a lot of time for lunch. 

Sep 20, 2011

Things discussed at the Brewhaus, Vol. 3

Gather around, fellow conversationalists, barstool philosophers and bullsh*t artists, as we review the latest list of topics recently discussed at my favorite watering hole: 

Sep 9, 2011

Random thoughts from the 2011 Springfield Ethnic Festival

One of my favorite local events every year – and one that symbolizes to me the end of summer – is the annual Ethnic Festival held Labor Day weekend at the Ethnic Village inside the Illinois State Fairgrounds.  

For those who aren’t familiar with the layout at Ethnic Village, bands play under a large gazebo in the center of the grounds.  The booths where the food vendors are located encircle the border of the festival.  Each booth has a sign prominently displayed that indicates the culture/nationality represented by the food for sale. 

Lately, however, the event seems to have lost some of its luster.  In some ways, it has almost become an afterthought of a larger ethnic festival included as part of the State Fair.  Still, despite fewer food vendors than during the fair, the entertainment still makes it worthwhile, and it’s a good complement to the motorcycle races that take over the grandstands at the fairground over the same weekend. 

Here are a few more observations I had over the Friday and Sunday night I attended: 

Sep 8, 2011

Random thoughts from the 8th Annual Old Capitol Blues & BBQ

My last blog entry touched upon a great German restaurant Gypsy and I dined at in Evansville, Ind.  During that trip, I was also on the lookout for a great barbecue joint (I always am), and we had even ventured across the Ohio River to Henderson, Ky. the next day looking for a place that was highly recommended on

Well, as they say in the movie "Stripes," the directions got all screwed up and one thing led to another and the next thing you know we were eating at a place unknown to me that ... well, let's say left a lot to be desired.  Gypsy's pulled pork smelled like the barnyard the pig came from.  the one positive was the appearance of chopped mutton on the menu -- a damn rare thing, so much in fact that I had never had barbecue mutton before and had to try it.  It was good, but it wasn't worth the entire trip.

How this has anything to do with the annual Blues & BBQ Fest held Au. 26 and 27 in Springfield, Ill. is that is just worked my appetite up that much more for the good stuff.  And this festival always delivers because of the many vendors competing for your taste buds.

Aug 29, 2011

A commoner reviews Gerst Bavarian Haus, Evansville, Ind

Earlier this month, as fate would have it, I accompanied a mysterious and exotic Gypsy and her equally mysterious daughter to Evansville, Ind., and the University of Southern Indiana, where Gypsy’s daughter was going to school.  Our mission was to help her move into her new apartment on campus, so we hitched the Gypsy wagon and off to Evansville we went. 

The school’s location was very scenic, nestled in the hilly suburbs east of the city.  Although I could live without the roundabout that greeted you as you entered the campus.  Honestly, what is the purpose of that?  Maybe I’m just getting more directionally challenged in my old age.

The entrance looked nice, though.
But this blog is less about our trip to USI and more about where we dined that Saturday night – the Gerst Bavarian Haus.  We were looking for something out of the ordinary in a town that seems to have cornered the market on chain restaurants (even more so than Springfield), so I did some research on Urbanspoon and other websites, got an additional personal recommendation, and Gypsy treated us to an authentic German dinner.

Aug 19, 2011

Random thoughts from the 2011 Illinois State Fair

I made my annual pilgrimage to the Illinois State Fair last weekend, which is always entertaining if only for the people-watching factor.  The fair is sure to bring out elements of society you just have to wonder where they hide during the rest of the year. 

Anyway, here are a few observations from this year’s fair from a commoner’s eyes:

Aug 9, 2011

Back to blogging – a brief time Downhome

Well, it’s certainly been longer than I anticipated between blogs.  What started as a summer cold last month turned into bronchitis before morphing into full-blown pneumonia.  For a commoner who likes to travel and be on the go, being out of commission for more than three weeks is enough to drive me stir crazy.

Fortunately, even in my weakened state, I was able to make it to downtown Springfield last Saturday for part of the inaugural Downhome Music Festival.  And even more good fortune that it was so close to my personal “Cheers” – the Brewhaus, which also happened to be one of the bars sponsoring the festival. 

One of the key selling points of the Downhome Music Festival was that its devotion to “supporting locally grown original live music.  So, all gate proceeds went directly to the artist performing at the festival.  That made the $5 admission a very good deal and well worth it, even if I was only there long enough to see a couple of bands. 

Gypsy Collabo

Dave Littrell Band

Jul 20, 2011

Getting a Taste of Downtown

I may be a commoner, but I have a traveling spirit, and if I don’t get out of town every so often I feel like I missing an important element of living.  However, for being “stuck” in Springfield, Ill., you’re never really lacking for something to do every weekend, especially during the summer when one festival after another fills the calendar.  Let’s face it, sometimes we tend to take for granted what’s right in our backyard to enjoy …    

Jul 12, 2011

Hill Prairie wine, women and song

When I wrote about Illinois wines a couple of months ago, one winery I praised was Hill Prairie in Oakford, Ill.  So, with an extra day to enjoy the Independence Day weekend, I decided to make a spur-of-the-moment return visit that Sunday.

As fate would have it, I encountered an exotic Gypsy who happened to have the same idea, and we made the short road trip from Oakford to meet her friend, Monica.  Isn’t it funny how a plan comes together sometimes?
They love it when a plan comes together.

Jul 4, 2011

A Commoner Reviews Stockholm’s in Geneva, Ill.

When you’re traveling as a commoner, sometimes the most memorable experiences come from discovering places you never intended to find.  Such was the case a few weeks ago, as Gypsy and I made our way home from Lake-in-the-Hills, Ill., and made an unexpected stop in Geneva, Ill., at Stockholm’s.  

We found ourselves in historic downtown Geneva while meandering through Chicago’s far west suburbs.  The city is nestled on the Fox River, and the downtown features a good variety of specialty shops, antique stores and restaurants.  I can see many a Chicago resident taking advantage of the scenery and shopping in Geneva and nearby St. Charles for a weekend getaway.     
Somehow, we found ourselves in the heart of downtown on a Sunday afternoon, and since we were feeling particularly hungry for a late lunch (or early dinner), the façade of Stockholm’s on State Street looked especially inviting.  Ok, maybe I was a little thirsty, too.  It may have influenced our decision to stop.  Plus, it looked open and had a decent amount of traffic compared to other shops nearby. 

Jun 23, 2011

A Commoner Reviews Bardog Tavern

I thought I’d start picking up some loose ends and cover items I hadn’t found room for in earlier blogs.  I also wanted to start a series of reviews of certain dives, restaurants, etc., I’ve visited recently.  First on that list is the Bardog Tavern in downtown Memphis, Tenn.

Jun 8, 2011

A sampling of SOHO

I find it somewhat hard to believe this humble blog has followers, so I’ve been surprised by a few people who’ve actually asked where I’ve been lately.  Well, the primary occupier of my time last weekend was my annual volunteer work at the SOHO Music Festival. 

For those unfamiliar with SOHO, it’s a two-day music festival that showcases local bands.  To my knowledge, it’s always held the first weekend of June and is usually located on Washington Street between 5th and 6th Street in downtown Springfield, with the Old State Capitol as its backdrop.  It’s the brainchild of Eric Welch, with profits going to a charitable cause, which for the past five years has been the Mini O’Beirne Crisis Nursery. 

May 28, 2011

Springfield Old Capitol Art where??

Last Saturday (May 21) I accompanied my favorite Gypsy downtown for what was supposed to be an afternoon enjoying and celebrating the 50th Annual Springfield Old Capital Art Fair.  Well, as fate would have it (and this happens a lot with me), one distraction led to another and … well, let’s just say we didn’t see a lot of art.

May 24, 2011

Everything’s ducky at the Peabody Hotel

There’s one place every first-time visitor to Memphis must go, and it’s not Graceland or Sun Studios.  It’s the Peabody Hotel. 
Located just a couple blocks off of Beale, the Peabody is a downtown fixture.  It’s also one of the most elegant, historic hotels I’ve ever stepped in, even if I haven’t had the opportunity (or the finances) to spend the night.  Yes, despite my commoner status, I have a thing for historic hotels … you’ll never mistake the Peabody for your run-of-the-mill chain hotel.
Every hotel like the Peabody has its own charm and history, and their most famous fixtures are the Peabody ducks that migrate to the largest fountain in the hotel lobby every day.  If you’ve never seen the ducks, they alone are worth a walk-through.   It’s even better if you get to see their arrival and departure, being led along the red carpet by a certified Duckmaster. 

May 20, 2011

Random thoughts from the 2011 Beale Street Music Festival

I’ve been wanting to blog on this year’s Beale Street Music Festival for some time, but work and other crappy life distractions had prevented me up to this point. 
This year’s festival, which is part of the annual month-long Memphis in May celebration, was actually held April 29-May 1.  It’s one of the most affordable music festivals of its kind that I know of, and the line-ups seem to get better every year.  It’s also fairly close, only a six-hour drive down I-55 from where I live, which means I’m sure to run into a lot of my musically inclined friends who are also making the trip.    

May 8, 2011

More things discussed at the Brewhaus

OK, this is not-so-recent picture, but it's one of my favorites from my 40th birthday party with two of my favorite people -- Sue and Terry Hupp. 

It’s the blog sequel nobody demanded.  Here’s another list of the odd, obscure and unusual topics bantered about recently at my favorite bar:

Apr 27, 2011

Pissing off the wine snobs

Want to really piss off someone who equates the quality of wine with where it comes from and how much it costs?  Tell them you really like Missouri and Illinois wines. 

Of course, not every wine made from Illinois or Missouri vineyards is cheap, nor is every one tasty.  But, in reality, I actually like a lot of the wines I’ve tasted right here in the Midwest. 

Apr 14, 2011

Things discussed at the Brewhaus

Probably everyone who enjoys an occasional libation has a place where, as the TV theme song says, “everybody knows your name.” 

Apr 5, 2011

Hail to the Hurricane

Recently, the author of one of the blogs I follow discussed the question:  If you could only drink one type of cocktail for the rest of your life, what drink would it be?  For me, I would never tire of the hurricane. 

Mar 30, 2011

For the love of barbecue

At 17th Street Bar and Grill, O'Fallon, Ill. location ... the creamed corn alone makes the whole trip worth it!

I think barbecue may just be the perfect food.  Between the meats, the slow-cooked smokiness and the variations on the sauce (which, by the way, should be optional – the best barbecue tastes just fine without it), every good barbecue is a memorable experience. 
My love for barbecue began with a rib joint named Fantasia that was within walking distance of my apartment when I was a student at Western Illinois University.  The owners had relocated from Chicago and turned an old Kentucky Fried Chicken into barbecue nirvana.  The sauce was perfect for dipping French fries into, and the beef ribs are still the moistest I’ve ever had.  Sadly, Fantasia is long gone.  Underappreciated by the locals, I suppose.

Mar 22, 2011

Was Pinetop Perkins the last of the original Delta bluesmen?

Pinetop Perkins died Monday, March 21, at the ripe age of 97.   Aside from having a really cool name, you might ask why this should matter so much to music lovers like myself.  Well, everyone who knows anything about blues music knows B.B. King, and he said, “He was one of the last great Mississippi Bluesmen.  He had such a distinctive voice, and he sure could play the piano. He will be missed not only by me, but by lovers of music all over the world."

Mar 15, 2011

How I Got Here

My earliest childhood memories are from being raised by my grandparents in Angie, La., a tiny community surrounded by sawmills and the Pearl River, nestled in the toe of the state.  My grandmother ran the local drive-in (that’s a local fast-food joint), while I stayed home with my grandfather when I wasn’t in school. 
Sometimes, my grandfather would get bored, and he’d decide to take the old tractor-green pickup truck out to roam the countryside.  I would ride shotgun.  We didn’t have anywhere in particular to go, but that’s what made it all an adventure … to see what was out there.  We’d even create place names for every wide spot in the road where some activity was taking place.  Milkville was obviously where the dairy farm was.  Lumberton was the location of the saw mill at the edge of town. 

A commoner dines at Baumgartner’s Cheese Store and Tavern, Monroe, Wis.

I wasn’t sure a place existed that could be the perfect representation of Wisconsin life, but then I traveled through Monroe, Wis., one week...