Dec 21, 2014

A stroll through the Soulard Market

Considering how often I visit Saint Louis and its historic Soulard neighborhood, I’m almost ashamed to admit that I waited until my birthday last month to make my first visit to the historic Soulard Farmers Market.

The Soulard Farmers Market is considered one of the oldest of its kind in the United States, dating back more than two centuries and pre-dating New Orleans’ arguably more famous French Market by a few years.  As often as I travel to New Orleans, I try to make a point to visit the French Market on every trip.  So, I was very pleased to finally tour Saint Louis’ Soulard Market which, by my comparison, seems more true to the spirit of the traditional open-air farmers markets in almost every sense.    

For starters, the Soulard Market seems to have a much greater number of vendors selling meat and produce – both locally grown and from around the world.  Even though we arrived early afternoon on a Saturday and the pickings were getting slim, we still saw many great finds and bargains. 

Dec 1, 2014

Mamma mia! – A birthday lunch at Zia’s, St. Louis

I recently completed somewhat of a whirlwind trip to Saint Louis to celebrate my birthday where the focus was going to be on checking out the Soulard area and a little nightlife (and day drinking, as it turned out) in the neighborhood, with a final stop at one of my favorite places in the STL – Broadway Oyster Bar.  But I’m getting a couple of blog posts ahead of myself.  That’s because my previous trip to Saint Louis and its historic Hill neighborhood last summer left such an impression on me that I was determined to go back.  So, we started the celebration with lunch at one of the Hill’s more well-known restaurants – Zia's. 

One reason why Zia's is regionally famous and synonymous with the Hill’s Italian restaurant scene is because you can find their house dressing and pasta sauces on most grocery store shelves where I live in Central Illinois.  Therefore, although Zia's is probably one of the newer kids on the Hill (founded in 1986), it has earned a solid reputation even with those who have never been to the restaurant.

Nov 18, 2014

Exploring Eldred – Kathy’s Corner and Thirsty’s Tavern

(Editor's note:  Thirsty's Tavern recently changed names and is now known as Tucker's Pub.  Rest assured, it's still in its great location in downtown Eldred.)

Consider this post a prologue to my previous entry about last months’ trip to Grafton, Ill., since before we made it to our destination, my girlfriend and I got the itch to add some small town, off-the-beaten-path bar hopping to the day’s festivities.  And you don’t get much more off the beaten path than Eldred, Ill., a small farm community in rural Greene County that also serves as a pit stop for seasonal hunters and bikers.

Eldred isn't quite as old as the hills it’s nestled against, but it may seem like it when you first visit.  People have lived at this village’s location in the Illinois River bottom beside the bluffs for nearly 200 years.  It also happens to be on the south end of the lightly traveled Hillview-Eldred Road, which is one of my favorite fall drives in Illinois because the road nestles along the bluffs for miles and miles with barely a trace of civilization around you.  Yes, you could say we took the scenic route to Grafton, and that involved a couple of stops in Eldred. 

The first was at Kathy’s Corner, appropriately named for being at the corner of Hillview Road and Illinois Highway 108.  If you take 108 a few miles west, you’ll be treated to a nice ferry ride across the Illinois River into the sleepy river town of Kampsville, but that’s another adventure for another time, especially since my girlfriend has a slight aversion to ferries and old bridges. 

Standing on a corner in ... Eldred, Ill.

Nov 10, 2014

Gallivanting through Grafton

Not long ago, Grafton, Ill., wasn't much more than a sleepy river town that just happens to be perfectly positioned where the Illinois River runs into the Mississippi River.  In fact, the Great Flood of 1993 almost washed Grafton off the map.  Even now, the official population stands at 675 people, according to the last U.S. Census. 

But since then, the tourists have been showing up in ever-increasing numbers.  Grafton had always had a devoted following among bird watchers due to its proximity to a bald eagle nesting area.  Pere Marquette State Park and its lodge have also attracted visitors for a long time.  But then wineries came, followed by the art galleries, specialty stores and other tourist traps.  Now, you can even zipline, parasail or hit a water park (summer only, of course).  

Still, Grafton retains much of its original small river town charm.  So, a few weeks ago, my girlfriend and I were among the hundreds of tourists to descend on Grafton and take advantage of the last blast of warm weather this fall.

The first place we found after parking our car in one of the public lots along the river was the Piasa Winery and Pub, which takes its name from a mythical bird that was believed to inhabit the bluffs nearby.

Oct 28, 2014

A commoner reviews Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop, New Orleans

Since it’s so close to Halloween, it only seems appropriate that I blog about a haunted bar.  It also happens to be one of my favorite bars in New Orleans. 

I know … you've heard this before, but let me explain why Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop is no ordinary bar, even without its ghostly reputation.  It’s a historical landmark that’s significant on many levels. 

Oct 21, 2014

A commoner reviews Charlie Parker’s Diner, Springfield, Ill.

Since it opened 1991, Charlie Parker’s Diner has become somewhat of an institution in my hometown.  It has built a reputation among foodies for its over-sized pancakes, breakfast horseshoes and old-school diner-style atmosphere, all wrapped inside a Quonset hut near the south end of Springfield.  For me (and I suspect many other regulars), it’s been those hearty breakfasts that have helped many a hangover over the years.

Oct 14, 2014

Random day drinking in New Orleans: Flanagan’s Pub, Buffa’s Lounge and Bamboula’s

This blog post could have been about one of several specific things; but, as random as things often happen in New Orleans, it turns out to be about nothing in particular … or, to be more accurate, several experiences thrown together.  But then again, who needs an itinerary?

A Tuesday afternoon in between Jazz Fest weekends is as good a time as any to explore watering holes in and around the French Quarter I had never been to before.  Trust me when I say that is a relatively short list.  I let my friends Sue, Terry, Ken and Don lead the way. 

The bar at Flanagan's Pub
First on the list was Flanagan’s Pub.  It’s actually not very Irish, but it is very much a dive. 

Oct 9, 2014

A commoner reviews Guido’s Pizzeria and Tapas, Saint Louis, Mo.

As a commoner, I’m a firm believer that some of the best travel experiences happen when you make spur-of-the-moment decisions.  It was one of those decisions during a summer day trip to Saint Louis with the girlfriend and her kiddo that inspired us, however unprepared we were, to veer off of Interstate 44 and into the historic Italian-American neighborhood known simply as “The Hill” in search of an early dinner. 

To be clear, the earlier part of the day belonged to the kiddo, as we took her to the Magic House, home of the St. Louis Children’s Museum.  But commoners usually don’t blog about Magic Houses. 

So, with one snap decision, we exited I-44 eastbound at Hampton Avenue and drove up and down the streets that seemed to circle around the neighborhood’s namesake.  The side streets were narrow.  The homes were tiny. The shops, groceries, taverns and restaurants were old-school authentic.  The only problem was deciding if we were truly going to stop … and where, as we quickly determined The Hill is a neighborhood best explored on foot. 

Of all the places we passed, we kept coming back to Guido’s Pizzeria and Tapas

Outside dining in front of Guido's with a view of Shaw Ave.

Sep 28, 2014

Scenes from the Clayville Fall Festival

If you’re not from central Illinois or the Springfield area, you've likely never heard of the Clayville Historical Site.  Even if you are from the area, you may not be familiar with Clayville. 

What exactly is Clayville?  It was a settlement on a stagecoach trail between Springfield and the Illinois River town of Beardstown, Ill., where travelers of the era such as Honest Abe could catch the next flatboat to New Orleans, for instance.  The Broadwell Tavern and Inn served as the village’s stagecoach stop where travelers could get a meal spend the night.  And apparently, the Inn is the oldest original brick building remaining in Sangamon County, dating back to 1824.  But by the mid-1800s, Clayville’s importance was quickly diminishing with the rise of rail travel, and most people in the township had moved on to Pleasant Plains, a community just a couple of miles up the trail.    

Sep 22, 2014

A commoner reviews Molly’s at the Market, New Orleans

If you were to ask me for the single most important reason to stop by Molly’s at the Market, yet another one of my favorite New Orleans bars on Decatur Street in the French Quarter, I’d have to say it’s the frozen Irish coffee. 

Isn't that a thing of beauty?  And if you look at the many travel sites famous for their user-generated reviews, you’ll see I’m not alone in praising the signature drink at Molly’s (although they make a fine “regular” Irish coffee as well for those rare cold and damp New Orleans nights).

There are, of course, many more reasons why Molly’s should be on any traveler’s short list of local dive bars to visit.  For instance …

Sep 15, 2014

So long, summer: Scenes from 2014’s summer festival season

It was a busy summer for this commoner personally, which limited my time for enjoying many of my favorite local fairs and festivals in central Illinois.  Still, looking back at all of the food, live music and camaraderie, I had my share of fun.    

So, as the weather and calendar turn toward fall (and another festival season all its own), I decided to look back at some lasting impressions from a few festivals I always try to attend – the Chatham Sweetcorn Festival, Decatur Celebration and, marking the unofficial end of summer in Springfield, Ill., the Illinois State Fair. 

Sep 8, 2014

Pub crawling into Turtle Bay, New Orleans

As difficult as it may seem for many who know me to believe, every once in a while I discover someplace interesting in New Orleans I have never been to before.  And, thanks to my travelling companions, I enjoyed several previously undiscovered drinking establishments during my trip last spring.  One of these – Turtle Bay on Decatur Street – we discovered quite accidentally after a morning stroll through the French Market. 

Frankly, I blame Sue Hupp, who I believe uttered the phrase as we almost walked past turtle Bay’s entrance, “This place looks as good a place as any to get a cocktail.”  As usual, she was right.  Sue has always had a reputation for knowing a good bar when she sees one.

Like many New Orleans bars, window-side service ... or at least a window-side view.

Aug 29, 2014

A night at the Kerry Irish Pub, New Orleans

In my previous blog post, I wrote about the Chart Room, a French Quarter dive bar which I love to go for day drinking.  Now, it’s time to look at another French Quarter dive bar which I love to visit for late night drinking – the Kerry Irish Pub.  And so it came to be that on the same Monday in late April that my friends and I started at the Chart Room, we finished at the Kerry. 

We were all fortunate to have gotten our second wind because we did not want to miss a chance to see good live, local music.  After all, we were in town specifically to check out local music during Jazz Fest After Dark, and the Kerry’s choice seemed as good as any – Kim Carson and the Real Deal. I had no idea who Kim Carson was prior to that evening, but she and her band left a lasting impression.  More on that in a bit. 

The Kerry is, obviously, equally suitable for day drinking, too, but every time I've been to the Kerry, they always seem much busier at night.  I’m sure that has a lot to do with the fact that they have live music every night, ranging from traditional Irish music to metal, punk, classic country and the occasional acoustic solo singer-songwriter, and I've never known them to charge a cover. 

Aug 21, 2014

A commoner reviews the Chart Room, New Orleans

Commoners love dive bars.  Maybe that’s why my recent look at a favorite local hangout in Decatur, Ill., resonated so well with so many commoners like me.  And that provides me the perfect segue back to my New Orleans trip earlier this spring, because if there’s one dive bar in New Orleans’ French Quarter that resonates strongly with locals and tourists alike, it’s the Chart Room.

The Chart Room is the type of dive bar that has earned enough notoriety to be mentioned in popular travel guides (and a plug in Esquire’s list of 100 Best Bars in America), yet it still feels like home to its regular clientele.  Located on 300 Chartres Street on the corner with Bienville, its French doors are seemingly always open until 4 a.m. nightly, delivering the perfect atmosphere for the crowd to quite literally spill out onto the street or, in rare quieter moments, providing enough perspective for you to sit, drink, chat with friends and slowly watch the world go by one French Quarter resident at a time.  

Aug 13, 2014

Reeling in the Redneck Fishing Tournament, Bath, Ill.

I’d like to be able to tell you the annual Redneck Fishing Tournament held the first weekend in August in sleepy Bath, Ill., shows what can be accomplished when a bunch of good ol’ boys get together to do something positive about the environment.

In reality, it’s just a clever reason to combine a lot of fun summer redneck activities – drinking, fishing and partying in the middle of nowhere.   

Of course, if it wasn't for the invasion of Asian carp into the Illinois River threatening the ecological balance of not only the river system but eventually the Great Lakes as well, there would have been no impetus to start such an event in 2005.  And since the war on the flying fish invaders began, the tournament has grown in notoriety, if not popularity.  There are even three websites and a couple of Facebook pages one from the tournament’s founder) devoted to the event. 

Aug 11, 2014

A commoner reviews The Winery, Decatur, Ill.

The Winery has to be one of the most inappropriately named drinking establishments I've ever been fortunate enough to have visited. 

On the other hand, if you’re judging The Winery by its merits as a dive bar, it has to be one of the best I've ever encountered. 

Like other Decatur establishments Lock, Stock & Barrel and University Dogs, located on the strip of businesses that cater to the Millikin University crowd, The Winery serves its fair share of college students.  But it also serves a fair share of college professors.  And other locals.  And professional barflies.  And anyone else who just wants a place where they can feel comfortable having a shot and a beer, a burger grilled to order and an old jukebox filled with CDs catering to the owner’s personal musical tastes. 

Yeah, it’s a dive bar in every sense of the word.  In fact, if you actually did make the mistake of ordering wine here, your choices would probably be white or red, and you might get it served to you in a rocks glass.

And this is yet one more reason why I love my girlfriend … she knew this was my kind of place.  Conveniently, it’s her kind of place.  That’s a sign of compatibility if there ever was one.    

Aug 5, 2014

Breaking out of blogging limbo (or moving lessons from a commoner)

If it feels like it’s been a month since my last blog entry, that’s because it actually has been.  But there has been a very worthy reason for my longest hiatus as a blogger, as my girlfriend and I have moved in together. 

Yes, we’re now living the classic Midwestern lifestyle with the three-bedroom, two-bathroom ranch-style house on a slab with a two-car garage, located on the edge of town.  Cornfields are visible just past our block of houses, and the interstate traffic is audible in the distance.   

This does not mean I will no longer be recounting my travels; however, in the short term it may mean a lot of my travels will be closer to home.  It will also mean some of my travels will have a new focus, as I will be going places with my girlfriend and her daughter that I otherwise would have not considered.  Of course, I still have a lot of catching up to do from my travels earlier in the spring, and I am committed to getting caught up, so I have even more reasons to find new blog-worthy places.   

Jul 9, 2014

A night at the Rock ‘n’ Bowl

If you read my last blog post, you’ll recall my friends and I made the snap decision to skip a day at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Music Festival earlier this spring for a day drinking tour of the French Quarter instead.  However, that does not mean we were without options for seeing some great live music in the Big Easy. 

In fact, one huge reason we chose to go to New Orleans during the week between Jazz Fest weekends was to catch many great local and regional artists in much smaller venue.  During what many call “Jazz Fest After Dark,” most of New Orleans’ bars and night clubs known for live music are booked solid, as many acts scheduled for Jazz Fest try to squeeze in an extra gig or two on festival nights (the music stops at 7 p.m. on festival days) and during the week in between.  

So, when we opted for day drinking on our Sunday arrival day, we put Plan B into action.  And that’s how – after one evening nap and a quick cab ride later – my friends and I wound up at perhaps the most eccentric live music venue in the big Easy – the New Orleans Rock ‘n’ Bowl

You guessed it, part bowling alley, part live music venue, and genuine New Orleans institution, the Rock ‘n’ Bowl stands out on Carrolton Avenue in between the end of the St. Charles streetcar line and I-10.  Seriously with all the lighting at night, you can’t miss it. 

We have arrived!

Jul 2, 2014

The day I skipped Jazz Fest

One lesson you quickly learn when you travel as a commoner is how to go with the flow.  Your itinerary may not go as scheduled.  You may encounter detours along your journey.  And, occasionally, you may look at what you previously planned, weigh the situation you’re faced with and decide suddenly go in an entirely different direction.   

That’s what happened earlier this year with my friends and I on our first day in the Big Easy between New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival weekends. We had actually timed our arrival to make it possible to attend the first Sunday, as a couple of us were interested in seeing Eric Clapton headline that day.  And John Hiatt, and Tab Benoit, and Irma Thomas, and the list goes on … it was in my opinion the most packed day of the festival. 

It also didn't help that I insisted on posing for this picture.

Jun 24, 2014

A roaring 20th edition of Things Discussed at the Brewhaus

It’s kind of hard to believe I've devoted 20 blog posts to random drunken babble, but this post seems a little more relevant, as the venerable and beautiful Brewhaus, located in lovely downtown Springfield, Ill., marked the end of an era this month. 

The legendary, quite threadbare and severely mildewed Brewhaus carpet is no more.  A new, shiny wood floor has been installed in its place.  Yes, a little character was sacrificed to renovation and cleaner air for all. 

Nice and vertical in the front half of the bar ...
Nice an horizontal along the bar ... who says symmetry matters?

Jun 18, 2014

A commoner reviews University Dogs, Decatur, Ill.

I don’t know why, but it seems like it’s hard to find a really well-prepared Chicago-style hot dog outside of … well, Chicago. 

For a while, there was Fat Moe’s in Springfield, which did a passable job.  It sure had the look and feel of a Chicago dog and gyro joint.  But there’s something special about a perfectly char-grilled all-beef dog topped with all the right trimmings (keep the ketchup away, please!) that few places outside of the greater Chicago area seem to be able to perfect.  

So, you can imagine the slight trepidation and skepticism I had when my girlfriend suggested we go to University Dogs in Decatur, Ill.  With obvious hometown pride, she praised University Dogs as the real deal.  With other food options in the Millikin University area as a “Plan B” (including the recently blogged about Lock Stock & Barrel), I decided to give it a try. 

Jun 12, 2014

Taking stock of Lock, Stock and Barrel, Decatur, Ill.

Before I delve further into my most recent trip to New Orleans, I figured I’d take care of some other business closer to home – in this case, Decatur, Ill. 

To put Decatur in perspective with my hometown of Springfield for those who are unfamiliar with the area, think of Decatur like Springfield’s little brother. You know the one.  He lives in your shadow and has an identity crisis because of it.  He tries to do everything you do, only better.  He always looks like he’s been playing in the dirt, and he sometimes smells bad.  And even though you don’t want to admit it, he’s still pretty cool to hang out with. 

Anyway, that’s always been my impression.  Maybe it will keep improving over time because one of the first things my girlfriend suggested when she learned I was a blogger … and a foodie … and a barfly … was to show me around Decatur, her hometown , and introduce me to some of her favorite and familiar places.  And one of her first recommendations, among several surrounding Millikin University and the Oakland Street strip, was the Lock, Stock and Barrel. 

Jun 5, 2014

Finding Fenian’s in Jackson, Miss.

When looking for things to do in Jackson, Miss., an Irish bar is probably not the first place that comes to mind.  But, my friends and I dare to be different, so in our quest to keep our first night of vacation going after dinner at Burgers and Blues, we discovered Fenian’s Pub.  And I am glad we made this stop on the way back to our hotel – Fenian’s was a real find.

Sofa Kings (Jackson, Miss. version)
And to find Fenian’s, you kind of have to know where you’re going if you’re from out of town.  It’s on Fortification Street in Jackson’s Belhaven neighborhood, just a few minutes west of Interstate 55 and one block east of U.S. Highway 51/State Street, which still serves as one of the main arteries going through downtown. 

Our purpose in going to Fenian’s (other than the obvious one of having a nightcap, or several) was to check out a band called the Sofa Kings.  We wanted to see if it was the same band that plays sometimes in our home base of Springfield, Ill. (it wasn't).  Nonetheless, we enjoyed the music. 

May 29, 2014

Getting Burgers and Blues in Jackson, Miss.

Every so often, you find someone with the type of judgment you really have to question.  In my case, that man is Terry Hupp.  So, when we stopped for an overnight stay in Jackson, Miss., on our road trip to New Orleans, we looked to Terry to help us find something – anything – interesting in a town that, frankly, had always left me unimpressed. 

My crew and I met Sue and Terry at Burgers and Blues, which was not far from their hotel in Ridgeland, a suburb of Jackson.  For travelers along I-55, Ridgeland is a hotel and chain restaurant oasis on the north side of the city.  Terry recommended Burgers and Blues based on past travels, and the fact that you could hear decent music emanating from the general direction from his hotel window.  Follow your senses, I guess. 

Tucked away in southern suburbia ... 

May 23, 2014

A pit stop at Jim Neely’s Interstate Bar-B-Q, Memphis

I have plenty of blogging to get to related to my most recent road trip to New Orleans to check out the scene in between Jazz Fest weekends, and I might as well start with our first stop of note – lunch Saturday afternoon at Jim Neely’s Interstate Bar-B-Q.

The Interstate Bar-B-Q is perhaps appropriately named because of its location less than a quarter of a mile north of Exit 7 on I-55 where U.S. Highway 61 crosses it.  That does NOT necessarily mean it’s easy to get to, because if you’re travelling south, you do not have the option of turning left onto North 61 as it follows 3rd Street through the south side of Memphis toward downtown.   It’s almost as if the highway engineers intentionally tried to steer you away from the ghetto and toward Mississippi where the casinos await an hour away in the Mississippi Delta.   

May 15, 2014

The rustic beauty of the Buckhart Tavern

One requirement to being a truly great dive bar is character.  The Buckhart Tavern has a surplus.

The Buckhart Tavern is the main – and practically only – attraction in the unincorporated community of Buckhart, Ill., which sits on the crossroads of two Sangamon County highways five minutes east of Rochester, which is itself five minutes east of Springfield.  Look for the turnoff for Buckhart Road as you exit the east side of Rochester on Illinois Highway 29.

The town itself is little more than a few scattered homes, a sand and gravel company north of town, a shooting range and, of course, the tavern.  In short, it has everything a redneck could hope for when it comes to entertainment.  The town is small enough to be slighted by Wikipedia, but proud enough to have its own website (I guess the area soil is amazing for agriculture).  It must be that same sense of pride that makes the Buckhart Tavern so popular with the townies – after all, it practically IS the town. 

May 8, 2014

Blog rebooted: 5 differences between a world traveler and a commoner

It has been an insanely busy couple of months for me, and unfortunately the lack of new posts to my blog reflects that.  However, I've had many blog-worthy moments to record recently, so I’ll be doing my best to catch up in May. 

One lesson that has been reinforced to me in recent months: While I may never be the world traveler I always wanted to be, I can still fully enjoy those small parts of the world I do get to see.  That’s what I’ll be focusing this blog around for the foreseeable future.  I admit, I’m jealous of all the travel bloggers I follow who can go anywhere anytime.  But I think I've finally figured out why they can do what they do and I can’t.  And yes, I find their argument that anyone can do what they do somewhat myopic.  I think the differences between them and me prove why:

Apr 17, 2014

A Saint Louis-style birthday blitz

Last month I was proud to be a part of a group who gathered in Saint Louis to celebrate the birthday of my friend, Ken, who many of my regular blog followers may recall has been along on many of my travels, including last summer’s Colorado road trip.  You may also know we sometimes refer to Ken as “the Beast of Virden.”  It’s a name well-earned.  After all, Ken really is from Virden, Ill.  (He’s also a pretty big Rolling stones fan, for what it’s worth.)

The trip afforded me an opportunity to hit several of my favorite (and previously blogged about) places in Saint Louis, as well add a few new experiences to the resume.  And, of course, great travel often includes great company.  We certainly had that on the trip, as well.

Our first stop in Saint Louis … Broadway Oyster Bar, conveniently located near both Busch Stadium and the historic Soulard neighborhood.  I drove down with two other friends, Kent and Sue, and it was here where we met Sue and Terry Hupp toward their end of day drinking in Soulard. 

At the end of the "patio bar" at Broadway Oyster Bar 

Apr 3, 2014

Music for my beers

A night at the Schlafly Bottleworks

I have to admit, between work and a rougher than average winter, I didn't have many blog-worthy experiences at the start of 2014, but I did capture a few moments from one memorable road trip – to Schlafly Bottleworks in Saint Louis.

For those not from my neck of the woods, or if you’re just unfamiliar with Schlafly Beer, the Saint Louis Brewery, Inc., which makes all Schlafly products, began in 1991 and has become the largest independently owned brewery in Missouri and second largest brewer in the city after some other company I can’t immediately think of … I think they own horses, too.  With the  Schlafly Bottleworks building opening up in 2003, all Schlafly Beer is produced in Saint Louis.     

Chalk the idea for this adventure up to my friend, Kent.  At his recommendation, I became a passenger with our mutual friend Tom Irwin, as Tom drove down to Schlafly Bottleworks one cold January Saturday night, to perform with one of his bands, the Hayburners.  It’s not often you have the lead singer of a band be the designated driver for his fans.  Even with a bad case of laryngitis, how could I pass this up?

Mar 23, 2014

A commoner reviews Abe’s Bar-B-Q, Clarksdale, Miss.

Don’t you hate it when “real life” obligations get in the way of something you love to do?  So, I apologize to my narrow band of followers for not blogging much recently and I hope I haven’t lost any of you during the hiatus.  II guess I need to hit the road and seek out some new blog-worthy adventures.  For now, you’ll have to settle for this post about Abe’s Bar-B-Q in Clarkdale, Miss., and why – after all these years of seeking out great barbecue joints – Abe’s still holds the top spot with my taste buds.

The recent inspiration for this post came from a conversation I had with a friend last night who talked about taking a tour’ of all of the famous barbecue joints in the United States.  I immediately started processing the list on the bottom of my blog, and the discussion ultimately turned to Abe’s.  I've been fortunate enough to eat here at least a half-dozen times, and the experience never wavers in quality.  And fortunately, when I ate here last summer with the young Curmudgeon, I finally captured took some notes (mental and visual) of what makes Abe’s stand out to me. 

The first is location.  Abe’s just isn't any restaurant in Clarksdale, Miss., which is ground central for Delta blues music.  Abe’s is situated right off the famous “Crossroads” of where U.S. Highways 61 and 49 used to meet.  It’s the spot where, according to legend, Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his amazing guitar skills.    

Mar 9, 2014

A commoner at the Commissary, Germantown, Tenn.

As famous Memphis barbecue joints go, the Commissary may not have the fame and notoriety of Rendezvous, Interstate or even some of the places you’ll find on Beale Street.  But then again, maybe it should.  Or, at least maybe it's starting to.  

To be honest, I would not have known about the Commissary if my friend, Ken, hadn't clued me in prior to our trip to the Beale Street Music Festival last year.  But I’m apparently not in the know as much as I’d like to believe.  Ken had heard how the Commissary had catered the Masters golf tournament one year, and so it had been on his short list of restaurants to try for some time.  And, I have to admit, I’m glad we made the trip out to Germantown to try it.    

Feb 25, 2014

Things discussed at the Brewhaus, No. 19 (and scenes from a Brewhaus Sunday night)

Whenever my favorite drinking establishment in beautiful downtown Springfield, Ill., has its ups and downs – and I like to think they’re poised for another upswing with some recent improvements – you can usually count on two constants at the Brewhaus:  a reliable crew of regulars you can always have a good drink and good conversation with, and Sunday Night “Church” with Tom Irwin and his band. 

Except for a few hiccups over the years, Sunday night with Tom is about as reliable of an institution as you’ll find in Springfield.  Sure, some nights are as quiet as … well, church.  But other nights  … well, they’re memorable.  Like a recent Sunday night over Martin Luther King Jr. weekend.  A lot of people took advantage of not working Monday, and some familiar faces joined the band for a special night of great, rocking music. 

But enough of my rambling … I’ll let the pictures I took that night capture the moment.   

Tom Irwin (right) and the Raouligans, with the ever watchful presence of Raoul on the wall. 

Feb 12, 2014

Scenes from the Cheshire Inn, Saint Louis

To say the Cheshire Inn & Lodge has character is an understatement.  In fact, in the Richmond Heights/Clayton neighborhood of Saint Louis, it stands out because of its uniqueness.  After all, you don’t find a hotel complex masquerading as a British hunting lodge just anywhere in “the Lou.”    

That said, the Cheshire isn't the first landmark of note when you get off Interstate 64 at Clayton Road to head to Forest Park (home of the Saint Louis Zoo and other attractions).  

No, it’s the world’s largest Amoco sign still in existence.  Don’t worry; you can see it from the interstate.

Smile, Kent!

Feb 4, 2014

5 life lessons for enjoying affordable live music

It’s no secret that I love music almost as much as I love travel.  And nothing beats seeing great music live.  But sometimes that can be a challenge to do on a commoner’s budget (and let’s face it, these days I’m operating more on a peasant’s budget!). 

So, while I rarely splurge to see a high-dollar concert at a massive arena or a cavernous convention center (and even more rarely would I have the desire), I have learned a few life lessons that have helped me enjoy a lot of great shows over the years – and made these experiences more memorable and personally rewarding.

1. Go to music festivals

Weather never seems to discourage to music lovers at Beale Street Music Festival

Jan 28, 2014

Lunchtime at the Nutty Brown Café, Dripping Springs, Texas

I figured it was about time to put out one last little blog post related to my work trip to Austin last fall. 

The Nutty Brown Café is the type of place that is busy even when it’s quiet.  By that, I mean even when people aren't going there for a kick-ass concert at their outdoor amphitheater (and we’re not necessarily talking small-time shows here … check out their website), they’re flocking there for the food.  And that’s what brought me and some work friends there while travelling between offices in the Texas hill country.

It’s located just southwest of Austin – Dripping Springs, Texas, to be exact – on U.S. Highway 290.  Keep heading west, and you’ll be driving through the heart of Texas hill country, Johnson City and LBJ’s homestead.  And if you want to take Waylon Jennings’ advice, keep going and look for the turnoff for Luckenbach just before you get to Fredericksburg.  Yes, there are a lot of great and famous venues for live music in this part of the state, and the Nutty Brown Café is one of them.

Jan 21, 2014

A commoner’s New Orleans primer for a first-time visitor

I ran into a friend last weekend who once asked me for tips on things to see and do in New Orleans as a first-time visitor.  I happily obliged and remember sending her a way-too-long Facebook message outlining everything I’d do over a three-to-four day itinerary.  I remember her telling me it served her well on her trip, and she began sharing it with others.  And, as it turns out, she still shares my laundry list of New Orleans activities, and it seems to still be serving a useful purpose.

In hindsight, when I wrote this message, I was effectively blogging before I was a blogger.  So, I figure if the information is still worth sharing, I might as well make an actual blog out of it.  So, here it is, slightly updated and abbreviated with the blog reader in mind – a commoner’s essential New Orleans primer.

A typical morning crowd at the Cafe du Monde
Start your first day at the Cafe du Monde.  It’s in the heart of the French Quarter and a great spot for people watching.  Walk around Jackson Square (across the street) and check out all of the local artists, musicians and characters. 

Jan 14, 2014

A Sixth Street pub crawl, Austin, Texas

If you ever spend any amount of time in Austin, Texas – and you happen to like a few libations and live music (guilty as charged on both counts) – it won’t be long before you find yourself downtown on Sixth Street. 

New Orleans has Bourbon Street, Key West has Duval Street, and Austin has Sixth Street.  Even locals who have their favorite haunts elsewhere in town will eventually wind up here if they’re in the mood for bar hopping – and especially if they’re entertaining out-of-town guests.  Such was the case when my new friend Aaron showed me around Sixth Street one evening while I was in Austin for work. 

And if you've ever been on a good pub crawl, you’ll understand why this blog may ramble a bit.  It’s symbolic of how the night can get away from you.   

We began, with the sun still out, at Shakespeare’s Pub, a good place to just sit, have a good drink and watch the world go by. 

Jan 12, 2014

A commoner reviews Louie Mueller Barbecue, Taylor, Texas

If you want an authentic Texas barbecue experience, it probably doesn't get much more “old school” than Louie Mueller Barbecue.   

Serving beef brisket, beef ribs, hot links and other smoked meats pit-cooked to perfection since 1949, Louie Mueller Barbecue is clearly the main attraction in downtown Taylor, Texas, which is approximately 30-45 minutes northeast of Austin.  You can’t miss the place.  

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...