Mar 16, 2015

An engaging daytime pub crawl in Alton, Ill.

As my blog’s nine faithful followers may recall, The April and I got engaged in Grafton over Valentine’s Day weekend.  So, how did we celebrate my popping the question?  Day drinking … in nearby Alton, Ill. (Joint decisions like these make me think we were made for each other.)

To be completely honest, we had sort of planned to visit Alton that day anyway, but now we had a purpose.  And what better place to start than what’s arguably Alton’s most famous landmark, Fast Eddie’s Bon Air.  

Fast Eddie’s has been a fixture in Alton since as long as I can remember.  Its roots can be traced to when Anheuser Busch first opened a bar in the town in 1931.  But things really took off after the original “Fast Eddie” took over in the 1980s.  Having quadrupled in size since, today’s Fast Eddie’s is known for huge crowds, live music all the time and great, cheap grilled food (and huge peel-and-eat shrimp).  It has become so large, in fact, that many claim it to be the No.1 bar by volume served in the world. 

Needless to say that, especially considering The April’s aversion to large crowds, it pays to get to Fast Eddie’s early.  And so we did.  We were in line right as the opened the doors for business. 

As soon as we got in, I wasted no time in placing our order at the grill – order 007 to be precise.  We then settled in to enjoy a rarity – two seats at Fast Eddie’s original, main bar by the entrance. 

Bloody Marys are a great complement to peel-and-eat shrimp.
To drink, we started with Bloody Marys, then graduated to Stag beer.  Later, I had a hurricane in honor of Mardi Gras weekend.  It’s one of the bar’s specialty drinks on the menu, and they make a pretty good one (although I like their margaritas just a little better).

They take partying in the street to a new level at Fast Eddie's.
Eventually, we made our way to Fast Eddie’s beer garden, which give you an idea of the bar’s expansiveness.  After all, they've literally taken over a side street in recent years to make room for an “outdoor” bar and music stage (back in the olden days, the stage was near the grill, it always led to a major bottleneck in crowd traffic).       

Comparing this trip to Fast Eddie’s with so many others, I have to admit that getting there as early as possible is definitely the way to go.  However, we left before the band started, so if seeing live music is your priority, you may want to time your arrival for a little later in the afternoon. 

With the crowds amassing, The April and I asked a Fast Eddie’s bartender for a recommendation for the nearest dive bar.  That’s how we decided to make the Woodstock Lounge our second stop. 

Located on the downtown stretch of Broadway in Alton, the Woodstock Lounge may at first appear to be like any other bar trying to keep a low profile.  For instance, the Woodstock’s Facebook page has been relatively inactive since 2010, so they’re clearly not trying to draw to much attention to themselves.  And for some reason, I honored their attempt to stay under the radar by conveniently forgetting to take any pictures during our visit. 

That said, for a place with a reputation as a gritty biker bar, we found the bartender and her patrons (yes, there were a fair share of bikers there) to be very hospitable and friendly.  The drinks were strong and affordable, the camaraderie was enjoyable, and the atmosphere was inviting.  A jukebox blared hard rock classics while a couple of regulars played pool in the room behind us, but nothing was too loud or distracting to prevent us from having good conversation with the locals.

The April eventually made the call to move on from the Woodstock.  She doesn't like to stay put in one place too long … wanderlust, I suppose.  We intended to make a pit stop at the Pub Room at the recommendation of friends, but they were closed for remodeling, so we ventured on to our third and final stop of the day at Cat Daddy’s Tavern.

I would never consider Cat Daddy’s a dive bar by the strictest definition, although some online reviewers have affectionately called it such.  Frankly, in my opinion, the place is too clean and contemporary looking to be considered a dive.  I did, however, get the feeling that Cat Daddy’s is a great downtown watering hole for locals, particularly once it gets hopping later in the evening (we arrived shortly after they opened for the day). 

The April makes new friends who, ironically, were also from the Springfield, Ill., area.   
The place definitely has charm and character.  The walls are filled with curiosities and conversation starters.  The TVs and sports memorabilia add a sports bar vibe to the place.  The bar itself is long and extremely well stocked.  Prices are kept within reason.  And you get the impression this is the place to go for a good mixed drink.  Ask, and chances are that the bartender can make it.  From our own experience, we had an excellently prepared gin martini, which isn’t as easy to perfect as one would think.  

Speaking of the bartender, we had a great conversation with Rick while we were there.  He was super friendly and made us feel very welcome.  We enjoyed his stories of working in the service industry and even learned he makes an occasional visit to Springfield, Ill., for Thai food at the Magic Kitchen restaurant.  It really is a small world.  And, upon learning we got engaged earlier that day, Rick surprised us with a free round of shots – a specialty concoction that I only remember as being delicious.  Thanks to Rick’s hospitality, we can definitely say we’ll be back on our next trip to Alton. 

The first pub crawl of our engagement came to a ceremonious end not long after our free shots.  The sun was starting to set, and we needed to make our way back to Grafton for some much needed rest and relaxation.  

On our way back, I made a point of stopping to take pictures of the famous rock painting of the legendary piasa bird on the side of the bluff along the highway. 

This made a lot more sense when I did it.  The April did not care either way.  She was perfectly content to snooze in the car while I snapped pictures.  Nonetheless, it's a little bonus blog post material, and something to watch for if you're ever in the area.  

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