Feb 11, 2016

Day drankin’ in the Mardi Gras spirit

Since travel has become a huge part of my job lately, it’s been easy to forget that some of the greatest adventures are the least scripted.  Fortunately, there’s no better way to go off the script than a Saturday small town bar tour in Central Illinois. 

That’s what The April and I decided to do on what I like to call Mardi Gras Saturday (the weekend before Fat Tuesday), along with our friends Larry and Tammy.  The goal was to not have a goal except to enjoy the day exploring new places and meeting new friends.

Enjoying the company of the bartender at the Uptown Saloon
Our first stop was a familiar one, considering my past stops on bus trips to Fast Eddie’s in Alton and during the local Irish Days celebration – the Uptown Saloon in Farmersville.  Located, naturally, in the heart of downtown Farmersville, the Uptown Saloon serves as a quiet and friendly oasis for day drinkers, although I hear business picks up some at night and especially when a band plays there.  It also always seems to have a welcoming bartender to exchange in small talk. 

And in this instance, a well-timed Facebook check-in led to the owner calling the bartender to make sure the guests started the day off right with a nice shot to go with our Stag beers.  They must have especially appreciated the pre-noon business on a Saturday.  Of course, a good friend of mine once said you can’t drink all day unless you start in the morning.  So, we did.

Following a drive through some narrow and crumbling back roads west of Farmersville, we decided it would be in our best interests to look for lunch in nearby Girard.  The beer signs led us to try Ron’s Red Bird Café downtown.  As it turns out, Ron’s really is a café (although they did have a small refrigerator with a few macro brews in it).  Still, we had a nice lunch – my cheeseburger and chili special hit the spot – then quickly hit the road, for we had the sense we were losing valuable daylight on our tour. 

Ron’s did, however, provide a long-lasting memory of a flaming toaster being carried out the back door in a cardboard box.  It was so surreal and happened so fast that I didn’t even have my camera ready.

Celebrating our arrival at the Palm Tree Pub
After Girard, we decided we needed to go to a town that was clearly more dedicated to drinking.  Not more than 5 minutes up the road on Illinois.Highway 4, Virden was the answer.  The Palm Tree Pub became the reason.   

You can't go anywhere without danger of being photobombed.
I still honestly don’t know why a small Central Illinois town like Virden has a tropical-themed bar just off the town square, but for some reason it kind of works.  Maybe we just needed to feel warmer on a cold winter’s day.  Maybe that warmth came from the $3.50 shot specials they offered (although the shot glasses come chilled unless you request otherwise).  Regardless, it was a nice place to hang out, enjoy the vibe and the juke box, and plot our next move.   

That next move was in the even smaller town of Thayer.  You have to make an effort to turn into town and follow what used to be an old alignment of U.S. Route 66, then you have to follow the signs for “downtown” but eventually you’ll be rewarded with this sight …

… the entrance to Pudock’s Hideout.  But, as the bartender at Pudock’s pointed out to me, you can’t really call it a hideout if you tell everyone where it is. Sorry, Tish, I couldn’t help myself.

Pudock’s is more than a hideout, though.  It’s a hidden gem.  It’s a bar and grill that takes full advantage of its old-school gangster theme with all its décor. 

I was particularly impressed with the glass tables which doubled as showcases for many of the mementos on display.  While we were there, I learned the owner had rescued these tables from the old Chantilly Lace nightclub in Springfield. 

The April was almost as impressed with the Stag beer poster, and who can blame her, really?  She liked the poster’s message of female empowerment. 

The long wooden bar and shelves are in immaculate condition (and did you notice the $1 shot specials?). 

They look awfully familiar ... 
The bar is even long enough to inadvertently stalk another happy day drinking group we had met earlier in the Palm Tree Pub.  It really is a small world.  But they didn’t seem to mind.  In fact, they encouraged us to meet up with them again at our next – and ultimately final – stop of the day.

Minutes before the Mardi Gras madness hits full stride
I didn’t need a lot of convincing to end up at A.J.’s Corner in the heart of Chatham.  I already knew about the Mardi Gras party they were throwing that day.  Plus, I had a suspicion we would find our good friends Sue and Terry Hupp there eventually (A.J.’s is just a stone’s throw from home for them).  And I was right. 

A.J.’s surprised me with the scope of the party and the effort put into it.  It was clearly a labor of love.  The dining room to the side was decked out, and in one corner homemade jambalaya, gumbo, red beans and rice, crawfish pie miniatures, boiled crawfish, and cornbread were all being served up free for partygoers.  For Central Illinois, the Louisiana fare they made tested pretty darn good.  The April was pleasantly surprised by the mini crawfish pies. 

The oysters were a little less fuzzy than the picture ... or the photographer.  
If that wasn’t enough to fill you up, they even provided free oysters on the half shell for those brave enough to slurp them.  I had a couple, and while you obviously concede a little freshness when you’re 800 miles from the nearest ocean, these were pretty darn good for the moment. 

And, of course, there were the beads.  Someone surely donated several bags from a trip to Mardi Gras in New Orleans because many beads being distributed were unique to various Mardi Gras krewes.  I thought it was a great touch to hand these out to the crowd. 

Oh, I almost forgot to mention the $2 homemade hurricanes … which may explain why I don’t have a picture of those hurricanes to include in this post.  But for that price, you really couldn't afford not to drink.  Fortunately, from Chatham The April and I had just a short ride back to home in Springfield.  

From the quiet corners of small town bars in the early afternoon to the mini Mardi Gras madness we encountered at A.J.’s it was definitely a Saturday road trip to remember.  I think it was made even more memorable by how off-the-radar our chosen stops were.  For instance, none of these establishments apparently has its own website.  Heck, a few barely have a discernible Facebook presence.  But all are worth coming back to more often.  


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