Feb 28, 2023

A commoner drinks at Whiskey Ridge Saloon, Breckenridge, Ill.

Central Illinois Small Town Bar Tour – 2023 Edition

If there’s anything that’s sure to break the monotony of winter in Central Illinois, I’d place my bets on a small-town bar tour.  There’s something about the tenacity of the taverns, dive bars and road houses found in and around these communities, villages and wide spots on the road that you have to appreciate.  They’re often the last of the original businesses keeping the town functioning and the town folk together.  Or, they may be revamped versions of longtime favorites, building on their legacy to keep locals coming and bring in new business.  Either way, when you visit one, you’re only a stranger for the first round.    

Punky and I love taking these daylong road trips, especially in February when the calendar gives us a couple of extra days off resulting in three-day weekends when we can beat the winter blues.  And that’s exactly what inspired what I’m calling the “Central Illinois Small Town Bar Tour – 2023 Edition.”  Together with our friends and tour guides Danielle and Greg (Danielle has vast knowledge of the backroads we were using, and Greg is allegedly part bloodhound), we mapped out a loose plan of attack and headed east out of Springfield on Ill. Route 29 toward our first destination – the recently opened Whiskey Ridge Saloon in Breckenridge. 

Somewhere amidst the farmland between the towns of Rochester and Edinburg, Breckenridge certainly qualifies for that “wide spot on the road” definition.  Even its Wikipedia page is almost blank.  A few houses remain accessible by the old two-lane version of the highway adjacent to today’s four-lane bypass.  

Ironically, the bypass only made our destination a lot more visible from Route 29.  The hardest part getting to the Whiskey Ridge Saloon was navigating the entrance road.  You can hardly miss the building as you approach.  It’s bright red and looks something like a cross between a road house and the last surviving casa from an old Spanish mission.  I suppose it’s fitting for a place that was reportedly once a bar/restaurant known as “the Alamo.”

I admit to being slightly disappointed that the entrance did not have saloon-style doors, but you can’t say it wasn’t clearly marked.

Once inside, I have to admit I was pleasantly surprised by what I saw – a look and feel that was new, clean and modern with great retro-western touches.  Obviously, the new ownership put a lot of effort and investment into Whiskey Ridge Saloon prior to its December 2022 opening.  It has an identity all its own.      

In fact, the only part of Whisky Ridge that seems even slightly weathered is the very solid and lengthy bar to the left of the entrance.  We bellied up, of course, and I ordered a Jim Beam Vanilla and Coke.  It just seemed appropriate to drink whisky at a place called the Whiskey Ridge Saloon.   

Yes, this bar is definitely stocked to be much more than just a shot and a beer place, and our bartender was very nice and welcoming.  But the bar’s most curious feature was the monkey statue at one end – look closely and there he is, wearing a hat, holding a beer and smoking a cigar.  Use caution when lifting his diaper, though.  The bartender showed us the monkey is anatomically correct.   

Whiskey Ridge Saloon is also blessed with a sizable beer garden.  Like inside, the beer garden was also surprisingly clean, had plenty of new seating and even a concrete floor.  The tall wooden fence and string of lights surrounding it would make this place ideal for hosting live music. 

Our group left Whiskey Ridge Saloon declaring the first stop of our small-town bar tour was a resounding success.  Frankly, we could have stayed there much of the afternoon and been perfectly happy.  Still, Punky and I now feel like Whiskey Ridge Saloon is our new go-to place along Route 29 when we’re traveling east of Springfield.  

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