Peoria Journal Star

December 31, 2003

Last call

Loyal customers will miss fried chicken, family atmosphere at one of Peoria's oldest pubs

of the Journal Star

PEORIA - Mel and Marian Meinert, married owners of Walt's Tavern in South Peoria, remember when about 20 bars crowded their neighborhood 30 years ago. These days, only three remain.

And this pub, arguably one of the oldest in Peoria and famous for 67 years of fried chicken, will close today.

Mel, 69, said it's time to retire. He never wanted to work past 70, and he had open-heart surgery three years ago.

"The body tells you when it's time to move on," he said Tuesday.

Mel and Marian, 66, chose to close the pub before Jan. 1 because $2,000 in food and liquor license renewals are due soon.

Walt's Tavern, 2301 E. Garden St., opens at 4 p.m. and won't close until the last customer leaves.

"As long as people are here, we'll be here," Marian said.

Marian was robbed at gunpoint about two weeks ago just outside of the restaurant, but she said this has nothing to do with the closure.

Walt's Tavern is one of the two oldest pubs in Peoria, sharing the honor with Agatucci's Restaurant.

Pictures fill the pub's wood-paneled walls, dating back to when Mel's father, Walt, opened it in the late 1930s and named it after himself. Mel took over the business in 1959.

Marian pointed out a picture documenting a proud moment in the pub's history - when Michael Landon and Dan Blocker, of the 1960s TV show "Bonanza," stopped by once. So did state Sen. George Shadid and his family. So did a team of Clydesdale horses.

Marian said the pub has stuck around because the food is good and affordable. She makes everything on the menu, which includes steak, chicken and a variety of fish. On Wednesdays, customers can get a plate of spaghetti, fried chicken, salad and bread for $6.25. In 1936, customers could get a chicken dinner for $1.50.

Marian said customers swear by the food, which makes up 70 percent of the pub's sales.

"They keep saying, 'Where are we going to get our fish?' Where are we going to get our chicken?' " Marian said.

Don Beachler went to Walt's Tavern for the first time 30 years ago, and he says the food has kept him coming back.

"Over the years, it's the place we've always enjoyed going," he said. "It's the only place I've ever eaten chicken."

Beachler, 55, said his whole family has come to know Walt's Tavern well.

The Meinerts said it's not unusual to see three generations of one family in the pub. Their three kids spent much of their childhood there, and their grandsons even tend bar.

"People always tell me it won't be the same because everybody knows everybody around here," Marian said. "They've been customers, but they've been really good friends."

Mel has already tried to sell the pub twice and plans to put it up for sale again. He and Marian would like to see it stick around, but they have new priorities now. They've always wanted to take a cruise to Alaska.