East Side, Best Side

A pub crawl along the Illinois riverbanks

"There're some people who would say that's the way it is," Mayor Mosby acknowledges. "Some people fish, some drink. Some do both."


The drinking-fishing hierarchy is inverted in little Nutwood, where there are two bait shacks for every tavern — meaning there are, literally, two bait shacks and one tavern in this middle-of-nowhere Jersey County community fifteen miles north of Grafton on Highway 100.

The historic Wittmond Hotel in Brussels pulls double 
duty as a gift shop and bar but no longer takes boarders.
Jennifer Silverberg
The historic Wittmond Hotel in Brussels pulls double duty as a gift shop and bar but no longer takes boarders.

"Nutwood is definitely a one-bar town," explains Jonah White, who has welcomed a handful of the hamlet's residents to his spread in Michael for the erstwhile Billy Bob-a-Palooza festival. White no longer hosts the annual bash, which featured up to a dozen live bands and kegs galore, on account of one camped-out inebriate's sleepwalking off a dock in the middle of the night two summers ago. A security guard making out with a female reveler nearby dove in to rescue the wayward lush after catching the errant dive out of the corner of his eye (White hired off-duty Calhoun County cops to maintain order).

With their pipeline to the Kingdom clogged, Nutwood residents make do with the fare at the no-frills Nutrock Saloon, a squat rectangular structure that signals the town's presence to passersby. At the entry of the saloon is a man with a large hunting knife holstered to his belt. A pool table is crammed into one corner of the edifice — basically a double-wide stocked with liquor — and the jukebox's heavy-metal tendency is counterbalanced by Scrubs on a small TV set opposite the eight-ball sharks.

In contrast to St. Louis, where even the most chi-chi bars have a tube or two tuned to ESPN, non-sports programming reigns supreme in the sticks. At the Palace it was Roseanne reruns. And at the Meppen Tavern, a mossy A-frame near the Batchtown cutoff that stands as Calhoun County's answer to the Nutrock, the TV's tuned to Jaws 2, while conversation among the predominantly female clientele is dominated by the latest plot turns in Days of Our Lives. A short drive down the road at AJ's Bar & Grill in historic downtown Brussels, where a big-ass Confederate flag flies out in front of the mayor's office, all eyes are on the Martin Lawrence vehicle Nothing to Lose (why Tim Robbins signed on to play the sidekick in this crappy buddy flick remains one of cinema's all-time head-scratchers).

AJ's is where Big Red begins his daily rounds. A corn-fed twentysomething whose metabolism has yet to get the best of him, Big Red announces to his half-dozen or so fellow bar patrons that his goal for the night is to "get some pussy." When talk in Big Red's circle quickly turns to tractors, a mustachioed gentleman a few stools down polishes off his 75-cent draft and announces that he's going to go home, lie on his couch and "turn the heater up to 90."

Red reappears a few blocks away at the Wittmond Hotel, a circa-1847 gift shop/bar that ceased functioning as an inn a few years ago. Here he regales a slightly younger, livelier, more feminine crowd with a boozy tale of how he's "been on a 21-day bender," while the bartender bitches about how similar the new Diet Pepsi and Pepsi cans are. At the other end of the bar, probably the prettiest girl in town in town gossips about how one of her betrothed friends was more than a little receptive to the advances of a strange young gent at the Argosy Casino in Alton the other night.

"Who was hittin' on who?" a pudgy middle-aged eavesdropper halfway down the bar inquires, to no avail. Glory days; well, they'll pass you by.

The one establishment in Calhoun County that actively seeks to eschew the television-as-afterthought format is Straight Home, a Hardin sports bar that serves its beer in NASCAR-themed "Rusty's Last Call" glasses and shares a parking lot with Billy-Bob Teeth's world headquarters. By Calhoun County standards, the relatively new Straight Home (not to be confused with the Granite City establishment of the same name) is a yuppie bar. It's also family friendly, as evidenced by a preadolescent girl playing Big Buck Hunter while her father fires down a Beam and Coke.

Must be Dad's weekend.

Stuffed with the prime rib at Mel's Riverdock at the other end of town, much of Hardin retires shortly after sundown. But where there's a Kingdom, there will be characters, which explains why the Corner Tavern just south of the Page Bridge is just beginning to generate steam around eight-thirsty on Saturday. Here the same pool players from the Michael Tavern pass under a giant woodworked set of tits above the front door, intent on continuing the day's hustle.

And as a succession of Kelly Clarkson power ballads dins from a set of speakers behind the bar, a couple of mainlanders take their leave for the night's final ferry, lest they be stranded in a Kingdom not their own.

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