Duffy's Tavern in the small Illinois town of Utica, IL is a long time favorite of people who for years have traveled to the beautiful Starved Rock State Park just south of town. Utica is a neat little town with a number of little shops and restaurants, but Duffy's is probably the most well known of the places in the downtown area (see map).
On April 20, 2004, Utica was hit by a massive tornado that killed 8 people, damaged over 100 homes and destroyed a number of businesses in the downtown area. The total cost of destruction in the small town was well into the millions. It took the people of Utica months to rebuild and to get their lives back to normal.
I hadn't been to Duffy's since the tornado hit, so on my way into Chicago yesterday I decided to take a side trip off of Interstate 80 and go into town for a Duffy's Burger.
Actually, I first stopped in at Princeton, IL to get a burger at The Spoon restaurant. I heard that The Spoon had good burgers, so I thought I'd get one there. I walked into the place around 1:40 p.m. and there were four guys sitting toward the back playing cards.
An older guy got up from the game and sauntered up to counter where I was seated. He asked what I wanted and I told him I'd take a cheeseburger and a cold beer. He said, "Well, I turned off the grill about a half hour ago. We don't serve dinner and once the lunch crowd is gone, I usually turn the grill off."
Jesus. Oh well. On to Utica, about 20 miles away.
If you didn't know there was a big tornado that tore apart the town over two years ago, you probably couldn't see the scars the town still has. The inside of Duffy's didn't suffer much damage, but the building, which was built in 1892, did have some structural damage to the second floor. Lisle and Pat Elsbury bought Duffy's in 2003 and were in the building when the tornado hit that evening in April.
They were lucky. Their friends, Larry and Marian Ventrice, and six others who were in the basement of the Milestone Tap, a restaurant/bar down the street, weren't.
I went into Duffy's and sat at the bar. Pat Elsbury, a kind of a tough looking middle-aged blond - but in a good way - who calls everyone "Hon", was behind the bar talking with a restaurant supply salesman. She got my order - a Duffy Burger (1/2 lb. hand-formed patty topped with your choice of cheese - I had Swiss) - and a cold Berghoff on tap.
Duffy's is a good little Irish pub. The inside of the place shows no effects of the tornado. The original tin ceiling is still in place, the long walnut bar is still there, and there's still the interesting signage on the wall (such as "Beer Hall of Foam" - whatever that is).
The previous owners started doing dinners of steak, seafood and pasta a number of years ago and the Elsbury's have continued that tradition. Actually, I've never been there for dinner, but I have had their burgers before and they're good.
This one was no exception. I do remember the bun being a little dry, and I'm a firm believer that in many instances the bun can make or break a good burger. However, it isn't a breaker with the Duffy Burger. The burger was cooked a perfect medium, the Swiss cheese was fresh and pungent, and the dry bun quickly became moist from all the juices from the burger.
After I finished, I got to talking with Pat Elsbury. I remarked that the place looked pretty good considering what they'd been through. She said the restaurant, itself, sustained little to no damage. They were shut down for about two weeks before they began to serve beer and liquor again, and it took about a month before they could start doing burgers and sandwiches. She said they were back to normal for full business in a couple months.
She told me that the biggest problems they had initially were the gawkers that would come to town, park their cars, get out and walk around and not stop in for something at Duffy's. "We had a lot of problems with no parking around here. We finally had to put up signs in the lot across the street telling people this was for Duffy's and they'd be towed if they didn't come in to the place."
I'm glad that Duffy's didn't suffer the damage that many other Utica businesses had. It's a neat place and one worth stopping at.