My wife had taken a half day off on a Friday recently and talked me into playing hooky with her for the afternoon. I didn't feel guilty because I had been doing a lot of traveling and even some weekend work before then. A few weeks before, she had told me of a place in Kewanee, IL that had pretty good pizza. One of our neighbors had been working on the electrical system as part of an expansion at the place and had brought home a pizza and invited Cindy up to share with him and his partner one night while I was traveling. With that in mind, we set out to go to Cerno's Bar and Grill about an hours drive away in Kewanee.
There's a rich history to Cerno's, one that dates back to just before the turn of the 20th century. Years ago, breweries used to build taverns for patrons to enjoy their beers. They were usually built in larger cities or industrial towns. It so happened that the Pabst Brewery decided to build three bars - one in their hometown of Milwaukee, one in Chicago, and one in the then industrial town of Kewanee, IL. The first saloon keeper was a young local businessman, John P. Brady. Brady started out as a horse dealer before getting into the wholesale distribution and retail sales of beer and liquor in Kewanee. His initials are still etched into the glass on the front door of the place.
John Brady ran the tavern through Prohibition and into World War II. In 1944, failing health forced him to sell his bar to Gustav Van Hulle, a German immigrant who fled Germany before the war. Van Hulle ran the place up to his death in 1954 and his wife, Ann, took over the place. She changed the name to simply Ann's and she ran the place up until it was sold to former auto parts dealer and stock car driver Lloyd Ewing in the early 70's. (Two different accounts put the sale in either 1971 or 1974.)
Lloyd Ewing ran the place as Ann's for a number of years before he changed the name to Lloyd's Club sometime in the late 70's or early 80's. But the spirit of Ann's lived on - and still does today with a neon lighted Ann's sign on the wall in the back of the bar. In 2001, Ewing sold out to partners John Cernovich (the "Cerno" in the name) and Brian Crabtree. The name of the place was changed to Cerno's Bar and Grill and the two continue to run the place today.
Cerno's is located on West 3rd Street across from the Amtrak station in Kewanee. (see map) West 3rd was known as Whiskey Row for a number of years until bars along the two block stretch of the street. Only Cerno's remains out of all the bars and taverns that thrived along the street from the 40's into the 80's.
The showcase of Cerno's is a 50 foot mahogany bar that was built for the Pabst Brewery in the early 1890's. The bar was built in Belgium, then shipped to the United States and put on display at the Pabst exhibit at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. When Pabst built the saloon a few years later they moved what was at the time - and for a long number of years after - the largest bar in Illinois to Kewanee.
Back-lit Pabst signs are inlaid into the pillars on each end. Small ornamental eagles sit on top of buzzers that were used to summon waiters to the kitchen to pick up food orders. The original handcarved figurines stand at each end of the bar. The original brass fixtures attached the bar are still there. Brass spittoons that were used by men to expectorate tobacco years ago are used as tip jars behind the bar.
Along part of the walls of the restaurant is the original wallpaper that featured the Pabst logo. Stained glass-leaded windows along the east wall sit over a the orginal mural wallpaper. As you walk into the building and look to the right, an old time teller cage still sits where it did 100 years ago. This was a small check cashing area where men could come in, cash their checks and drink at the bar.
For years, women weren't allowed in the bar. There was a small room upstairs where the women could sit and enjoy a drink. Orders were placed and drinks were sent up to the second floor via a dumbwaiter by the bar. The dumbwaiter is still in place - and still works. But, of course, women are now allowed in the bar.
As I said that there was an expansion to Cerno's not long ago. They took the space next to the bar to the west which used to be a water distribution company, put in a larger dining room (with a serving hole in the wall behind the bar), expanded the kitchen and put in new bathrooms replacing what I was told were abysmal facilities by my neighbor who helped wire the new place. Secondary expansion is on going with John Cernovich moving a golf simulator business he has in Kewanee into a space in the back of the old warehouse, while the front part of the warehouse will eventually house the Kewanee Brewing Company bringing back the tradition of brewing beer locally.
We got into Cerno's just before 2 p.m. A number of people were seated at bar and at tables in the bar area. A few of them were finishing up lunch while we were just getting ready to order. A young lady by the name of Jane came out from behind the bar and dropped off a couple menus. She asked what we wanted to drink and I wanted to know what they had on tap - Cerno's features 20 beers on tap. Jane said, "Oh! There's not a beer menu on the table." She walked over to the bar and pulled a beer menu off the top and brought it over. To my surprise and somewhat elation, they had Kona Castaway India Pale Ale on tap. I've been drinking a lot of that lately at home, but it was the first time I'd found a bar that actually served it on tap. Cindy got a Castaway IPA, as well.
Looking through the menu, I cast my eyes down toward the thin crust pizza that Cerno's offers. Then to my horror I saw at the bottom of the menu that pizza was served beginning at 4:30 p.m. (11 a.m. on Sundays.) When Jane came back to drop off our beers and we told her that we were crestfallen to find that they didn't serve pizza until 4:30. "Oh, yeah," she said as she apologized. "Our pizza guy doesn't come in until 4." But she told us that they had a ribeye steak sandwich on special for lunch and that their burgers and pork tenderloin sandwiches were good. We asked her to give us a few more minutes to look through the menu.
Cerno's has the typical menu of appetizers, soups and salads, sandwiches and wraps, as well as burgers, pork tenderloins and grilled chicken sandwiches. Entrees such as a sirloin or ribeye steak, salmon, and fettuccine alfredo are available after 5 p.m.
I went with the mushroom/Swiss cheese burger for my lunch. I was sort of intrigued because it said the burger was also topped with gravy. There was a similar instance at a burger place I'd been to prior to this visit to Cerno's where I encountered a burger that had been touted as having gravy on it, but they forgot to add the gravy. I asked Jane if she could put some bacon on the burger and she said it was no problem. For a side, I had my choice of crinkle fries, seasoned fries, potato salad and a couple three other offerings. I didn't know what to get, so I asked Jane what I should get. "The seasoned fries are probably my favorite out of that group," she told me. "They're pretty good." I went with the seasoned fries. I wasn't certain that I'd eat many of them.
Cindy went with the patty melt with a side of cole slaw. When they brought out the burgers. The patty melt featured a thick hand-pattied burger, chargrilled, and it was topped with American and Swiss cheese, bacon and grilled onions. 1000 Island dressing was served on the sice. The bread was a carraway rye bread that was toasted. Cindy exclaimed the patty melt was very good - a lot better than she expected it to me. She said the carraway rye bread was a nice touch.
My burger was also thick and loaded with Swiss cheese that was melting down the side of the burger. Bacon was criss-crossed on top of the sauteed mushroom that were sitting on the burger patty. And, sure enough, they put beef gravy on the burger, a little bit of it was running down the side of the burger. The toasted bun was light and fluffy, but wasn't too much of a bun to detract from the taste of the very good burger. The gravy was an interesting touch to the burger. Other than having a hamburger steak made in a pan with gravy, I don't think I'd ever had gravy on a burger before. I immediately liked it.
And, quite actually, the seasoned fries were just as Jane said they'd be - very good. In fact, between Cindy and I, we ate all of them. It wasn't that her cole slaw was bad - it was a sweet and creamy type of cole slaw - it's just that we both liked the fries. A lot.
Other than being disappointed in the fact that we were way early for pizza (Our neighbor told us afterward, "Oh, yeah! I should have told you guys that."), our dejection turned into a surprised elation with the very good burgers that we had at Cerno's. Having Kona Castaway IPA on tap was a plus, as well. Jane's service was proficient and able. We're definitely going back some evening to get a pizza. When we do, I'll add a little addendum to this entry to let you know how it is.