In a dimly lit bar with smoke heavy in the air, a bartender with a beer belly pulls down one of three taps for a patron nursing a fried fish sandwich in a plastic basket. This scene is a Hollywood cliché of small town taverns. Here, during the summer when blockbuster movies make so much noise, we present three taverns — icons — in Southwest Indiana’s tavern culture because the truth is better than fiction.
Silver Bell – St. Wendel, Ind.
You’re having: A second helping of fried chicken.
It’s in one of those neighborhoods where a little girl sits in her front lawn clapping with joy as passing motorists oblige her requests to honk their horns. And they all honk. At least that’s what I saw on the drive through St. Wendel, as if setting the tone for the charming distractions awaiting me at the Silver Bell.
The family-run tavern boasts bulky artwork you can’t find anywhere else, partly because most pieces belong to the owners — a little league baseball cap, an old mitt, and a child’s tricycle — and partly because other than Darryl’s 1920, a former iconic chain on the East Side, most restaurants don’t decorate with wooden sleds, bikes, or snow skis. But at the Silver Bell, the montage is designed to keep the eyes interested. My Philly steak sandwich (served on toasted bread) was out before I noticed the vintage croquet equipment mounted above me. — Trisha Weber
Stockwell Inn – East Side
You’re having: A draft in a fishbowl because that’s the way it is offered.
The Stockwell Inn is not a place with dynamic advertising or eye-catching architecture. I’ve driven past the place for upwards of two decades and never stopped in. It’s a 21-to-enter type bar (no family dining room). They only accept cash (an on-site ATM is available). The Stockwell Inn, owned by the Will family for 25 years, is a neighborhood tavern to its core.
From the racing-flag colored walls to the aluminum tire rim chairs and barstools, Nascar love is overwhelming. A group of regulars seated at the bar may check you out as you walk in, but the atmosphere is comfortable. It’s the kind of place couples go for a casual meal or where friends meet up for drinks when they want to keep it low key.
They serve typical, tasty tavern fare: burgers, grilled sandwiches, and an assortment of potatoes (most fried one way or another). But they turn out the most amazing battered — not breaded, and that’s a deal breaker here — pork tenderloin sandwich I’ve tasted (Fall Festival food seriously aspires to be this good). The tenderloin is generously portioned, battered (think Pronto Pup, not corndog), and deep-fried to hot, crispy perfection. Served on a soft white bun accompanied by your choice of lettuce, tomato slices, and mayonnaise, this is an experience not to be missed.
Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines. — Wendy Hudson
Hornet’s Nest – Earle, Ind.
You’re having: A good time or bad time, but that depends on you.
Nestled snugly into Earle, Ind. (north of Evansville) is the Hornet’s Nest. The tavern is like my mistress. I visit her every so often late at night. Occasionally, our time together is passionate, we drink too much, and I dance for too long by the jukebox. Sometimes, our time together is heated, we drink too much, and I yell at my dinner companions.
The tavern has been under the watch of numerous owners. That happens when a place has been in one spot for decades like “The Nest” has. Even with that history, it isn’t a place where change is impossible. This summer, The Nest got a patio (and became smoke-free), and regulars like me are enjoying the outdoor atmosphere.
But a few aspects about the tavern remain unwavering such as the menu, heavy on the fried food. My go-to item is the buffalo chicken sandwich. With a cold beer (preferably a domestic in a bottle), it’s hard to beat. It’s not the food that keeps me coming back, though. It’s the people. Kristi Sanders, one of my favorite waitresses, has been a Nest staffer for nine years. She always has me laughing about something.
My favorite night at The Nest is Wednesday because the deals offered then ($1 for draught beer and $5 for a pitcher) scream, “This is a tavern.” — Joe Metz