During the last several years, Southern Illinois has developed quite the “destination” culture when it comes to food. Local wineries are the most perfect example, enticing patrons from far and wide to enjoy an afternoon of music and drink in beautiful rural settings.

Wine might have been the spark to get more people to think about driving father than downtown, but the original regional “destination” for food and drink is in a little town in the bottoms of the Mississippi River.

And whether you’re coming from far or wide, the trip is definitely worth it.

Functioning under various owners since 1896, Bottom’s Up has a rich history serving the German Catholics and Lutherans that founded and populated Neunert in the mid 1800s. The tavern was known to brew and stash contraband beer during the days of Prohibition. The dance floor was busy nearly every evening during World War II, where locals danced the polka and the waltz under the neon “V for Victory” sign.

Today, the neon sign still hangs over the dance floor, glowing red, white and blue. The hardwood floors and the elaborately carved bar are original to the establishment, and the décor is a mix of beer signs and vintage bric-a-brac gathered over the tavern’s history. Old sports trophies and empty cans of Falstaff and Ol’Timer Superb are displayed in every available nook and cranny. Although the tavern has been underwater three times from flooding of the Mighty Miss, previous owners have carefully refurbished the interior to preserve the original craftsmanship of the woodwork.

When Jason and Kristi Thies took ownership of the well-known establishment in July 2009, they knew how valued its history was.

“My husband’s family is from the bottoms,” Kristi said, noting it was important to the community that whoever took over from Frank and Cheryl Bledsoe, who had been owners since 1993, keep the local ownership tradition alive

The food is certainly something special, not because they’re using fancy ingredients or housing a culinary prodigy in their kitchen. (They aren’t, by the way.) The secret recipe is just simple food, prepared the way you’d make it at home if only you had the time.

The chicken arrives fresh, receives a liberal coating of secretly seasoned breading and then hits the fryers where it’s cooked to crispy-tender perfection. Served up with buttery Texas toast, a mug of beer is possibly the only other “side dish” required. This combo of sorts is definitely the best seller on Wednesdays, when the cost of half a fried chicken and a draft beer seems like 1950s prices.

The menu also includes sandwiches, steaks, seafood and a variety of appetizers and sides.

Bottom’s Up is a popular place for a variety of community-related activities, such as a Tuesday night pinochle group, birthday and anniversary parties, rehearsal dinners and family reunions. A group of motorcyclists make a regular trek on Friday afternoons.

As the dinner hour grows later, the patronage transitions from the local early birds to the eager out-of-towners; customers travel from Benton, Herrin, Carbondale, Murphysboro, Cape Girardeau and Paducah. Among SIUC students, the tavern enjoys near cult-like status, and dozens make the weekly pilgrimage to partake of the famous fried chicken dipped in Southwest Sauce (a creamy buffalo sauce), waffle fries and cold drinks.

These customers — whether they drive a long or short distance—are just as important as the great food, the history and the atmosphere, in making the Bottom’s Up experience unique.

“It’s just unbelievable the people that come here,” Kristi said. “I go home with a lot of great stories.” 

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