Madame Bar Fly: Springfield’s Cheers, Serving up charm, good company, and cheap booze at the Ale House

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The Ale House on Worthington Street in Springfield is surrounded by boarded-up buildings that loom ominously up over the small, cozy one that the bar occupies. But inside, the vibe is warm and welcoming.

“It’s somewhere you can go in Springfield where you don’t have to worry about the issues of Springfield,” says Robert Walz, 45, a professional mover who lives around the corner. “You don’t have to worry about getting shot.”

That may have something to do with the place’s reputation as a police hangout.

“It’s a good, clean bar,” says Walz. “Everybody gets along, and the police presence keeps things safe.” Walz nods towards the corner of the bar, where a couple of off-duty Springfield Police officers sit. A couple of guys came by earlier pushing hot speakers, says bartender Sue Groll. “I was like, nah. You don’t wanna be here right now,” she says laughing.

People from all walks of life come to this bar. In one moment I’m talking with a mover, the next someone in real estate, and then a police officer. Groll tells me it’s not uncommon to see city councilors come through. “You never know who’s gonna walk in,” she says. “We definitely have some characters.”

The good ol’ boys drink beer and whiskey, while the ladies who used to work at Lido’s, before the 64-year-old ristorante across the street closed in 2012, stand guard at the stools closest to their former workplace. The Lido’s ladies sip cosmos and appletinis and chat amongst themselves, while the men gaze at the television, shooting out answers to Jeopardy! at a volume somewhere between talk and yell. “Who did Jaws?” Walz asks. “Peter Benchley,” answers Tony the SPD officer, decisively. “Peter Benchley,” echos Alex Trebek. Vindicated, Tony throws up his arms and sends out a victory yell.

Walz says this bar attracts a lot of “the old kids that think they’re young.”

In line with the overall theme of adult versions of childhood treats, Groll makes me her cocktail of choice: grape vodka, water, and a splash of cran. The pink-purple drink tastes just like a grape-flavored Freezepop. I also try a 6-percent root beer ale from Small Town Brewery in Illinois. It tastes so dangerously like a straight root beer soda I’d believe her if she told me she was just pranking me.

I ask Groll for something fun and she says she has just the thing. Walz buys my drink before I even know what I’m getting. Groll presents me with a small rocks glass containing a layered drink: from the bottom up it’s red, blue, then white. It’s a “Bomb Pop Shot,” she tells me. Reaching for the glass, I recall the red, white, and blue Rocket Pops of my childhood. Sipping the nostalgic potion — made with raspberry vodka, blue curaÇao, sour mix and a splash of grenadine — I’m transported to blue-tongued moments spent beside the Ding-A-Ling truck.

The bar’s been here so long it’s rumored to have housed a speakeasy during Prohibition.

“This bar is probably the oldest bar in Springfield,” says owner Ray “Razor” Scott. He bought the place as “something fun to retire with” about 14 years ago, but the bar has been here about 77 years. Before it was named The Ale House, it was known as the Sip and Dine.

Groll knows everyone in the place by name. One guy down the bar asks for a Coors. She smiles and says, “I should have known.” Most drinks seem to fall in the $3 to $5 range.

With its cheap drinks, tiny bathrooms, no credit cards, no-frills style, the space fits the dive bar mold, but in the most charming way possible. Both doors to the bar are propped open and a moist breeze blows in from outside. A lit Yankee Candle behind the bar sends Bahama Breeze wafting past patrons. A sign about the size of a laptop reading “94 Patrons” is partially blocked off by a large shamrock. Shamrocks are all over the room and shamrock lights wrap around the top of the booze racks behind the bar.

The bar hosts live music on some nights — “not on the regular, but always on St. Paddy’s Day” — and on Thanksgiving, Scott cooks up a big spread and invites the neighborhood. Groll says people come from the shelter down the street to celebrate the holiday.

A pizza box from Primo’s is in the corner. It’s difficult to tell which one of the patrons brought it in because so many different hands reach for a slice. Groll says often people order take-out from either Primo’s or the Indian food place across from Paramount, Panjabi Tadka, and eat dinner together at the bar.

Even the jukebox is handled democratically. Tony comes over as I chat with Jason Palazzesi to ask what we’d like to hear. “If it’s the Grateful Dead,” Tony starts with a nod toward Palazzesi, “I’m gonna walk away right now.” He’s apparently been scarred by a 15-minute Dead song.

Groll switches the channel to the Sox game to a chorus of, “Thank you, Sue!”

Never a dull moment in this bar. The seat of the stool I’m sitting on adheres to the back of my legs as I get up to leave, detaching from the base. I’ll certainly be back — this place sure sticks with ya.•

Contact Amanda Drane at adrane@valleyadvocate.com.

Amanda Drane

Author: Amanda Drane

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