Whether or not Fast Eddie's Bon-Air is, as one of its brochures boasts, the "#1 volume bar in the world," the place is incredible. About to celebrate its 80th birthday, the sprawling 400-seat Alton "gathering place" packs 'em in weeknights and weekends alike, serving up filling if not elaborate meals for just a couple of bucks as long as you're willing to buy a drink while you're there.
Somehow, despite having numerous friends in Alton and Wood River and what I thought was a nose for this type of place, I'd managed to miss Fast Eddie's for the first 79 years of its existence. We remedied that just after the beginning of the new year.
The routine at Fast Eddie's is pretty simple, although a couple of secret protocols were violated on our initial visit. First, just keep moving toward the back once you're through the front door -- with 400 chairs, you're likely to find a seat somewhere, although the chances of this decrease steadily the closer it is to the start of any evening's music, which is performed right in the middle of the room, near the "food bar."
Although the place has distinctly blue-collar roots and atmosphere, the mix in the clientele was a quite varied -- plenty of working-class folks, sure, but also a table full of Dieter-like black-clads and, as the evening wore on, more than a few groups of suits (not to mention the guy sitting directly across from me, who was, appropriately, a dead ringer for the Sam Elliott character in Road House). One thing you'll never see at Fast Eddie's, though, is a family with small children; a sign on the front door specifically prohibits young 'uns from entering.
So although we were a couple of middle-aged guys from the distant central corridor of St. Louis County, we seemed to blend right in, even to the point of running into someone we knew. I got the feeling that kind of thing happens a lot.
About the food: The menu has a total of seven items, and they're not brought to your table. The waitstaff is there for your swilling pleasure only, gathering drink orders and bringing back the booze, and you're kinda, sorta expected to order something to drink.
The most expensive thing on the menu is a beef-tenderloin kebab called a "Big Elwood on a Stick," topping out at a whopping $1.99; a half-pound "Fat Eddie" hamburger is 99 cents, and individual jumbo shrimp are a steal at 29 cents apiece. The grilled food generally takes at least 20 minutes from order until the time you hear "now serving up to number blah-blah-blah" on the speakers, but, as this rookie learned, you're supposed to collect your shrimp right when you pay. (This also makes shrimp the pre-eminent choice for refills if your initial trip to the food bar isn't quite enough to fill you up.)
Although the Fat Eddie wasn't the best hamburger I'd ever had (leaning slightly toward the dry side), it was the best 99-cent hamburger I could remember, and who can argue with a 69-cent bratwurst? The Big Elwood featured about eight large chunks of tenderloin, lightly marinated for a hint of salty sweetness but primarily featuring a char-grilled flavor, interspersed with still-crisp hunks of green pepper. And the "Hot Chick on a Stick" was merely a clever way to do chicken wings, eight drumettes skewered together horizontally and grilled with a mildly spicy coating. The only grilled item we didn't try was a pork kebab, possibly because it didn't come with a funny name.
As for free munchies, a movie-theater-style popcorn cart is located a couple of rooms back, and you can fill up your own little cardboard containers to your heart's content.
The ceiling and floors are tiled in a retro checkerboard arrangement, but an integral part of the Fast Eddie's experience is found on the walls, which are lined with a fabulous, if kitschy, collection of road signs, beer signs, advertising materials and other memorabilia. If conversation drags (or if the relatively loud radio broadcasts or later-evening live music drowns it out), easily amused folks like me can spend lots of time poring over old signs touting Studebaker automobiles or "Zeppelin Brand Bread -- It's Light as Air." I'd never even heard of "Stein-Bru -- The Beer for You," despite the fact that it was apparently once brewed by the Star-Peerless Brewery Co. of Belleville.
And beer plays a big part in the history of Fast Eddie's. The place was built by Anheuser-Busch in the days when the folks from Pestalozzi Street actually owned and operated their own taverns, but that practice was later made illegal. The Balaco family ran the place for about 50 years, selling out to "Fast Eddie" Sholar in 1981. Sholar went on to increase the capacity of the place by a factor of five, helping turn it into the Alton landmark that it is today. (Even for those to whom, at their loss, Alton isn't familiar, Fast Eddie's is simple to find, located at the unlikely "corner" of three streets just south of that river city's downtown. A trip by way of the I-270/Highway 367 connection in North St. Louis County provides the added draw of crossing the spectacular Clark Bridge over the Mississippi, with plenty of billboards to guide you to your destination.)
The food bar was added about 15 years ago, but, in a clever piece of loss-leader marketing, the prices now are the same as they were then. That certainly lends the temptation to pick up a ton of cheap food and carry it home with you (and I'm still stunned at the $3.50-a-dozen boiled shrimp), but another of the house rules prohibits carryouts.
Perhaps my friend, the other middle-aged Central County guy, put it best in summing up our view of Fast Eddie's: "I wish this was in my neighborhood."