It's last call — at least for now — at this iconic, one-of-a-kind Peoria tavern – Peoria Journal Star

PEORIA — Gravely ill last year, long-time bar owner Joe Wright offered his son a sage observation.
“It’s hard to have good business if you’ve outlived all of your friends,” the octogenarian said. 
Bill Wright understood fully after his father died in July at age 85, leaving him to oversee the Friendly Valley Tavern, the iconic Quonset-hut bar in Central Peoria. Yet after almost 80 years of operation, the last 51 under the Wright name, financial concerns — including dwindling patronage of an aging clientele — are prompting the shutdown of the saloon Saturday.
“I’ve got more mixed feelings about this than you could know,” Bill Wright, 58, said with a slow sigh.
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The earliest days of the saloon’s Quonset history remain murky. By tavern lore, the structure was first used as a chicken coop, somewhere. But by 1942, a tavern was in operation at what is now 3708 N Meadowbrook Road, according to the office of the Peoria County Supervisor of Assessments.
The set-up actually involves two huts jammed together, Wright said. Way back when, the original owners lived on one side and ran the saloon on the other. Later, small additions stretched the square footage, but not by much. The cramped tap boasts a weathered bar, handful of tables and trusty pool table, along with cheap drinks and endless chatter. Capacity is a mere 33 people, always a tight fit, with more space outside.
Joe Wright took over the joint in 1970. One of his best customers became Joe Gilfillan, also his attorney, who couldn’t help but chuckle over memories of Wright.
“He was quirky,” Gilfillan said. “He always made you laugh.”
One afternoon a few years ago, Gilfillan pulled into the Friendly Valley parking lot but stayed behind the wheel, busy with a cellphone call. Ten minutes later, Wright strolled out and stopped just outside the driver’s window, touting a serving tray topped with Gilfillan’s usual, a Crown Royal highball. Gilfillan cracked up, but the droll Wright didn’t bother to crack a grin. 
“I called it service without a smile,” Gilfillan said.
Often, Joe Wright would wow visitors, especially newcomers, with his billiards skill. Challenged to a game, sometimes with a beer wager, he’d nonchalantly eschew a cue and instead grab his trusty broomstick.
“He was good,” his son says. “People would laugh at the broomstick, thinking they’d mop him up. But he’d always win.”
Despite such theatrics, Joe Wright took the game seriously and demanded likewise of others. For instance, he would not tolerate what he decried as “shoddy pool,” such as players’ failing to call their shots.
“I’d see him throw people out for that,” his son said.
Still, such eccentricities served as a draw to the unconventional watering hole for decades. In recent times, though, patronage dropped off as many long-time customers died off, said Bill Wright. Plus, beset with archaic electrical wiring, the place could not support gaming machines, usually a solid source of revenue for any tavern. 
Last year, cancer hit Joe Wright hard. He fought until July, then died. Intensely private, he didn’t want an obituary or visitation, leaving many customers no chance to say goodbye.
Meantime, since his dad got sick, Bill Wright — who had worked at the place plenty over the years — took over the operation. But the press of financial demands, including the need for building repairs, pushed in. Plus, as a Caterpillar Inc. retiree, he had planned to take it easy, not try to keep a wheezing old tavern on life support.
So, he decided to shut down the Friendly Valley and put it up for sale. The asking price, including slightly more than an acre of land, is $200,000, though he calls that sum negotiable. 
With a little work, Wright believes the pub could thrive, especially with new electrical writing and video gaming. 
“Somebody could probably make a go of it,” he said. “Niche bars are making a comeback, places like Mike’s Tavern (in West Peoria) and Castle’s Patio Inn.
“ … I’d love to see it stay open.”
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Meantime, Saturday will bring the last call under Wright ownership. Bill Wright expects a bittersweet gathering among familiar faces.
“It’s just one last shindig,” he said. “And it’s a time to also toast my dad, because we didn’t get to do that before.”
Attorney Gilfillan hopes they’ll be saying not goodbye but so long, until new ownership revives the place. But he realizes Saturday could mean a final farewell to the Friendly Valley Tavern. 
“They don’t make ‘em like that anymore,” Gilfillan said. “There won’t be any like it when this one’s gone.”
Phil Luciano is a Journal Star columnist. He can be reached at [email protected] and (309) 686-3155. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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