Daily Egyptian

60 years, countless regulars and one woman: Local tavern celebrates anniversary

By Marissa Novel, @MarissaNovelDE

By day, stained glass windows with pin-up style mermaids are permeated by sunlight as constant echoes of laughter and familiar hellos bounce off the tavern walls, which are covered in decades-old memorabilia.

By night, the dimly-lit bar, which offers dollar Busch and Pabst Blue Ribbon drafts daily, bustles as hips swing to the sounds of local and touring classic rock, blues and Americana bands.

PK’s, a 21 and up bar on the Strip, celebrated its 60th anniversary Saturday, opening at 8 a.m. and giving out commemorative shot glasses to the first 60 customers. People began forming a line at the door as early as 7:30 a.m.

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Performances throughout the day featured two local acts, classic rock band The Natives and the bluesy Slapping Henry Blue. Drink specials included 50 cent, throwback-priced Busch and Pabst Blue Ribbon drafts.

Though the location, menu and spirit selections have changed, the bar — formerly known as Pizza King — has been promoting a friendly atmosphere for decades.

The only constant other than a sea of smiles among regulars is the bar’s owner, Gwen Hunt.

“My ex-husband and I … in 1955, August, introduced pizza to Carbondale for the very first time,” she said.

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Gwen, who came to the university from Metropolis in 1952, opened PK’s on the west side of the city with her then husband, Tom Hunt, with less than $1,000 and bought mismatched tables and chairs from used furniture dealers.

It was the only establishment to serve pizza until Italian Village opened five years later.

In 1957, they moved to a location on the 700 block of South Illinois Avenue, which is now the overpass above Mill Street. During that time customers were able to bring their own spirits to restaurants.

“If you wanted to bring in a six-pack of beer and eat pizza that would be perfectly fine,” Hunt said.

Eight years later they moved to their current location at 308 S. Illinois Ave after Mayor D. Blaney Miller told them they would qualify for a liquor license if they moved farther away from campus.

They later stopped serving pizza at the location in the ‘70s.

“Everybody down the avenue and all over town was offering pizza in some form or another, and there were very few bars,” Hunt said.

PK’s still serves food, including sandwiches, chili and burgers, Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and breakfast from 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. on Saturday. Hunt operates the kitchen everyday.

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Pickled chicken eggs, which Hunt seasons with jalapenos and cajun seasonings, are popular among patrons.

Hunt divorced her husband in 1972, but remained as PK’s owner. She said she has not experienced much gendered discrimination, but one city official was opposed to how she maintained her livelihood.

She said Chief of Police George Kennedy, who was chief from 1974 to 1977, requested to meet with her and other city business owners who held liquor licenses.

“He didn’t approve of a female in the liquor business,” Hunt said.

She said when she arrived at the police station she was the only person present other than the chief and a few police officers.

“I said, ‘Hi, how are you sir?’ and he said, ‘As a woman, have you ever thought about what you do?’” Hunt said.

Hunt has not been the only woman to work at the bar. Her longtime best friend, the late Thelma Steed, started working daily at the bar in 1971 and helped with cooking and cleaning.

“She was the best lady in the world,” Hunt said. “She was one of my most true friends.”

She said she has not experienced any discrimination from customers because of her gender.

“[Gwen] is a sweetheart,” said Pat Poiter, of Alto Pass, who has been going to PK’s for the last 30 years. “She’s always willing to help when she can.”

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He said the regulars and the opportunities to meet new people have kept him coming back.

“It’s fun place to relax,” Poiter, who is one of many with a personalized 16-ounce mug, said.

Customers purchase the wooden mugs with thick, rope handles and leave them on the shelves of the bar until they return.

“It is yours to make sure you don’t forget to turn in … it’s not our fault if somebody walks out with it and it ends up in their cabinet at home,” Hunt said.

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She said the 20-year-old tradition has since slowed because she is unable to find mug distributors.

“In many ways, Gwen has been my second mom since mine passed away,” said Rick Gruny, 52, of Carbondale.

Gruny, who met his wife of 10 years at the tavern, said he is more comfortable at PK’s than any other drinking establishment in the area because it has a less formal atmosphere.

“Ever since I was 21-years-old, this has been my home away from home,” he said. “When I came home to visit, I’d go to PK’s first and then come home and say hi to mom and dad.”

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