After 42 years, Terry Wray still opens his bar, the Towne Lounge in O’Fallon, every morning. But now it’s son T.J. who closes at night.
Gradually, the torch is being passed to a younger generation, and that generation is making changes.
Terry’s collection of golf paraphernalia has been condensed into one corner, making way for framed photos of musicians, ranging from Led Zeppelin to the Beatles.
“I’m really hoping to make this a music bar in years to come,” said T.J., 29, a drummer with the reggae-rock band A Brighter Side.
The Wrays have replaced older TVs with flat screens, mounted a digital jukebox, installed a touch-screen cash register and begun accepting credit and debit cards.
“We have quite a diverse clientele in here,” T.J. said. “We have 20- to 30-year-olds, but we also have our old-timers who come in during the day, and some of them stick around at night. We have all kinds of ethnicities and backgrounds. We have white, black, gay, straight, and they are all accepted. That’s kind of a big deal for me. I’m proud of it.”
One thing that hasn’t changed is that Towne Lounge is a family affair. Bonnie Wray, T.J.’s mother and Terry’s ex-wife, is head cook. (Terry’s daughter, Nicki Lane, lives in Peoria.)
Bonnie, 61, whips up hand-pattied burgers and other sandwiches and recently started serving fish on Fridays again.
“We’re probably the only place in town that offers it fried, baked or grilled,” she said. “Our special is blackened, baked tilapia. We have cat, cod and tilapia. I make my own slaw and macaroni and cheese.”
On a recent afternoon, John Hollenkamp was sitting at the bar, enjoying a pork-tenderloin sandwich topped with pepper Jack cheese. He describes Bonnie’s burgers as “the best in town.”
John plays in a pool league on Tuesday nights at the bar. It also has a dart league.
“Good people. Good fun. Live music once in a while,” said John, 33, a salesman at Auffenburg car dealership. “The jukebox is always kickin’, and there’s always competition on the pool table.
“And, if anybody wants to try their luck at Golden Tee (a video arcade game), I hold the record — 22 under to be exact.”
On Taco Tuesdays, customers can get soft or deep-fried tacos for $1.50. T.J. uses his own spice blend to season ground beef and diced potatoes and tops them with shredded cheeses, Rotel tomatoes and lettuce.
The bar has a singing bartender, Chelsea Spears, who can’t help but belt out “Georgia on My Mind,” “Thinking Out Loud” and other songs on the jukebox.
“I sing anything,” said Chelsea, 26. “Country, classic rock, Mariah Carey ... You name it, I’ll sing it.”
The roots of Towne Lounge go back to 1954, when Rusty Funk opened it in an historic brick storefront. Terry began leasing the bar in 1973 and bought it two years later.
The building burned in 1991, when T.J. was 5 years old. The Wrays rebuilt one story with an open floor plan and lots of wood wainscoting.
Five years ago, T.J. was going to college in Columbia, Mo., and playing in another band called Fifty-50 when he agreed to return home and take over the business.
“I was going to sell it,” said Terry, 69. “I’m old. I’ve been here 42 years. That’s a long time. I was offered almost as much money as I wanted (for the bar), but I thought, ‘Let him try it. Keep it in the family.’”
Today, colorful neon beer signs hang on dark-green walls. Customers sit at regular tables or high-tops. Video gambling is coming soon.
The bar has benefited from the recent opening of Peel Pizza, a popular restaurant down the street. Customers hang out while waiting to be notified their tables are ready.
“What’s really nice is when they come here before and then come back after,” Chelsea said. “We know we’re doing something right.”
At a glance
What: Towne Lounge
Where: 119 W. First St. in O’Fallon
Kitchen hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. (bar open later)
Seating: About 50
Information: Call 618-632-8886 or visit the Facebook page
On the menu
Towne Melt — Fresh ground-beef burger, hand-pattied and topped with Swiss cheese, sauteed onions and thousand island dressing, served on rye bread, $5.50
Blackened Tilapia Plate — Buttered, blackened and baked tilapia on a sandwich with two sides, $7.50 (Fridays only)
Chicken Bacon Ranch Philly — Chicken sandwich with thick-cut bacon, Cheddar cheese, grilled red onions and ranch dressing, served on a hoagie roll, $6.25
Tuesday Taco — Soft or deep-fried taco with ground beef and diced potatoes seasoned with house spice blend, topped with shredded cheeses, Rotel tomatoes and lettuce, $1.50 (Tuesdays only)