Without words, the bar top at Phyl’s Chet and Rose’s Tavern in Marine tells the story of the place.
It is covered in half-inch grooves, carved out over a half century from tired, working hands absentmindedly rubbing quarters against it. But aside from those indentations, the unfinished surface is smooth, planed from decades of mugs sliding across and countless elbows and arms resting upon it.
But it’s sturdy — just as sturdy as the Litteken family, which is probably why this little watering hole in this town of 960 survived while others have dried up.
“There used to be other bars in the area, but not much anymore,” said Bud Vernatti, a regular at the tavern. “This is a great place.”
He said what sets Phyl’s Chet and Rose’s Tavern apart from other places is how friendly the family has been.
“They have good food and fish on Fridays. I come here three to four days a week,” Vernatti said as he sipped his beer from a small mug, turning back to the TV, which was playing a rerun of American Pickers.
Fifty years ago, Chet Litteken bought Benny’s, a small tavern on North Duncan Street, on a whim.
“My dad bought this bar in 1966 at an auction for $2,200,” said Phyllis “Phyl” Litteken, the youngest daughter of Chet and Rose Litteken and the current owner. “It was a big purchase for us at the time. He had to borrow money from his brother.”
The purchase was such an impulse that Chet had not even discussed it with his wife of 15 years.
“He didn’t tell my mom about it. She wasn’t too happy,” Phyl said.
Chet and Rose ran the place for 25 years. He tended bar. She ran the kitchen.
“The kitchen was mom’s thing,” Phyl said.
Rose often poured drinks, too. And, though she was left out of the initial decision on the bar, everything thereafter was a partnership.
“She always gave us her two cents,” Phyl said.
In 1991, Chet and Rose decided it was their last call. They wanted to sell. Phyl, who was 30 at the time, bought it without hesitation.
“I’ve been around all this as far as I can remember. My four other siblings and I all had our jobs to help around the bar. Mine was burning the trash everyday,” Phyl said. “Since I was little, I knew I would take over this bar.”
It was a big step, but she had good coaching to see her through.
“Before dad passed, he’d come in and critique how I would do things,” Phyl said with a smile. “He’d say things like, ‘You know he was coming in at noon, why didn’t you have his drink ready?’ ”
Phyl said she learned what makes a good bartender from her father.
“Good service and making sure everyone is happy,” she said. “This is all I’ve ever known and and I’ve ever wanted. It feels good to continue dad’s dream.”
“She (Phyl) is a good business lady,” Vernatti.
Unfortunately, Chet would only get to see his daughter manage his old place for a few years before passing away in 1995. But Rose was able to see her daughter flourish in the bar for nearly 20 years before she passed in 2013.
The place still looks much as it did 50 years ago. There’s some new paint and equipment. Some of the tables have moved around. There’s still a jukebox, though it’s digital now, and there’s also video gambling machines.
Phyl continued the weekly fish fry her father started when he bought the bar. Four years after she took over, the family introduced something new: an annual turtle fry.
“My brothers and a friend decided to start a turtle fry. They would go out and catch the turtles and we’d fry them up,” Phyl said.
The turtle fry is so popular that the Litteken family doesn’t even have to do much fishing anymore.
“If people are out and about and see a turtle, they just bring it on by. But we do more than just turtles. We’ll fry up squirrel, doves, racoons — you name it,” Phyl said. “But I always throw on some chicken for anyone who doesn’t want to eat the other game.”
One of the features Phyl didn’t want to change was the bar itself. She expanded it — making it bigger for a growing clientele list, but she kept the original wood. The only differences other are those subtle ones made over time by the hands of the patrons themselves.
“I made some changes, but for the most part, everything is the same,” Phyl said. “I haven’t changed a whole lot.”
And that’s something to drink to.
Anniversary Party Planned
Who: Phyl’s Chet and Rose’s Tavern
What: 50th Anniversary Celebration, which will include a hog roast and food, karaoke, and a one-man band
When: Saturday, Oct. 22. Festivities start in the afternoon.
Where: 204 N. Duncan St. in Marine