Got the honky-tonk blues for Crossroads Bar & Grill

There's no need to guard the secret now. The Crossroads Bar & Grill, which claimed to be the longest continually operated tavern in Hernando County, has closed, at least temporarily. Former owner Judy Ward can finally reveal how to build its famous half-pound hamburgers:

"I'd put my mayonnaise on (the bun) first, then lettuce and tomato, pickles, mustard and ketchup. The last thing you put on there is the onion, and the heat from the burger would kind of sear the onion and give it a completely different flavor.''

Probably — hopefully — it's too early to mourn the passing of this classic treat.

Though the Crossroads has been shut down for nearly two months, the Baltimore company that owns the property says it is lining up a new tenant for the 60-year-old bar on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard on the south side of Brooksville.

Still, when I drove by last week, it was a shock to see the sagging, aluminum-sided building sitting all alone, without a single pickup or motorcycle in the parking lot.

The trademark signs — diamond-shaped, like traffic warnings for an upcoming intersection — were peeled and faded. The neon beer lights were gone, the windows dark.

And, as much as I wish the new owner luck, several previous proprietors told me that running a honky-tonk is an increasingly tough way to make a living. It's too soon to say the institution is doomed, of course, but it does seem to be fading.

"It's hard to make it in a beer joint, selling burgers,'' said Gerald Cobb, who owned it in the 1980s.

"I lost a lot of money, and I still owe a lot of money,'' said Lanna Bartz, 40, the most recent owner, who was forced to close on Dec. 31 of last year.

A lot of people, the ones who see bars as refuges for losers and drunks, won't miss it. And, no doubt, the Crossroads hosted its share of ugliness: alcoholism, a few fights and, in the era of segregation, a separate room for black customers.

But the onion rings, I can tell you from experience, were almost as good as the burgers — crisply battered with sweet, steaming interiors. Ward said she cooked them in peanut oil.

The beer was plenty cold, of course — Ward remembers icing the bottles down in an old Coke cooler — and the jukebox featured classics by Patsy Cline and Johnny Cash. So I liked it, and I was never even a regular. Which means I missed out on the best part.

Customers, naturally, talked politics and told jokes, Bartz said. But they also celebrated births, mourned deaths, pitched in to help pay medical bills and, when she graduated from nursing school, threw her a big party.

"Being in that bar was like being at dinner with your entire family. Everybody was involved or wanted to be involved. Everybody had a place. Everybody brought something to the table,'' Bartz said.

"Owning the Crossroads was just absolutely one of the better things to have ever happened to me. Unfortunately, it's very bittersweet because I had to close it. You miss that family. You miss the contact. I cry to this day when I think about.''

The original owner, Roy Thaggard, built the Crossroads in 1949, which was the dawn of the golden age of the honky-tonk, said Bob Martinez, publisher of Old Brooksville in Photos and Stories.

Modern country music was coming into its own. The flood of World War II veterans in the work force created a huge demand for casual bars.

Thaggard's wife, Carien, ran the kitchen, serving steaks and developing the technique of assembling burgers that she passed on to Ward, 77, who started working at the Crossroads in the 1950s.

Back then, it was little more than a pine shack, Ward said, with a pool table and a jukebox that played five songs for a quarter.

She ran it for a time in the 1970s, when she and her husband, Johnie, also operated the Sail Inn, south of Brooksville, a downtown pool hall, and the cab company that they called for customers who drank too much. She owned the Crossroads again, in the 1980s and 1990s, after buying it from Cobb.

She remembers the place, almost without exception, as peaceful and friendly. The same was true decades later, Bartz said.

"In the 4 1/2 years I was there, I remember probably two, maybe three, relatively decent fights. For the most part, if there was trouble, people would stop it. That was their home, and you don't do that there.''

The same atmosphere prevailed, partly because the bar had the same customers.

"My wife told me ... 'I can just about set my watch by some of these people,' " Cobb said.

"We had a lot of old-timers,'' said Bartz, including several snowbirds from Canada who made the Crossroads their first stop in Florida every winter.

That lack of new blood might have been a result of shifting attitudes that hurt business in other ways as well.

Certainly there are still plenty of beer drinkers out there, and a couple of other bars I called said they were doing just fine, thank you, even in the miserable economy.

But the increased social and legal prohibitions against drunken driving — rules "which I'm all for,'' Bartz said — were bad news for her business, she said.

Whether or not this is the main reason, I notice that my younger colleagues don't head to bars after work the way we used to. And at a lot of companies, the once-common practice of ordering a draft beer at lunch can get you fired.

I also have another theory: that country bars aren't the same without real country music, the songs sung by the likes of Cline and Cash.

Drinking to modern singers like Kenny Chesney is unsatisfying in a way that's hard to pin down, like the burgers made by some of the cooks Judy Ward told me about. They never cared enough to make sure the onion was in the right place, she said, and never seemed to realize that it just didn't taste the same.

Got the honky-tonk blues for Crossroads Bar & Grill 02/19/09 [Last modified: Thursday, February 19, 2009 7:59pm]

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