Countless times over many years, Sean Kenny would drive past the iconic Friendly Valley Tavern and ponder a possibility:
“I bet you could have some great concerts there.”
Not inside, of course. Small and cramped, the Quonset hut-like saloon often would pack ‘em in cheek by jowl. As far as a concert on busy nights, there wouldn’t be room for a kazoo soloist, let alone a band.
But outside? Though not far from the intersection of War Memorial Drive and University Street, the 1.1-acre site is almost hidden and, true to its name, in a small valley at 3708 N. Meadowbrook Road. With no residences nearby, Kenny began hearing the sound of music.
He’ll likely soon get his wish, putting a new spin on a local mainstay. Kenny, who owns Kenny’s Westside Pub in Downtown Peoria, has purchased The Friendly Valley, which shut down last fall after almost 80 years as perhaps the city’s quirkiest saloon.
In the fickle and demanding entertainment industry, it’s hard enough to keep one place going. But take over a second bar? Amid a lingering pandemic?
“I couldn’t pass up the opportunity,” Kenny says with a smile.
Tavern legend – judge its reliability accordingly – has it that the unusual structure was first used as a chicken coop. By 1942, according to city records, a saloon was operating at the address.
Even with additions, capacity reached just 40 people, which made for a tight fit. Over the years, the interior remained unchanged, chiefly a weathered bar, pool table and scattered seats. A curved and paneled ceiling stretched just inside the front door, which opened to mismatched and faded floor tiles underfoot. Union bumper stickers dotted the back bar.
The most enduring ownership arrived in 1971 with Joe Wright. His business acumen was decidedly eccentric. His deadpan humor was often delivered without a smile. He didn’t much focus on upkeep. He liked to shoot pool, and he could beat just about anybody – while using a broomstick. His demeanor and habits could leave newcomers puzzled, but regulars liked him just fine, enough to keep the place going for decades.
As Wright’s contemporaries died off, so did much of his business. Last summer, cancer took him at age 85.
The pub was left in the hands of son Bill Wright. For a while, he made a go of it. But pressing demands for building repairs proved financially daunting. Besides, as a recent retiree, he wanted to enjoy a leisurely life, not try to resuscitate a dying saloon.
So, last fall – after a goodbye party and a final last call — he shut the doors and put The Friendly Valley up for sale. It sat shuttered until Kenny came to the rescue.
Kenny, 36, started Kenny’s Westside Pub on Farmington Road in West Peoria about nine years ago. After four years there, he moved the business to 112 SW Jefferson Ave., where his kitchen not only boasts an impressive menu but his high-tech concert stage a regular lineup of national touring musicians.
Over the years, Kenny had occasionally popped in for a beer at the Valley, which he admired for its diehard grit, which ultimately prompted his $150,000 bid, which bested the offers of two other pub owners.
Wright says he is glad the bar’s legacy will continue.
“I was about 90 percent sure that whoever bought it would demolish the building,” he said. “I’m glad he’s keeping the place going. He’s got a lot of good ideas cooking.”
Kenny has been putting a lot of elbow grease into the place, putting a new shine on the joint.
“It’s gonna be the same tavern, but better,” he says.
In the basement, he found several vintage beer lights – including a Falstaff tiffany-style lamp – that he has restored for display. Plus, with electrical upgrades, Kenny will be able to add gaming machines, which should help the bottom line.
As to bigger plans, he thinks outdoor concerts will draw big-time. He plans to build a stage and serve food and drink from an old, revamped food truck. Though there is parking for just 25 vehicles, the property could host as many as 1,000 people.
Expect a grand reopening in late March or early April, and concerts once the weather turns warm.
Says Kenny: “I think it’ll be a popular place to go and hang out.”