There are places in Joplin that help define who we are as a community. These are places where generations of local families have created memories and strong attachments. For me, Wilder’s Steakhouse is one of those places.

The restaurant, now the oldest in Joplin, has existed since 1929 at 1216 S. Main St. It’s been everything from a buffet restaurant to a burger joint. The place is steeped in history.

Recently, the owners of the restaurant, Mike and Marsha Pawlus, sold their other restaurant, The Kitchen Pass, to local restaurateur Jason Miller who is transforming it into the Midtown Pizza Kitchen. In doing that, some people assumed the Pawluses were retiring and also were closing Wilder’s. Let’s nip that in the bud right now. Wilder’s is not closing.

In fact, the Pawluses — after operating two restaurants for nearly two decades — are thrilled with the prospect of just focusing all of their attention now on Wilder’s. For them, Wilder’s is more than a restaurant. They feel like they are stewards. It’s about preserving a living piece of Joplin’s history.

“When we bought it from Clarence Burggraff in 1996, we wanted to make sure that Wilder’s would stay here. We became the stewards of this restaurant,” said Marsha Pawlus.

Like many local families, Marsha Pawlus has a family connection. Though she never visited the restaurant as a child growing up in this area, her father worked there back in the days when gambling took place in the quarters above the restaurant.

“My father peeled shrimp in the alley and ran it up to the gamblers,” she said.

I have a similar family story, but mine goes way back. I have included a family photo to help illustrate the point. The photo was taken in about 1929, the year Wilder’s opened. The little guy on the left is my father. The guy in the middle is my grandfather, who is clearly more Cherokee than Irish. The fellow on the right is Ray Kinkade, who just happens to be the grandfather of longtime Globe columnist Marti Attoun. Talk about dapper dudes.

A few years after this photo was taken, my father obtained his driver license. Dad told me how he would drop my grandfather off at Wilder’s in the evening and then pick him up later after a night of gambling. Some nights, Fess would be successful at poker. He would win so much money that it would be hanging out from underneath his fedora. On those nights, Dad put the pedal to the metal to get everyone home safely. Those were rough times.

My fondest memory is when my parents had their 25th wedding anniversary there. For our family, it was a swanky soiree. It’s still a great place for a private family or business gathering.

At its peak, Wilder’s occupied six buildings on the block and could accommodate 750 customers. At one time, the bar was only open to men.

Wilder’s was no place to be the night of Sept. 3, 1959. That’s when the mafia attempted, but failed, to murder Verne Wilder, the owner of the restaurant, by blowing up his upstairs office. Mike Pawlus said organized crime in Kansas City wanted to shut down Wilder’s because it was siphoning business away from Kansas City. Six people were injured and one of them died. Fire Chief Dan Abernathy, in a Globe account at the time, said that possibly five sticks of dynamite were used in the blast directly above Wilder’s office. The blast was so powerful it blew away part of the roof.

Last week, I met some friends for dinner at Wilder’s. The Pawluses have transformed Wilder’s into a fine-dining establishment, but have preserved the art deco mahogany bar, the back bar and wooden booths. They understand the importance of history and should be commended for their preservation efforts. We had a delightful evening. We had the bruschetta as an appetizer. The tomato and fresh basil pesto came in a baked Parmesan bowl. I ordered a hand-cut rib-eye steak. My friends ordered the sea bass, and scallop and shrimp scampi. We shared. It was all good and the service was excellent. You can check out their full menu online.

Something else to check out is the portrait of Verne Wilder that hangs in the restaurant. If you look closely, you can see where the image of Wilder’s wife has been painted over. That must have been some divorce.

At one moment last week while my friends were talking about something, my mind wandered. I looked at the bar and imagined my grandfather standing there in his fedora, waiting for a whiskey that was probably Jim Beam. There’s only one place in Joplin where that sort of thing can happen, and that’s at Wilder’s.

Source: The Joplin Globe

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