Diggin’ the Dive Bars: Les & Pearl’s Tavern, Union Mills
Submitted by: Matthew A. Werner
Who doesn’t love a dive bar? They are places where friends congregate, everybody knows everybody, and they have that worn, lived-in feeling. Finding a good one is like uncovering a hidden treasure. If you’re up for a Friday night food adventure, you need to go to Les & Pearl’s Tavern.
To get there, make your way to U.S. Route 6 and drive east. In Westville, jog south one mile and keep going on your route. Pass corn, soybean, and hay fields for the next six miles. The highway dips through a little bog and there on the side of the road will be a small green sign with an arrow and white letters that read UNION MILLS.
Follow it over a set of railroad tracks, past Mill Pond, then under a railroad trestle and you have arrived: downtown Union Mills. The bank is gone and the hardware store burned to the ground a few years back. Two taverns, one restaurant, and an American Legion remain. On the right-hand side of the road in an unassuming building sits Les & Pearl’s. It’s been run by the same family for 60 years.
Originally called Russ & Mabel’s, the business became Mary’s in 1957. Mary sold it to her daughter and son-in-law, Les and Pearl, who renamed it—Les & Pearl’s. Today, Deb Allie, keeps the namesake homage to her late mom and dad.
You won’t find fancy accoutrements. The bar is 19 feet wide and 38 feet long. It sports linoleum tile flooring, wood paneling in spots, and the small back bar is vintage 1940s. Decades of service scar its face.
A diverse clientele of motorcyclists, farmers, writers, construction workers, nurses, factory people, and steel workers frequent the place. You’re likely to meet someone interesting, whether you learn something new or hear something outrageously weird. The bathroom wallpaper turns a prude’s face pink and leaves an impression on every newcomer.
There is no draft beer, but cans and bottles of every domestic brand including Pabst Blue Ribbon, Old Style, Old Milwaukee, Yuengling, Budweiser, Miller, and Stroh’s are at the ready. There are always a handful of unique craft beers in rotation such as Bikini Blonde from Maui Brewing or Rebel IPA from Sam Adams. If you don’t want beer, wine, or liquor, no worries—there is a yellowed refrigerator in the corner with an array of soda pop for customers to browse and select.
On Friday night, you’re going for the blue gill and ribs, cooked in the home-style kitchen. Your kitchen likely has more square footage. Really. Don’t order French fries—you’ll never get any. There isn’t enough room for a deep fryer. As a result, the blue gill is pan fried, over a cook stove, like your mother and grandmother made it. You can pick a pair of sides—broccoli salad, garden salad, coleslaw, potato salad, or a baked potato—all made in that kitchen. As for the ribs, they’re smothered in barbeque sauce and grilled on the back porch. Every Friday night, Deb Allie, marches back and forth between the kitchen and back deck, serving up blue gill and ribs, blue gill and ribs.
It’s oh so good, but don’t take my word for it. LaPorteans Blake and Emily Murray have sampled many area fish fries and they recently visited Les & Pearl’s.
“It was divey, but so friendly,” Emily said. “Sometimes in a dive bar you think, ‘maybe we should turn around,’ but I didn’t get that feeling. It was comfortable. Great hospitality. Mariah, our server, was very personable.”
Blake commented on the lack of draft beer. “No taps was cool. It’s straight forward.”
Surprising words from a craft brewer. He started with a Bikini Blonde before switching to Old Style and nostalgia slipped in. “I haven’t had one in a long time—this is what my dad always drank,” he said.
The couple ordered fish and a half-rack of ribs.
“Probably the top fish fry we’ve had so far,” Blake said. “I always like walleye, but the blue gill—so good.”
And the ribs?
“Fantastic,” Blake said. “Sticky, slow cooked, amazing sauce, crunchy little black pieces, fall-off-the-bone—on point!”
“We’re coming back and bringing people with us,” Emily said.
“Definitely,” Blake added, “more people need to know about this.”
Fair warning, sometimes it can get a little smoky in Les & Pearl’s (it is a tavern after all and the space is cramped). But if you recall curlicues of cigarette smoke wafting while your grandmother cooked and your parents, aunts, and uncles chattered, sipping cold Schlitz, PBR, or High Life from sweaty bottles, sneaking bites of food from Grandma’s kitchen, you’ll feel right at home.
The blue gill and the ribs are served Friday only, but the tavern is open seven days a week, 365 days a year. Weekend cruisers and bikers regularly stop in. And if it’s not a Friday night, regulars will recommend the pizza. They’ll even put sauerkraut on it if you ask. Regardless what you order, a trip to Les & Pearl’s Tavern is bound to be a memorable experience.
Les & Pearl’s is located at 612 Water Street, Union Mills, IN 46382. Hit the ATM before you go as it is a cash-only establishment. Blue gill dinner is $12.95 and the half-rack of ribs is $10.50, full slab $17.95.
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