Hi-Way Tavern Lives Again - #4 Edwardsville's Route 66 history

Here's #4 in Edwardsville's Route 66 history - the story of the Hi-Way Tavern and Cafe, which ran in the June 2014 issue of The Prairie Land Buzz.

Edwardsville's Hi-Way Tavern Lives Again

Frank and Dora Catalano opened the Hi-Way Tavern in 1934 in a small grocery store building on Route 66 in Edwardsville. It was an immediate success, and Frank and Dora remained a team operating the tavern and cafe until 1959. After that, the business changed hands several times, becoming Neumann's Bar in its most recent iteration. About a year ago, with dwindling business and a deteriorating building, Neumann's closed. Now, just in time for Edwardsville's big Route 66 Festival weekend June 13-14, the Hi-Way Tavern will celebrate its grand opening. Business partners Katrina Bain Howerton, Jeff Cox, and Michael Jones are bringing together their collective expertise in the bar trade and their nostalgia for Edwardsville to re-open the historic Route 66 business. Honoring local Route 66 heritage in décor and spirit, the trio will have the doors open by festival weekend to welcome locals and visitors. They hope to eventually re-open the cafe portion of the business as well.

And, with perfect timing, the Catalanos and the Hi-Way Tavern are being honored in June – in fact, the same weekend as the Edwardsville Route 66 Festival and the Hi-Way Tavern Grand Opening, June 13-14. At the Route 66 Association of Illinois Hall of Fame Banquet in Lincoln, the Catalanos and the Hi-Way Tavern will be inducted into the Illinois Route 66 Hall of Fame. A plaque and a display shelf with mementos from the business are now on display in the Illinois Route 66 Museum in Pontiac, Illinois, along with other Hall of Fame honorees, including George Cathcart's Cafe. Cathcart was accepted into the Hall of Fame last year; that business was directly across the street from the Hi-Way Tavern.

Edwardsville historian and author Cindy Reinhardt has done thorough research on the Hi-Way Tavern, complimented by the Catalano family's memories and photographs. Cindy's research culminated in the nomination to the Hall of Fame and also several articles on the historic business appearing soon in Route 66 publications.

Following is the story of Frank and Dora Catalano's Hi-Way Tavern, excerpted with permission from Cindy's articles:

In October 1924, Ed McLaughlin built a lunch room onto the front of his house at 461 E. Vandalia Street. A few months later, a grocery business opened in a new building that was attached to McLaughlin’s house and luncheonette. The café was short-lived, and the grocery changed owners every few years until Frank and Dora Catalano bought the place in 1934.
Frank Catalano had come to the United States from Palermo, Sicily, in 1902. His wife, Dora Sansone Catalano, the daughter of Italian immigrant parents, was born in St. Louis. They were married in Beardstown, Illinois, in 1910 and from that time forward worked as a team in life and in business.
Frank’s business career began in 1904 with a fruit store in Litchfield, Illinois. Around 1917, Frank and Dora moved to Edwardsville where they established a fruit store on Main Street. The family lived above the store in those days. They left the fruit business in 1928, selling the business to a family member. Frank then ran an ice cream shop, the bar at Czech Hall, and other businesses in Edwardsville that all prepared him for life’s next adventure on Route 66.

In April 1934, the Catalanos set up their new business, the Hi-Way Tavern, on E. Vandalia Street, Route 66, as a combination tavern, café, and packaged liquor store. The country was starting to find its way out of the Great Depression, so traffic on Route 66 was on the rise and passing right by their front door. Their business plan was simple, nothing fancy, just good home-cooked food and reasonable prices. Their opening advertising slogan was “Good Cheer with Good Beer.”

Frank Catalano stood in front of his Hi-Way Tavern for this photo while Route 66 was being repaved circa 1939. Photo courtesy of Edwardsville Historic Preservation Commission.
Dora ran the kitchen and Frank worked at the bar. As their children grew older, they also worked in the business. In 1950 they decided to expand by buying Ed McLaughlin’s house and bringing the front of his lunch room forward, in line with the tavern. Then the entire building was bricked to blend the multiple additions and buildings. The café was run as a separate business but there was a connecting door so the tavern could take food orders and the café could provide alcohol. The proprietors of the café were George and Mary Lautner who were relatives of the Catalanos.

The Hi-Way Tavern's appearance changed in the early 1950s after the Catalanos squared up the front of the building and bricked the entire exterior. Photo courtesy of Joe Catalano.
The Lautners ran the following advertisement in 1951: HI-WAY CAFÉ – We have been told by most of our customers that we have the best food in town. Tourists who have been on the road for weeks have paid us the same compliment. WHY DON’T YOU give us a try. Our menu consists of tender large steaks, pan fried chicken, plate lunches, homemade ravioli and sauce, Italian spaghetti and meat balls, breakfasts – fresh rolls every morning, homemade pies, cakes, soups. The following year they began to also advertise “Pizza Pie.” It was the first known restaurant in Edwardsville to advertise the dish.

Frank and Dora retained ownership of the building after their retirement in 1959. Dora died the next year, six months short of their 50th wedding anniversary.  The Lautner family continued to run the café until the early 1960s when it was purchased by Vi and Dean Watson who called it Vi and Dean’s Hi-Way Café. The Watsons would operate the cafe and Clem Graham the tavern through the end of Edwardsville’s Route 66 years.

The Hi-Way Café and Tavern were never upscale places, but they were known for friendly service and good food, especially their spaghetti and middle-of-the-night biscuits and gravy. After Route 66 was moved out of Edwardsville, it became a neighborhood roadhouse where ball teams met after a game on a hot summer night, or folks stopped in for something to eat after the bars closed. It was not unlike the fictional “Cheers” in Boston as it became a place where “everybody knows your name.”

Thanks to the Hi-Way Tavern's new proprietors, it will be again.