Will Drake Jethro’s ever reopen? Its biggest fan’s heart says ‘yes,’ but all visible signs point to ‘no’

The black-and-white Instagram post shows chairs turn up on tables and neon lights look hot white in the otherwise darkened bar.

The caption reads: “Closing time at #Jethro’s 1.0, the original and my favorite. They say they’ll be back by March after a remodel. I miss it already. Until Jethro’s 2.0.”

I posted the picture on Dec. 9, 2021.

March came and with it the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.

Jethro’s remained dark.

The Drake Relays came at the end of April.

The parking lot was filled with cars, but the doors to my favorite restaurant and watering hole remained locked.

The state track meet ran this weekend. Again, the parking lot was filled. Again, Jethro’s remained closed.

Student teaching kept me in the northwest corner of the metro since January, but I still live in the Drake University neighborhood, as I have for all but two of the 18 years since I moved back to the city from St. Louis.

Jethro’s BBQ opened in 2008 and was an instant treasure to the neighborhood.

It brought a bright spot to the then-dismal Forest Avenue side of Drake’s campus.

With all the development on University Avenue around campus, it’s hard to remember that a dozen years ago, Mars Café, China Place, and Jimmy John’s were the pillars of off-campus life.

That’s not a knock on any of those establishments. I’ve eaten many roast beef sandwiches from Jimmy John’s and gotten takeout from China Place.

I’ve sat for our sipping a cup of coffee at Mars and trying to look important and writerly hunched over my laptop.

But Jethro’s was my place. I got to know the staff so well I knew their schedules.

When I was a columnist for the local newspaper, I picked up a lot of story ideas at Jethro’s just listening to what people talked about at the bar.

I don’t drink much, but I gulped down iced tea over boneless wings, burgers, brisket, ham, jalapeno cream corn, and macaroni and cheese.

I got to know my fellow customers, first by their faces and then by names.

I often closed the restaurant, staying late to talk to my favorite bartenders or managers.

I became friends with Bruce Gerleman, Jethro’s owner.

Jethro’s became a franchise. The original at Drake spawned one in Johnston, Ankeny, Altoona, West Des Moines, Waukee, Ames, and a southside store in the old Orlando’s Pizza building.

It irked Bruce when I called that one Jethlandos.

I ran into Bruce some months back, around the holidays I think, out at the Waukee restaurant. We chatted.

I asked him about the Drake store. He said big things were coming.

Bruce always says that. He’s not lying. He’s just positive that way. He’s a real estate man and restaurant mogul.

In his mind, big things are always coming.

This doesn’t seem true for the Drake Jethro’s.

I don’t know if Drake Jethro’s will ever reopen.

Bruce said it would.

I don’t share his rosy assessment.

To be fair, I haven’t peeked in the windows. I don’t know if renovations are underway.

The truth is I’m afraid to look because I worry the answer is no.

They’ve done a good job keeping the lot clean. The bit of grass by the restaurant is mowed. Weeds aren’t poking up through the cracks in the lot.

But it’s been so long.

People’s habits change so quickly.

David Halberstam, one of America’s greatest journalists, wrote a book about the 1949 American League pennant race.

He described what it was like for a rookie to take the place of an established star.

The first year, they say the new kid isn’t as good as the old star.

The second year, they say the new kid is all right, but he’s not the old star.

In the third year, they say “What old star?”

Twenty-first-century life moves faster than baseball in 1949.

I fear the Drake Jethro’s has faded from people’s memory.

There are new restaurants along University Avenue. The old guitar show is now a burger joint. There’s a variety of diverse new cuisines across from Old Main.

Mars, China Place, and Jimmy John’s are still open.

Forest has gotten more crowded. Casey’s opened a convenience store without gas across the street from Jethro’s.

There’s a Mexican restaurant on the site of a former Taco Bell-KFC where the lot is filled with cars only — unlike Drake Jethro’s — people can go inside and eat a meal.

Maybe it’s ridiculous to put up this fuss for the restaurant.

There are plenty of Jethro’s in town. And I occasionally get my fix at them.

But it’s not the same. My people have all scattered to different locations. I miss them as much as the food.

The regulars are regulars somewhere else.

I know this is silly, but one night I got takeout from the Jethro’s in West Des Moines. I drove to the Drake Jethro’s lot.

I turned off the car, put on the radio, and rolled down the windows.

I ate and thought about the old days. I could see all the TVs were gone.

The Christmas wreaths were still on the roof and the Christmas lights lit up at dusk.

The neon signs still glowed. A few had burned out. I saw the Ruthie beer sign that always begged Bruce to give me one. I’m a fan of local pop culture and things that light up.

I finished my food. I couldn’t shake the feeling that this felt like visiting a grave.

I drove away before a cop came by and asked what I was doing loitering in the parking lot of a closed restaurant.

If it was up to me, Drake Jethro’s would return.

But it isn’t.

All I can hope is that Drake Jethro’s was.

And it might be again.


Daniel P. Finney writes columns for ParagraphStacker.com, a free, reader-supported website. Please consider donating to help me cover personal expenses as I continue writing while I pursue my master’s degree and teacher certification.
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