November 10, 2010

The Taste Bud: Life (and lunch) at Bucket’s is never serious

Jodie Smith’s words permeated the air much like the tantalizing aromas emanating from the nearby kitchen.

“If you get the burger, you won’t be disappointed,” Smith, working a recent lunch shift at Bucket’s Bar & Grill in downtown Jeffersonville, told me. Sold.

Bucket’s sits on the corner of Watt and Seventh streets, across from the Clark County Jail. If you drive by it too quickly, chances are you’ll never notice it (unless you catch some scents drifting out from part-owner Charles Krausse’s kitchen). But my first visit, after years of hearing locals endorse the food and atmosphere, certainly backed up Smith’s vow.

The small pub is family owned and clearly has a loyal order of regulars; Bucket’s has everything a neighborhood bar should: cold beer, hearty sandwiches, steamy chili, never-ending food specials, and TVs for watching the ballgame with friends.

So I ordered the burger and fries, along with a cup of homemade chili, and I sat at the bar and took it all in. A couple of obvious regulars sat near me finishing their lunches. When Smith delivered their checks, she joked, “OK, boys, $100 apiece.”

“Do you take IOUs?” one said.

“How about sugar packets?” said the other. Lunch at Bucket’s seems to come with a side of laughter.

In between taking orders and serving up grub and refills, Smith baby-talked her toddler granddaughter (who was sitting at a nearby table with Mom) and cheerfully answered questions from a newcomer.

“It’s all homemade,” she said of the menu fare. “We don’t have food service companies coming in here; we go to the grocery just like you do at home.”

And speaking of Krausse (who is Smith’s stepfather), she said, “He makes the best fried chicken around; there’s nothing he can’t cook. But don’t tell him I said that.”

Every Wednesday night is all-you-can-eat fried chicken night at Bucket’s. No joke: For $7.95, you get to chow down on country-fried fowl, mashed potatoes, milk gravy, green beans, stuffing (made with bread, not dried-out croutons), coleslaw, biscuits and cobbler for dessert.

And every Thursday you can dig into a lunch buffet featuring the same fried chicken and more for just $5.75 — the day I was there, the spread also included Salisbury steak, spaghetti and a bucket-load of sides. There’s also a daily soup-and-salad bar for those who want to eat light.

Other rotating specials range from smoked pork chops to burritos to filet mignon and prime rib. Smith said in October there was even a German buffet one day.

But back to my lunch. As promised, the half-pound, hand-patted burger ($4.75) served to me was juicy and, well, real. Topped with American cheese and two strips of thick-sliced bacon, it was nearly an all-you-can-eat lunch in itself. Sandwiches at Bucket’s generally come with chips, but adding a giant order of crisp-fried shoestring potatoes for $2 more was the right call.

The chili, meanwhile, was every bit as made-from-scratch as promised. Thick and piping hot (though not terribly spicy), it was loaded with lean ground beef, pinto beans, onions and big chunks of tomato. Not a bad starter on a cool autumn day.

Smith went on to tell me that Bucket’s was at one time called Buddy Knight’s. The late Mr. Knight, who also later owned a popular Jeff pub called Buddy’s Nook, apparently was a local legend of sorts, because he would pack the place by singing along to the jukebox — sort of karaoke before karaoke was cool. (Wait, has karaoke ever been cool?)

She also noted that the men’s room door has been known to open and close spontaneously, and that the response from regulars is normally, “Oh, that’s just Buddy.” Even if Buddy’s actual spirit doesn’t remain, his spirit of fun does. Buddy was known for covering his bald spot with black shoe polish (which he always kept on hand just in case), and Smith said when she first began working there, people would place bottles of polish on the bar when she wasn’t looking as a joke.

The fun at Bucket’s extends also to special fundraising events such as last weekend’s car show and swap meet to benefit the Clark County Police Shop With a Cop fund, featuring dozens of raffle prizes and hundreds of classic cars, not to mention the good food and cheap longnecks.

It’s all part of the Bucket’s tradition, apparently. As Smith put it, “We always try to have fun here; life’s too serious everywhere else.”