NORMAN — Campus Corner is littered with bars — some new, some old, and then there’s Joe’s Taverna.
Over the last two decades, owner Joe Gil has turned 435 Buchanan Ave. into a landmark for thirsty college students, tailgate partiers and countless regulars. It’s more than a bar. It’s the bar where everyone knows your name, including the owner. And he’s ready to celebrate.
“A lot of it was having a dream. Everyone has a dream, but I was able to live my dream,” Gil said. “My dream came true and I’ve been living it for 20 years.”
He wouldn’t say it was easy but said it’s still “a party every night.”
Saturday will be no different, except in scope, as Joe’s Taverna celebrates its 20th anniversary with live music from Banana Seat, prize giveaways and anniversary T-shirts on tap. Oh, and, of course, beer.
Gil got his first taste in 1980, helping some friends open a bar on Main Street in Norman. After years as a hired gun, he decided to go into business for himself.
He didn’t have a bank loan.
He didn’t have a business partner.
He had a wife.
Margaret believed in the idea and backed up her belief with a $10,000 business loan. For a burgeoning restaurant or bar, surviving the first year is often the toughest obstacle. This was no different.
It was a quiet start. Gil found himself on habitual bar arrest, working 90-hour weeks, calling the shots, providing the muscle and doting on all the details.
“This business started out real small. There’d be some days I’d sit here in the afternoon and I wouldn’t see a soul,” Gil said.
That’s not the case anymore. Joe’s Taverna has become such a steady success that it’s almost immune to the summer exodus of thousands of OU students.
He’s seen some 350 college students work for him, most passing through en route to careers and families. He’s invested in them on an emotional level, too, in an almost fatherly sense.
“He came to my wedding and helped us with the champagne,” bartender Jessica Stevens said. “Since my father passed away, he said, ‘Everyone needs a dad’ and he wanted to help me have a nice wedding. So, he’s very generous. He really does care about us.”
If Gil’s hard work made it a success, his presence made it something more.
“People come in here and I’m here. If you go into a corporate bar, who knows who the owner is? Does the owner even come up and talk to you?” Gil said.
“That’s what the kids like, that’s what people my age like. They like to be remembered.”
He said people often compare the place to Cheers. It’s a fitting comparison for two decades of faithful patrons whose photos line the walls.
Regulars have their own chairs, game day customs and drink orders like “the usual.”
Gil said he feels that the “little guys” might not be able to cash in on small business roulette in the future, citing climbing costs and red tape. If that dark timeline comes to fruition, there will be no Golden Age fallacy at work in the memories of Gil’s loyal customers.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with corporate watering holes, but losing the personable vibe of these dives will water down the drink.
Joe’s Taverna has carried that torch since Ronald Reagan was in the White House, but nothing lasts forever. Gil called the business a young man’s game, and at 68 years old, he admits the end might be lurking around the corner. What kind of end is still up in the air.
For all the regulars who treat Joe’s like a second home of sorts that leaves a burning question.
A regular who prefers the name Frosty said, “Where do we all go from here?”
He paused to take a drink, laughed and said, “I guess we go home.”
Until then, it’s still a party every night.