Time flies when business is fun

Through gambling, gangsters and ghosts, Roc’s Blackfront Restaurant and Lounge has been serving the City of Charleston everything from baby-back ribs to Red Bull and Vodka mixers to fried frog legs and chilled Courvosier.

Current owner Michael Knoop has seen dramatic changes in the five years he has been owner.

Roc’s, 410 Sixth St., underwent a complete 10-month renovation in 1996 after Knoop took over from previous owner Dave Isbell. “I wanted to keep the original attitude of Roc’s,” Knoop said.

Knoop originally worked at the bar when he was 19.

“Of course, back then, that was legal. Roc’s was my roost,” he said.

Knoop improved everything from the wiring to the windows. The most important items that remained intact are the main floor and a classic 35-foot long walnut bar which was installed in 1941, he said.

Questions have long surrounded the historic brick building, where rumors of gambling, gangsters and even a ghost story have circulated for years.

After the renovation, Knoop uncovered interesting secrets behind the walls of one of Charleston’s historic buildings. Total boards for horseracing, gambling boards and many other secrets turned up.

Roc’s began in the early 1900s as a home for the Charleston Courier Newspaper. The original name for the bar was the Redfront.

Around the time of Prohibition, Roc’s became a speakeasy. Many coffee cups held drinks much stronger than a cup of joe. As people cheered the ponies, money was won and lost, but tradition stayed the same.

The Redfront had visitors from all over central Illinois and even some from Chicago, Knoop said. The allure of gambling and profit brought down big-name Windy City action.

“We found a buzzer system in the wall when remodeling, an early warning if someone came around that shouldn’t,” Knoop said.

Direct lines led to trucks, craps tables, roulette wheels and the total boards for horse racing. The Redfront was a downstate-style Charleston casino – if something had odds, the Redfront set them.

Some employees are rumored to believe that the body of a gangster lurks in the walls of the basement. Knoop insists this is not true, although employees have attested to a ghost wandering the Blackfront, causing disturbances after 1 a.m.

The evolution of law enforcement curbed the casino-style gambling, and a change of ownership led to the name change to Roc’s Blackfront in the early 1960s.

Roc’s Blackfront has always been a safe haven for veterans of the American armed forces from earlier wars and later was a Vietnam veterans watering hole, Knoop said.

It is not all gambling and stories, however: Roc’s remain a successful business on the Square.

Rob Murray, bartender and Roc’s employee for almost three years, describes Roc’s as “a Thursday tradition uptown with a different atmosphere, old brick buildings and an old-fashioned martini bar.”

The martini bar is located upstairs, at the Top of the Roc, which has been open for more than three years. Drinks, deejays and dancing are a regular find

While the thought of ghosts may be frightening, Roc’s ribs are anything but scary.

Chris Beaupre, chef for over a year, describes Roc’s as “the place to go for the best ribs around.” Roc’s has many entrees, appetizers, and specialties, but a slab of Roc’s Baby Back Pork Ribs smothered in the “Original Norm’s Nirvana” barbecue sauce is a big seller, Beaupre said.

The sauce is named after Norm Petruschadt, Knoop’s father-in-law, who has since passed away.

Plants rest on the windows, bottles of liquor line the bar and the sight of roulette wheels, craps and poker tables hanging on the walls remind those in the dining room of the deep heritage inside.

Roc’s is open Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 11 p.m., with both bars open until 1 a.m. Every day there are specials from meatloaf at noon to mixers at midnight.

Eight beers are always on tap, and it can be a great place to watch all the big games on digital cable, Knoop said.

For those who go and sit down for a beer and some ribs, they could ask Knoop about the ghosts.

He’ll just smile and laugh and tell some great stories about the Blackfront.