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Hunter's has legacy of best burgers

Dispatch/Argus Photo By Chuck Thomas

Hunter's in Rock Island has long been popular for its charbroiled burgers. The restaurant opened in 1933, just as Prohibition was being repealed. The tavern has free music on Friday and Saturday nights.

How do you spell some of the best hamburger in town? H-U-N-T-E-R-S.

The first flame-broiled hamburger served in the Quad-Cities area still is the best, if restaurant sales are any indicator. Tom and Debbie Mosenfelder, who will celebrate 11 years of operating Hunter's Club in June, buy up to 170 pounds of prime ground beef daily to satisfy the local demand for their 6-ounce burger.

``No matter what we put on the menu, people still seem to like our hamburgers the best,'' Mr. Mosenfelder said.

The Hunter's legacy was started by Bill Hunter Sr., who opened the tavern and restaurant at 2107 4th Ave., Rock Island, in April 1933, just as Prohibition was being repealed.

``Actually, he had a place up on the second floor from 1931 to '33 where they served liquor,'' Bill Hunter Jr. said. ``I guess you'd have called it a speakeasy in those days.

``From what I understand, my parents were all ready for the repeal of the Volstead Act and sent in their request for a legal liquor license as soon as it was possible. Theirs was the first issued in the state of Illinois.''

Food began being served in Hunter's just as soon as the doors opened to the public.

``Back in the '30s, the custom in taverns was to offer free food,'' Mr. Hunter said. ``You'd get a sandwich or bowl of soup when you bought a beer or drink.''

One of the first dinner specials offered at Hunter's was chicken dinners at 25 cents a plate. ``It included potatoes, roll and two or three pieces of chicken,'' he said. ``We served a lot of full lunches in those days and had a less elaborate menu on down the line.''

It was about 1956 when Bill Hunter Sr. put in the charbroiler that brought the Quad-Cities its first flame-broiled hamburger.

``My dad got the idea from a restaurant he went to in the Chicago Loop,'' Mr. Hunter said. ``Those hamburgers were a hot item for us for a long time. People still associate them with Hunter's, even though Tom and Debbie have a wonderful full menu here.''

``I was in competition twice with Hunter's, trying to duplicate those burgers, and I could never get it right,'' Mr. Mosenfelder said, referring to his former bars, Your Place and Mosie's.

Now Hunter's is a family affair for the Mosenfelders, with Tom's daughter Nicki and brother Dick both tending bar, and Debbie's sister Jorja waiting tables.

American dining trends have changed vastly over the years, according to the two veteran restaurant owners.

``It seems today more people are eating out, but they're eating far more casual food,'' Mr. Hunter said. ``People still want steaks, chicken, burgers, but they're willing to experiment with all kinds of ethnic foods, too.''

``Today, people buy all kinds of cookbooks, Thai or Mexican, which they'll experiment with at home,'' Mr. Mosenfelder said. ``They want that variety out in restaurants, too.

``It seems people are eating out more, but they don't want to spend as much. When Debbie and I travel, we notice the more successful places are serving food at $8 or $9 a plate. That seems to be what people are willing to pay.''

``Something that's definitely changed are drinking habits,'' Bill Hunter Jr. said. ``It used to be sales were 60 percent alcohol and 40 percent food. Now it's the reverse.

``And what people are drinking has changed. It's now beer and wine. They don't drink hard liquor today like they did in the '40s and '50s.''

One Hunter's tradition that hasn't changed with the years is its free music on Friday and Saturday nights.

``Every second Sunday of the month, we also have the Catfish Jazz Society playing here,'' Mr. Mosenfelder said. ``That's one great weekend.''

-- By Lisa Mohr (February 2, 1998)

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