The walls of Grand Rivers restaurant Mr. BBQ and More are clad with nostalgic photographs of travelers, neighbors and patrons who have passed.
The quaint restaurant is owned by Jan Quarles and her husband Chub (also known as "John," "Cy" or "Squirrel"). Although the business is decked out in memorabilia from the Quarles' 12 years running the restaurant, they're looking for new owners to take over and make new memories.
Jan Quarles can be found at Mr. BBQ - a name the Quarles kept when they purchased the business from previous owners - almost every day. She'll wake up at 4:45 a.m. some days to make it in for the breakfast crowd at 6 a.m., where residents from the area have their regular seats. Some get to sit at the "table of knowledge," a special round table brought in by a customer for a group of regulars.
Quarles' own cooking history goes back generations. Her grandfather, Ernest Pace, owned a restaurant on the square in Benton. She can clearly remember as a child using a makeshift gun-like device he built for cutting out his famous hot tamales, which she said people still ask her today if she can make. She can remember sitting at his kitchen table, rolling tamales, before he'd take them out to town in a bucket to sell.
Quarles' dad, Bill Pace, developed his own chef skills as a cook in the Army before going on to cook for the Tennessee Valley Authority when Kentucky Dam was being built. He also helped open and cooked at Kenlake Hotel.
Quarles got her first job in the restaurant business at age 14 as a carhop at a drive-in. She then waited tables at Lambert's Steak House in Paducah and worked at the Iron Kettle in Grand Rivers for 32 years.
Jan said she and Chub Quarles often talked about opening a restaurant, until one day they made the move to do it.
It isn't easy running a restaurant in a tourist town. Grand Rivers sees big crowds on holiday weekends such as Memorial Day, the Fourth of July and Labor Day. But the winters aren't easy.
The town proved fortunate Mr. BBQ was there one winter, though, when Grand Rivers Mayor Tom Moody called up the Quarles during the 2009 ice storm. The place became a post for the area, where a generator was set up. Residents and other nearby restaurants and grocery stores hauled in their food that was in threat of decaying due to the massive power outtage.
"It was so wonderful that everybody came to help," Quarles said.
She noted the experience was like a giant potluck.
"No one was without," she said.
Other experiences from the past decade in the business aren't as eventful, but are meaningful to Quarles nonetheless. On the walls are photographs of fishermen, hunters, sail boats owned by local residents, and memories of the KT Riders, a group of dirt bike riders, who used to stop in at Mr. BBQ annually for a buffet hosted especially for them.
"One year it rained, we had to bring in a shovel to clean the floors," Quarles said.
From visitors to regulars
The restaurant's location on Ky. 453 near the lakes brings in tourists from around the country and sometimes beyond. Quarles said she's heard a lot of funny questions from tourists over the years. Most notably was one couple visiting the United States who genuinely asked: "We've been all around Kentucky now. Where is the bluegrass?"
On the other end of the spectrum are regular customers, who sometimes live around the country but stop in during visits to the lakes area. One group of quilters stops in each year, and even made Quarles a quilt and wall-hanging with the owners' portrait.
Quarles had a few women stop in from Michigan who were originally from the area. As children, they regularly came into the Iron Kettle with their families. They stopped into Mr. BBQ one day and found one of their favorite waitresses from the Iron Kettle, Jan Quarles, and still come back on trips to Kentucky.
From the items customers have brought her from around the country to the patrons who insist their photograph be on the wall, Quarles said she's loved the experience.
"I have really enjoyed it," she said.
Mr. BBQ is open for breakfast on weekdays and both breakfast and dinner on Fridays and Saturdays.
Quarles uses a barbecue recipe passed down by the previous owners, and much of the menu is from her own cooking experience. She emphasizes that dishes such as the potato salad, which customers rave over, and desserts such as her pecan cobbler, are all homemade. Out back is the pit where Chub does the barbecuing.
The Quarles' daughter and grandchildren help out at the restaurant, but they aren't looking to keep the business in the family. They're looking for a buyer.
"I'd like to see someone come and get it while we're still here to help," Quarles said.
New ownership would be a change for Grand Rivers, but Quarles said she thinks the town can handle it.
"I've seen Grand Rivers change a lot, but for the good," she said.
Contact Lauren Duncan, Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8692 or follow @laurenpduncan on Twitter.