Why do barbecue lovers from Chow Town, Lawrence, Topeka, both Manhattans and all across America drive the hour or so from Kansas City to Williamsburg, Kan., population 392, to eat at G&M Tavern?
It’s the ribs!
G&M’s signature fall-off-the-bone hickory smoked ribs seasoned with the late Guy Kesner’s secret “hookey poo” rub and Mae’s secret recipe tomato base sauce on the side has attracted thousands of customers for more than four decades. Mae Kesner passed away in June at age 90.
If you forget to bring cash, perish the thought of borrowing autographed dollar bills from the walls and ceilings. Try the ATM or write a check with identification. Otherwise you could talk with Judy or Ty or Lori about splitting hickory logs out back or washing dishes in exchange for your lunch or dinner. Best to not count on that, however.
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Thanks to the magic of barbecue, school rivalries between Jayhawks, Ichabods and Wildcats melt away at Guy & Mae’s. The barbecue is so good that the late Dave Kratzer, editor of the former KS Magazine, proclaimed Guy & Mae’s Tavern “The Best BarBieCue Joint in Kansas,” in the Winter 1985 edition. Kratzer’s accolades are posted on a wall of honor, or brag wall, as family members rightly call it, at G&M to this day.
Thanks to the Kesner offspring, G&M’s famous ribs are still smoking and the beer is cold as ever. Before his passing in 1986, Guy made sure his rub recipe stayed in the family. Mae taught grandson-in-law Ty Thompson the proper G&M pitmaster techniques. She also kept her secret sauce recipe in the family.
To me, Mae’s sauce resembles an accidental cousin to Newman’s Own Marinara Sauce married to Minnesota’s Rudolph’s Original Bar-B-Que Sauce. Guy’s hookey poo enhances the signature flavor. Whatever the recipe, Mae’s smooth, uncomplicated, tomato base sauce is a perfect complement to G&M’s hickory smoked hookey poo-seasoned ribs.
The G&M menu is uncomplicated. You’re there for barbecue. Ribs are mandatory unless you’re a vegetarian along for the ride. If so, your options are hot pickles, coleslaw, potato salad and potato chips. Besides pork ribs, there’s ham, beef, turkey or Polish sausage. I always get ribs and BBQ beans. When I add a sandwich, I really like the Polish sausage or a half sausage/half beef combo.
Before your ribs are served, keep in mind that Guy and Mae opened the tavern in 1973, more than a decade before the Chow Town barbecue contest scene heated up. Neither had a barbecue contest or barbecue restaurant pedigree.
Guy was an industrial welder prior to managing the former Red Rooster Truck Stop, where Mae worked as a waitress. Mae’s customer service savvy also was tempered by a former job in a dime store. It didn’t take them long to get up to speed at smoking ribs and running a barbecue joint in a tavern.
G&M ribs are served naked, topped with a few slices of white sandwich bread, on a sheet of aluminum foil and newspapers. A jar of Mae’s sauce is available on the side. Don’t expect neatly trimmed ribs like you’d find in a contest entry box. Although G&M’s fall-off-the-bone slabs are sliced by Ty with a sharp knife, they are presented for eating, not judging.
Sit at the long bar, or the picnic table or a booth. For 50 cents the Ejukebox will play a song of your choice. How about eating G&M ribs while George Jones sings “There’s Nothing Better Once You’ve Had the Best”? Dig in with gusto!
Guy & Mae’s Tavern is at 119 W. William St. in Williamsburg, Kan., 785-746-8830.
Ardie Davis founded a sauce contest on his backyard patio in 1984 that became the American Royal International Barbecue Sauce, Rub & Baste contest. He is a charter member of the Kansas City Barbeque Society and an inductee into the KCBS Hall of Flame. He has been interviewed on food shows and writes for barbecue-related publications. His most recent release is America’s Best BBQ (Revised Edition), with Chef Paul Kirk.