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Iconic Indiana restaurant’s ownership change is a return to roots

Bonge's Tavern (WISH PHOTO/Drew Blair)

PERKINSVILLE, Ind. (WISH) — Just shy of its 90th anniversary of starting restaurant operation, Bonge’s Tavern begins a new era.

The restaurant, considered iconic for simultaneously feeling reclusive and exclusive, has changed ownership for the first time in 24 years.

The nearly 200-year-old building is located off the beaten path and winding roads in Madison County. Its present-day attraction boasts an upscale menu jotted on a chalkboard and a cult-following experience of tailgating before fine dining.

The tailgating, by the way, will remain an honored tradition. It became somewhat of a spectacle when the small tavern was first-come-first-served and would require hours-long waits for a table. Following the COVID-19 pandemic, the restaurant transitioned to a reservation system, but tailgating continued.

“I LOVE the tailgating,” new owner Jake Burgess wrote to News 8.

“It has such a core memory for some, and at the same time gives such an allure to your experience. EVERYONE loves to be able to say ‘I tailgated at Bonge’s.’ I have tossed the idea around of tailgate parties with live music, even a possible car show,” Burgess wrote.

These are some of the earliest brainstorms by the longtime figure on central Indiana’s dining scene. Burgess was two days removed from closing on the acquisition of his restaurant group’s latest endeavor when he offered enthusiasm for the tavern’s future.

“The main question I have heard is ‘What are you changing,’ and my answer is ‘not much.’ The technique, attention to detail, quality of ingredients, and service quality is second to none,” Burgess wrote in an announcement on Facebook.

The new venture is rooted in both the past and present for its owner.

Burgess recalled his father introducing his then 20-year-old son to the tavern and its owner at the time, Tony Huestler. They met after Burgess had ended his college path to become a chef. The senior Burgess had worked as a delivery driver and delivered his son to the back door of Bonge’s Tavern with instructions to introduce himself in a move to expose the aspiring chef to what Burgess today describes as the best of the best.

“I think it was his way of showing me how it ‘should be done.’ One of those lessons your parents teach you that doesn’t fully make sense until it does,” Burgess told News 8.

Following 12 years of training and running some of the area’s most reputable kitchens, Burgess opened FoxGardin Kitchen and Ale in Fortville which he says he loosely based off Bonge’s Tavern. That was in 2015.

The conversation about purchasing Bonge’s from Huestler started in 2019, four years prior to the eventual deal closing. Burgess was told the business was not for sale, though the two kept in touch and would ultimately conclude a year of negotiating on Sept.11.

“When Bonge’s came calling, I felt like it just spoke to me in a way that re-inspired my passion that long ago my dad had instilled in me,” Burgess said.

Perkinsville is about an hour’s drive northeast of downtown Indianapolis.