Rico no longer owns the place. But this is still the place. Where alumni reunite. Where families gather on Family Weekend for a bite and a beer. Where students and professors discuss their departments. Where School of Music faculty and students regularly perform.

Rico’s Public House, established in 1909, has provided a second living room for the Washington State University and greater Pullman community for 115 years. Recently, the beloved pub was recognized with the 2023 statewide Legacy on Main Award for its contribution as an economic and cultural anchor in downtown. The honor was presented to Rico’s owner Tawny Szumlas (’02 Hosp. Busi. Mgmt.).

Smiling woman stands behind a bar holding a reddish-orange cocktail
Rico’s owner Tawny Szumlas with a “Pippy” cocktail behind the counter (Photo Zach Wilkinson/The Lewiston Morning Tribune)

“It’s truly wonderful to be recognized, and it holds even greater weight knowing that my children can take pride in our family’s rich heritage,” says Szumlas, a mother of three and the second generation of her family to own and operate the landmark establishment. It’s been in her family longer than that of any of its previous owners, including Rico himself.

Tony Talarico, the “Rico” of Rico’s Public House, owned the watering hole for 30 years. It’s been in Szumlas’s family since 1980. And her family has been in Pullman since 1888.

Szumlas is a descendant of Thomas Neill, who came to America from Ireland in 1879, started Pullman’s first newspaper, and served as an early Whitman County Superior Court judge. He was instrumental in helping establish Washington State Agricultural College, now WSU, in Pullman. And it’s possible he would have visited Rico’s in its early days, when it was still known as the Smokehouse.

One of Pullman’s oldest businesses, Rico’s started as a place where men came to play pool and cards and, most of all, to smoke. In 1927, it relocated to its current and larger location, the former site of the Liberty Theater. The following year, owner E.W. Thorpe sold the Smokehouse to Merle Ebner, who—in the early 1930s—began selling beer and wine.

Talarico acquired an interest in 1947. He’s credited with turning the Smokehouse into a true public house, making it welcoming for women. He added women’s restrooms and hired wives of international and graduate students. He also added jazz nights as well as other shows, encouraging college students to perform.

A 1966 advertisement in the Daily Evergreen called for “strictly amateur” performers 21 and older—“folk singers, musicians, combos, dancers, etc.”—to “come out in the open and give us some new talent to check!!!” The ad noted that he was remodeling and that performers would receive “chow” and “liquid refreshment.”

After three decades behind the bar, Talarico sold the business and, in 1978, according to his obituary, retired to Clarkston. He died in 2006.

Szumlas was just a year old when her father, Roger Johnson, then 25, bought the business. She knew from a young age that she wanted to do what her dad did: run Rico’s. Szumlas worked there during her WSU days. “My dad told me he would pay for college in Whitman County, the rub being that there was only one,” she says. “I didn’t apply anywhere else.”

Her brother and cousins worked there, too. Her dad, she notes, “did not give us any special treatment.” After graduation, he encouraged her to live and work outside Pullman. So, for two years, she worked in the bar at the luxe JW Marriott Desert Springs Resort and Spa in Palm Desert, California. But her heart remained at Rico’s.

“I think of Rico’s Public House as the ‘Cheers’ of the Palouse,” says Washington Main Street director Breanne Durham, who presented the Legacy on Main Award to Szumlas. “There is no limit to how long you can hang out at Rico’s. Professors, graduate students, families, and children—everyone gathers here.”

Szumlas started managing the establishment in 2005 and bought the business from her dad 10 years later. He still owns the building and comes in most days to tally receipts. During his tenure, he officially changed the name to honor Talarico, added craft beer and liquor, and remodeled the place to give it the feel of an English pub. Custom woodwork adds to the ambiance. Walls are book-lined and exposed brick, still bearing painted advertisements that predate its move to its current location.

In the 1980s and ’90s, Johnson remembers, “Graduate students and professors came in in huge groups, discussing their departments any night of the week. I remember entomology down here discussing the nature of prey-predator relationships. I scratched my head over that one. But that’s the sort of thing you ran into back then.”

Rico’s remains a favorite hangout for WSU professors, students, and alumni. But, Johnson says, students “don’t come off the hill like they used to. They would walk down” from College Hill. And, in winter, they would ski down. “I’d have a dozen sets of cross-country skis out front,” Johnson says. “They’d ski down, and they didn’t think anything of it.”

These days, open mic and trivia nights, along with live musical performances, help draw students downtown. So do holidays. On St. Patrick’s Day, Rico’s often becomes so packed that Szumlas has to turn patrons away at the door. Another busy night: Christmas Day. Rico’s is open 365 days a year. After time with family, many Pullmanites—those who live here as well as those who grew up here, moved away, and returned for the holidays—often gather at the pub for post-Christmas pints.

From 1988, when Rico’s re-opened after its extensive remodel, to early 2020, the pub hadn’t missed a day of operation. The COVID-19 lockdown presented a challenge. During that time, the pub placed more emphasis on food, and it has since expanded and elevated its menu offerings, and hired an executive chef.

When Szumlas started working at Rico’s, the pub didn’t employ any cooks. If a patron ordered food, the bartender would cook it. Back then, Rico’s had a small staff of about eight people. That number has grown to more than 30. And, Szumlas says, “We hire almost exclusively WSU students.”

Today, Rico’s is known for its Reuben sandwich, with corned beef, sauerkraut, and Swiss cheese on rye bread. Other top sellers: the brisket and bratwurst sandwiches, which also happen to be Johnson’s current favorite menu items.

A couple of doors down from Rico’s is Neill’s Flowers and Gifts. Although it no longer remains in the family, the business was started by Johnson’s grandfather and Szumlas’s great-grandfather, Royal “Roy” Neill, in 1910, a year after the Smokehouse opened.

Alan “Mike” Klier (‘75 Physics) has been coming to Rico’s since his college days. He says, “There are two, and only two, kinds of people in this world. Those who smile a faint, knowing smile and those who look confused when I say, ‘Yes, this is a nice place, but it’s not Rico’s.’”

He appreciates Rico’s even more now than when he graduated. “It has a timeless quality to it and, more importantly, is in some sense changeless. Changelessness makes it a time machine. I enter, and I am back. I have a favorite table and a favorite location at that table.

“I have told my friends, those whom I trust to make the effort, that I want to be buried behind the bar. There is something appealing about being perpetually at the center of so much charm.”

Meantime, when they ask, “Mike, shall we have another?” the answer is always the same. “I don’t mind if we do.”