John Forrest remembers being struck by a particular kind of phone call he got when he first started working at the Village Bar (12247 Manchester Road, Des Peres; 314-821-4532) about six years ago. Unlike other hospitality gigs, it wasn't uncommon for the longtime Des Peres tavern to be asked to host funeral luncheons. Initially, it seemed like a peculiar phenomenon, but it didn't take long for him to realize why these were such common requests.
"People would call up and tell us that this is where their dad had his first beer, and it was also where he had his last," Forrest says. "When you've been around for 140 years, you get a lot of calls like that."
The Village Bar may be the "Cheers" of Des Peres, but it's far from the only institution of its type in the St. Louis metro area. Neighborhoods throughout the city are filled with watering holes, bars and grills, and longtime independent restaurants that mean much more to their patrons than a place to grab something to eat or drink. Weave these establishments together with the iconic restaurants, bars and dishes that have come to represent the city's food and beverage community and you get an impressive — if not a little well-worn — fabric that tells us who we are.
Throughout my eight years as the RFT's dining critic, I've been asked numerous questions over and over about the gig. Where is your favorite restaurant? Are you anonymous? We have people coming in from out of town — where should we take them to eat? However, the one query that's always struck me is when I'm asked why we don't spend more time and effort covering established places. Whereas so much space is spent talking about the shiny new things, there tends to be little room dedicated to the people and places who've been going about the business of operating their bars and restaurants for a long time. In an industry where it's more common to fail than succeed within the first couple of years, that staying power is a feat that deserves to be celebrated, not just for their sheer endurance, but because they are a living history that tells the story of our metropolitan area.
In this spirit, we're excited to launch St. Louis Standards, a weekly column dedicated to the people, places and dishes that make our food scene what it is. We'll feature icons, of course, but we'll also be shining a light on the establishments that might not be known outside their immediate community — but are, for their regulars, the center of the universe.
The Village Bar is one of those places. Not a hole-in-the-wall by any stretch of the imagination, the tavern's sheer staying power has made it a multigenerational center of the Des Peres community, even before Des Peres existed. As owner Mark Disper likes to point out, the bar was established roughly forty years before the municipality was incorporated, getting its start in 1872 as the area's post office and general store. At that time Manchester was a dirt road, and the building provided food, liquor, feed and hardware to westward travelers.
The outfit became a bar following Prohibition and has remained one ever since. Though it's changed hands over the years, its essential character has not — that's one of the reasons Disper felt it was so important to preserve when he bought it in 2016. Prior to that, he'd been a patron of the bar and heard rumors that there was a possibility it was being sold to Schnucks to be leveled and turned into a grocery store. He couldn't let that happen.
"It's important to preserve the heritage and memories for the next generation," Disper says. "You just can't remake a dive bar like this."
Since taking over the bar five years ago, Disper has done a good job balancing preservation with needed updates, cleaning up the bar's outside environs and rehabbing the adjacent farmhouse that is now part of the Village Bar complex. His biggest project, however, is the rehab of the old barn that sits on the property, which he and his business partners are making the base of their soon-to-launch distillery, 1879 Distilling Company.
The project, which Disper hopes will begin operations in the coming months, has involved a massive renovation of the space, using reclaimed and historic components from around the St. Louis area. Once it's up and running, the distillery will not only make high-quality spirits, it will also serve as a new events space. This, together with the forthcoming tasting room being set up in the old farmhouse, will make the Village Bar complex a destination for much more than its famous burgers, onion rings and ice-cold beer.
Still, Forrest, who is now the Village Bar's general manager, is confident that the essential character of the place will remain, even as the distillery will be a significant addition to the overall complex. It's already shown that it can be an unwavering presence amidst change; pointing to Des Peres' sixteen banks, numerous strip malls and urgent care centers, he believes the reason the tavern has been so successful is because it's been confident enough in its own identity to stay true to itself, even if that means a little old, scrappy and well-worn. That charm, he says, is what keeps his regulars coming back.
"It's got marks and scars," Forrest says. "Everyone gets beat up after 140 years, right?"