When Steve Sullivan and his business partner, Mark Goldenberg, bought the iconic Broadway Oyster Bar (736 South Broadway, 314-621-8811) in 2019, they understood that they were now responsible for not simply a restaurant and bar, but a piece of St. Louis history. Seeing themselves as stewards, the pair had no plans for any drastic changes to the place; however, Sullivan realized just how sacred that commitment was when he tried to repair one of the bathroom doors and was met with resistance.
"When we first bought it, I was doing a walk-through with the previous owner, and I noticed a crack in one of the bathroom doors," Sullivan says. "I told him that we could see through it, and that I was going to have to change out the door. He looked at me and said, 'You're not going to change anything.' So, I put a poster on the door to cover the crack. How stupid would I be to come in and change things?"
Sullivan knew that not much had changed at Broadway Oyster Bar since its founding in 1978, but what struck him on his initial tours of the place was the extent of what has remained intact since the building was built in the 1840s. As he proudly notes, every brick that his customers see was there before the Civil War, and if those bricks could talk, they would have colorful stories of the building's many iterations as a boarding house, record store, laundry and a house of prostitution. He even insists the place has three ghosts, including one of a 14-year-old girl, who hangs out toward the front of the restaurant.
Hauntings aside, the building seemed like the perfect place to open a bar when Soulard character Bob Burkhardt founded Broadway Oyster Bar 44 years ago. Considered by many as the founder of the city's nightlife scene (in addition to Broadway Oyster Bar, he's responsible for bringing to life such spots as Molly's and BB's Jazz, Blues & Soups), Burkhardt opened the oyster bar as a low-key, quirky gathering spot with a menu as eclectic as it was small — for years, the only food served in the place were oysters, hard-boiled eggs and canned sardines.
The menu began to take on its Cajun inflection after Burkhardt sold the bar to Dennis Connolly, who started cooking up gumbo, beans and rice, and a handful of the establishment's current staples. The place then changed hands a few more times — Connolly sold it to someone who then sold it to Joe Farrell and Steve Wulf, who ran the place until it was bought by John and Vicky Johnson in 1997. According to Sullivan, the Johnson era was when the food offerings — and music — expanded and took on the form of what people know today.
"Really, the place as we know it came into being under Jack and Vicky, and their executive chef, Brad Hagen," Sullivan says. "He's the one who people say took the menu to the next level."
According to Broadway Oyster Bar longtime employee and general manager Mary Moramarco, the Johnsons were also instrumental in turning the spot into the vibrant live-music venue it is today. Prior to their ownership, the spot featured strictly jazz, blues and zydeco bands. Once the Johnsons took over, guests could hear any style of music under the sun — and seven days a week, at that.
"It's not the biggest venue, but the bands love to play here because they get to be up close with their fans," Moramarco says. "You can tell that when they are onstage, it's a lot of fun."
Moramarco, who has worked at Broadway Oyster Bar for 21 years, understands that people come in for the great food, lively music and vibrant atmosphere. However, she sees the key to its success as something that transcends those factors. As she explains, the bar has a relaxed feel to it — one in which guests feel that they can be themselves with no judgment. She also points to the diversity of the crowd as a major strength, and is proud that people from all walks of life can come as they are and feel comfortable.
Sullivan echoes her sentiments.
"The fact is, I can look out at all of our tables and see all parts of St. Louis," Sullivan says. "We have such a diverse crowd, and everyone is just having a good time together. That was one of the most attractive things about the place when I bought it."
Sullivan believes that Broadway Oyster Bar's strength lies in it being an inclusive community gathering place. That's why, when the pandemic hit not even a year after he bought the restaurant and bar, he had grave concerns about how it could continue to operate in a world in which getting together with strangers over a beer and some music was no longer possible. However, he never really questioned whether or not somewhere as meaningful to the St. Louis community would survive, and was heartened by the outpouring of regular guests who would show up at the restaurant's back door to order to-go food or simply call in to check on the bar's staff. It made him realize just how lucky he is to be a part of the city's historical fabric and why he is committed to keeping such an iconic place going for years to come.
"I'm a St. Louisan born and bred, and this is a landmark that I wanted to make sure was well taken care of," Sullivan says. "I take great pride in telling people I didn't screw it up. I haven't changed anything; this is a legacy thing, and I am going to try to hand it off somewhere down the road better than I got it — not that there is much head room to make it better than it is."
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