Mark Goldstein started working at Henke's Tavern (901 North Lafayette Street, 314-710-7075) in Florissant when he was in high school in the mid-1980s, and already the stories of kids from the nearby Sacred Heart school skipping out at lunch to pop over to the bar were legendary. But there was one particularly epic event that stood out in his mind when he heard the tale.
"There's this story of four eighth-grade boys who snuck out from lunch one day and came down to Henke's," says Goldstein. "Apparently it happened a lot more than people thought — it was kind of an eighth-grade tradition to sneak out. My brother was one of the four on this particular occasion. They were sitting there having their burgers, and their teacher came in, didn't say a word, sat right down next to them, paid their tab and walked them back. They got caught, but it still happened enough for the school to know to keep an eye out. So yes, the stories are true."
Goldstein used to love hearing those tales of Henke's role in such neighborhood antics when he worked there during high school and college, from 1985 through 1996. However, he never dreamed he'd be a part of keeping those shenanigans — and the historic tavern that played such a central role in them over the years — alive. Now, as co-owner and managing partner for the restaurant, a role he's held since December of last year, he understands that his job is not simply to keep the ship running but to make sure such a significant part of Florissant history continues on.
Whether or not that would happen was a big question last year when the Henke family, who had owned the bar and food counter since 1955, began talking about getting out of the business. Though Henke's had been passed down through a couple of generations, there was no one left in the family to take over when its owner was ready to move on, and there was serious concern that the tavern would simply shut down and stand vacant as nothing more than a relic of history. Goldstein, together with three other partners, refused to let that happen, so they pooled together their resources, determined to keep such a special part of the Florissant community up and running.
It's clear why they feel such a sense of responsibility when you understand Henke's legacy. Founded in the early 1900s just before Prohibition, the tavern started out as a "Bud bar," an Anheuser-Busch-run watering hole that functioned as a direct pipeline between the brewery and its beer drinkers. When Prohibition hit, the establishment — like all the other area Bud bars — was not shuttered but converted into an ice cream parlor, serving up AB-branded frozen confections while also, as Goldstein speculates, operating as a front for bootlegged booze. Henke's even has an old building on its property that, according to local legend, served as the ice cream parlor; whether or not that remained operational after Prohibition ended is unknown, at least to Goldstein.
What is known is that Henke's resumed its operations as a tavern following Prohibition, though not as a Bud bar. According to Goldstein, following the booze-free era, brewers were no longer able to distribute and sell their own products. And because of that rule, AB sold the bar to their prior managing partners, the Schroder family, who ran the place until they sold it to the Henkes in 1955. On their family's watch, Henke's grew into a beloved neighborhood watering hole and diner, famous as much for its ice-cold beer as its burgers.
"Henke's were smashburgers before smashburgers were cool," Goldstein says. "But the most popular thing on the menu, besides the burger, has always been the cheeseburger plate. It's served open-faced on sliced bread, topped with cheese, French fries and roast-beef gravy. We still have the same crinkle fries as we have had since day one."
Goldstein knows how popular the food is — it's the reason he and his partners have no plans to change the menu under their ownership. However, he understands that people don't go to Henke's because of the food and drinks; they show up, day in and day out, because they feel like it's a significant part of their shared history. He hears stories every day of four, five and even six generations of families who have hung out at Henke's and all of the shenanigans that have taken place within its four walls. Because guests feel so invested, he notes that there has been a good amount of concern now that the bar has changed hands. However, as Florissant natives and longtime residents, Goldstein insists that he and his partners have no plans to alter the fundamental character of the beloved institution.
"All four of us owners live within four or six houses of the bar and know it's an important part of Florissant history," Goldstein says. "Just because we are cleaning it up and putting a couple of TVs in doesn't mean we are changing history. The stories are still there. The names are still there. We wanted to take it over because we want to continue the history of it."
Though Goldstein and his other partners remain committed to keeping things as close to how they have always been as possible, he is happy about two important changes to Henke's. The first is turning the bar into a smoke-free environment. Though he admits there was some fear as to what longtime regulars would think about that, he believes it is a positive change. He is also adding a patio and doing some updating to the interior that will freshen up the space while retaining its original character. He's excited, too, that dinner hours are on the horizon. Currently, the bar only serves food during lunch hours, and he is happy to finally give the people what they have been begging for since he first worked at Henke's during high school. It's part of his and his partners' plan to make sure the tavern stays a part of the Florissant community for years to come while honoring its rich past.
"The greatest thing for me is when someone walks in and says, 'Thank you for keeping this alive,' and that it means so much for them to have it in the community still," Goldstein says. "It's not the hamburgers or the cheeseburger plate — I say this, and I mean it — it's a part of Florissant. I feel like I am a part of Florissant. When something like this goes away, that's a big part of your history. The memory will live on, but the history is gone. We want people to come in and still be able to have that memory."
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