St. Louis Standards: Iowa Buffet Is the Heart of St. Louis' Bar Scene

click to enlarge Carolyn McKinney and Janice Gage are the mother and daughter team behind Iowa Buffet. - PHUONG BUI
Phuong Bui
Carolyn McKinney and Janice Gage are the mother and daughter team behind Iowa Buffet.

Carolyn McKinney can't help but chuckle whenever a group of 20-something Cherokee Street scenesters "discovers"
Iowa Buffet (2727 Winnebago Street, 314-776-8000), the south-city institution that's been in her life for as long as she can remember. She doesn't know which is funnier — that they think they've found a hidden gem or that her place is suddenly so hip.

"The young people today think they have found the dive bar," McKinney says. "What they don't realize is that the dive bar that is now the 'in thing' is actually the old-fashioned family bar. It's the root of the neighborhood."

For the past 35 years, McKinney has been in charge of keeping Iowa Buffet's old-school, corner-tavern tradition alive, though her history with the bar dates back much further. When she started coming as a young kid, the place already had a storied past. Though she's not sure exactly when Iowa Buffet was founded, the property where the bar sits was purchased in 1887 and operated in some commercial fashion since that date. The earliest she can confirm its existence as Iowa Buffet is 1945, thanks to a photograph of its then owners, the Leindeckers. To the best of her knowledge, the couple owned the bar only a few years, then sold it to Hank and Vicky Koziacki.

click to enlarge Iowa Buffet has been the cornerstone of its south city neighborhood for decades. - PHUONG BUI
Phuong Bui
Iowa Buffet has been the cornerstone of its south city neighborhood for decades.

McKinney was first introduced to the bar during the Koziacki era as a young girl living in St. Louis County. Her family would come to the city to visit relatives on weekends, a weekly ritual that consisted of the kids catching a movie at the former Cinderella Theater while their parents ran errands at Soulard Market and visited the Showboat bar. McKinney describes that time as magical, filled with pretzels and ice cream from corner shops and running around the neighborhood with friends while the adults played cards at her aunt's house on Iowa Street.

Iowa Buffet was a part of that magic. Even as a kid, McKinney was struck by how involved the Koziackis were in the community and how their bar was the neighborhood's central gathering place. Hank, who was also a deputy for the City of St. Louis, was the first to sponsor neighborhood sports teams, host political events at the bar or put out a spread of Polish sausage and sauerkraut the day before St. Patrick's Day. He'd have Santa Claus come for Christmas and pass out candy at Easter. Because of the warm, welcoming atmosphere, Iowa Buffet replaced Showboat as the McKinney family gathering spot.

"Nobody went hungry, and everybody took care of everybody," McKinney recalls. "It was the anchor of the street. Us county kids would come in and think how much we loved the city. The diversity, the sharing of knowledge, the taking care of each other — there's nothing like the city to this day."

click to enlarge The "Hank Burger," cooked on a vintage grill right behind the bar, is Iowa Buffet's signature dish. - PHUONG BUI
Phuong Bui
The "Hank Burger," cooked on a vintage grill right behind the bar, is Iowa Buffet's signature dish.

As much as McKinney loved Iowa Buffet as a patron, she had no intention of ever running the place. In fact, her plan was to stay out of the restaurant-and-bar business. However, as a self-described "bleeding heart," she found herself pulled into the service industry thanks to catering jobs she'd take on for people in her parish who couldn't afford to have a wedding. Word spread, and she found herself doing catering jobs for the parish at large after the priests and nuns heard of her efforts. She'd hoped not to expand her workload, but when a friend who was helping her cater needed assistance, she got sucked in.

"My friend Pat wanted to get a job at a bar, and I told her not to, but I still took her in for her interview," McKinney says, recalling how the bar wanted to hire her instead. "I finally convinced him to hire her, and her first night on the job, she broke her arm. Her boss told me, 'It was your idea to hire her, so now you have to come work for me.'"

McKinney was a natural. It didn't take long for stories of her talents to spread throughout the south-city restaurant-and-bar scene. She was recruited by one establishment after another even as she insisted she didn't want to be in the business. The Koziackis got in on the action, inviting McKinney to buy Iowa Buffet. Eventually, she found herself signing the paperwork thanks to a friend who disappeared into federal protective custody.

click to enlarge Janice and Carolyn love interacting with their regulars. - PHUONG BUI
Phuong Bui
Janice and Carolyn love interacting with their regulars.

"About a year later, she said she was able to come back to St. Louis, but she needed a place to live and work," McKinney says. "She begged me to buy the bar, so what does bleeding-heart Carol do? My husband and I went to the bank, and the next thing we knew, we had a bar."

The friend didn't stick around for long. McKinney, however, is still going strong after 35 years. She's not only made peace with her career in the industry; she's fallen head over heels in love with it. She describes herself as a fierce guardian of the bar's old-school essence and has been hesitant to make any changes over the years. She even apologized to the Koziacki family when she was required to install a hood system and decided to put in the patio, fearing any alteration was against their wishes, even as they assured her it was not.

One thing she refuses to change is Iowa Buffet's signature hamburger grill, a relic of how bars used to cook food, not in some back kitchen but right across the stick. The bar has been cooking that way since at least the Koziacki era — the burger is even named the Hank Burger after its former owner — and it's what people think of when they hear Iowa Buffet.

click to enlarge Carolyn put in an outdoor patio but has not messed with the bar's essential character. - PHUONG BUI
Phuong Bui
Carolyn put in an outdoor patio but has not messed with the bar's essential character.

McKinney is not quite sure how the place came to be called a buffet, though she has some ideas. Many years back, taverns did not have full kitchens but instead had an area off the side of the bar where they would carve to order whole hams or roast beef, plus a small steam table with a couple of sides, some soup or chili and maybe tamales. Though such an area didn't exist when she took over Iowa Buffet, on Saturdays the bar did have its own spread, offering Limburger cheese, liverwurst, rye bread, pickled pigs' feet and hard-boiled eggs, as well as regular specials, like pork chops, cooked on the grill.

These days, that spread may look different, but under McKinney's watch, Iowa Buffet remains a living, breathing piece of St. Louis' rich bar history. McKinney believes that is the appeal of the place — that today's guests are searching for something that feels real. She's thrilled she can be the one who provides it.

"If you want to know the heart and soul of a community, it's the dive bar," McKinney says. "People come here because they just want to be home. That's what we offer, and I need them as much as they need me. I'd be lost without it. What's amazing to me is how much I love it. People always ask me when I'm going to retire, and I tell them when they close the lid. My heart and soul are here, and it will never be long enough." 

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