St. Louis Standards: Tony’s Has Been a St. Charles Mainstay for 25 Years

Owner Tony Bethmann says money alone can't drive a business — you need friends

Feb 17, 2023 at 6:11 am
click to enlarge A bartender holds out a martini to the viewer.
Braden McMakin
Don't you want to take a sip of that classic Tony's drink?

Tony Bethmann learned early on the benefits that come from working hard in a professional kitchen.

"I started riding my bike to Rich & Charlie's to wash dishes; it was the first job I got a paycheck at other than my dad's [farm]," Bethmann says. "I was 15 and had $20 dollar bills in my pocket. That made me the kid who always brought beer to the parties — I just didn't get there until 11 or 11:30."

Since well before he could (legally) purchase booze, Bethmann has been dedicating himself to hospitality, a path that has led him to becoming the owner of one of the area's most successful restaurants, the wildly popular Tony's on Main (132 North Main Street, St. Charles; 636-940-1960). Since opening the restaurant on St. Charles' Historic Main Street in 1998 with his then in-laws, then becoming sole owner in 2006, Bethmann has been the person responsible for creating and maintaining the vision that has become one of St. Charles' most beloved institutions.

click to enlarge Tony's dining room.
Braden McMakin
Tony's is a mainstay in St. Charles.

Bethmann knew he loved the industry the moment he set foot inside Rich & Charlie's Italian Restaurant, thriving on the energy and camaraderie of the kitchen and fueling himself by the realization that he was good at cooking. He carried that energy with him to the Pasta House Co. and other restaurant gigs and made a name for himself in his circle of family and friends as the one they'd call upon to make food for get-togethers and casual backyard barbecues.

Still, Bethmann made other plans when it came to his career path, assuming he'd head off to engineering school at the Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla until life took an unexpected turn. His then-partner got pregnant with their son, which prompted him to put his engineering plans on hold and stay in the St. Charles area. He took a job at the Chrysler plant to support his family and was just going about his life when his in-laws made a proposition that would set him on an entirely different path.

click to enlarge Owner Tony Bethmann
Braden McMakin
"You're not here to make money. You're here to make friends," says owner Tony Bethmann.

"They asked me if I wanted to open a restaurant," Bethmann says. "They'd cherry-picked this little bitty place at 208 North Main Street that they got for about the price of a car. I was always the one who cooked when I was with family, so when they wanted to get into the business, they came to me."

Bethmann knew he had what it took to be successful. Not only had he worked under a series of talented chefs during his time in the business, but he had a commitment to nailing every single detail, an understanding of how people want to eat and an openness to new ideas. This philosophy has been borne out in a straightforward but well-executed menu that blends the classic steakhouse experience with that of the quintessential St. Louis-style Italian restaurant. Known for its hand-cut steaks — topped with Tony's signature mâitre d'hôtel butter — and potato skins as much for its pizzas and pasta con broccoli, the restaurant quickly garnered a reputation as the place to eat on Main Street and developed a cadre of regulars so large, the restaurant soon outgrew its space.

click to enlarge A Tony's steak.
Braden McMakin
Tony's makes everything from scratch and focuses on the details.

A few years after opening Tony's in its original spot, Bethmann and his partners moved the restaurant to its current location at 132 North Main Street, a historic property dating back to 1860 that has been everything from a bowling alley (some of the lanes are still intact underneath the current banquet rooms, Bethmann says) to a miniature museum. Not long after the move, in 2006, Bethmann became sole owner and has kept the momentum going, still working the busy grill station three nights out of the week, even though he laments that it's a "young person's job." He believes the reason Tony's has remained so consistently popular is that he and his team are dedicated to getting the little things right — the touches that might seem insignificant but, when added up, result in a better guest experience.

"Literally, we do these things because nobody else will do them," Bethmann says. "You look around, and it's hard to find a place that does the stuff we do. The way we cut our steaks, make everything from scratch — and the amount of traffic we get is crazy — even putting our salad bowls in a special freezer; it's those little details. We try to stay in our lane and do what we do as well as we can do it."

Bethmann also insists that the key to Tony's success is the way he values his employees. He's proud that he pays his team well, as he believes that investing in his people is investing in the restaurant as a whole. The result, he says, is a staff of hard-working industry rock stars who he hopes to build up to go on to bigger things.

click to enlarge The bar at Tony's.
Braden McMakin
The bar at Tony's.

"People say that young people don't work hard, but we have some badass young people who kill it," Bethmann says. "We want them to be with us as long as they want and then go on to do bigger things."

For his part, Bethmann continues to do bigger things, always walking that fine line between consistently delivering what people love and expect of Tony's while keeping the business relevant. This means constantly being on the lookout for new recipes, trends and ways people do things at other places and investing in the building, which he owns — something he admits is a constant battle considering its age and historic character. Still, he insists that even though putting everything he has into the business can be exhausting and expensive, it's the way he rests assured that he's doing everything he can to take care of his guests.

click to enlarge A bartender pours a drink.
Braden McMakin
Tony's invests in its employees.

"I live in a modest house; I drive modest vehicles; I spent a fortune on this building when I bought it way back when," Bethmann says. "But I wouldn't be here today if I didn't keep sticking it back in. This is one of the hardest lessons to learn in the business: You're not here to make money. You're here to make friends."

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