Any town populated with lawyers and college students will, by default, have a good bar scene. That's one reason why Edwardsville boasts way better bars, restaurants and shops than your typical town of 24,000.
But the growing Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and the always-bustling Madison County Courthouse only deserve part of the credit. A new generation of young residents is taking a chance on Edwardsville, bringing new businesses and excitement with them.
"A lot of things are coming together at once," said Laura High, 28, co-owner of Global Brew. "The niches are slowly starting to be filled. For people like me and my friends, there is a lot to do."
To verify High's claims, Hip 'Hoods reporter Diane Toroian Keaggy and photojournalist David Carson crossed the Mississippi and countless cornfields to find an oasis of espresso, Belgian ales, cult movies and contemporary art.
106 North Main Street, clevelandheath.com
Ed Heath met Jenny Cleveland while working at a brew pub Salt Lake City. Cleveland was a server; Heath was in the kitchen. Years passed before they would discover a shared passion for food, cooking and each other.
“I was interested right off the bat," Heath said. "She needed a little convincing.”
The two, both 30 years old, decided to go to the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in Napa Valley. While in California, Cleveland worked at Thomas Keller's famed restaurants Ad Hoc and French Laundry, where she once saw a $35,000 dinner bill.
Meanwhile, the couple were developing their plan for a restaurant. Unlike French Laundry, their joint would not offer $9,000 bottles of Champagne, but it would feature awesome chicken wings.
“Even in school, we had to write little business plans or concepts, and everyone was different but a little closer to this,” Cleveland said. “We wanted someplace that we would come back to. That is the basis for a lot of what we do.”
The menu features bar-food favorites including pulled pork on a pretzel bun, mac and cheese and street tacos, as well as fancy bistro fare such as kale salad, Berkshire pork porterhouse and beef tartare. The restaurant also straddles that line between comfy and uber-cool. The wait staff wear plaid shirts; the copper bar and light fixtures are made by Edwardsville metal artist John Beck. Heath runs the back of the house; Cleveland takes the front.
“We’ve been working together as a couple for a long time,” Heath said. “It works. She's the most personable person I know and I'm back here, really more a workhorse."
The couple decided to locate in Edwardsville in part to be close to Cleveland’s Bethalto family, but also because they liked the town’s main street.
“We’ve both been lucky enough to live in towns that have that great main street with historic buildings and a lot of destination stuff to do,” Cleveland said. “So Edwardsville seemed like a progressive community. It’s grown so much since I was a kid and was going to the skating rink. It seemed like a lot of the pieces were here when we arrived.”
THE WILDEY THEATRE
252 North Main Street, wildeytheatre.com
The 103-year-old Wildey Theatre survived the death of the silent movie, a tornado and any number of owners, some better than others. The real miracle? It survived the rise of the multiplex.
Across the country, countless main streets lost their theaters, department stores and restaurants to suburban malls and so-called lifestyle centers. But Edwardsville officials bet $2.9 million that a restored Wildey could help rejuvenate downtown. Today, the 326-seat theater hosts old movies, private events and big-name concerts, including recent appearances by Asleep at the Wheel and Marcia Ball.
“It’s a great place to see a concert,” said Bob Pfeiffer, head of the city’s parks and recreation department. “You can literally see the whites of the performer’s eyes. And everyone who’s played here says they like the acoustic, the stage and the intimacy.”
On Friday, the Wildey will host country-rock act the Outlaws. Other upcoming acts include Coffee and a Show, featuring big band swing artists Emily and Lacy Miller on Wednesday morning; Rolling Stones tribute act Satisfaction on Thursday; and singer-songwriter Al Stewart on Aug. 24. Upcoming movies include "Fight Club," "Edward Scissorhands," "Pulp Fiction" and "South Pacific."
As a public servant, Pfeiffer is happy to take requests. Up to this point, the Wildey primarily has booked rock and country acts.
“But we’re here for the residents,” Pfeiffer said. “We have a committee of volunteers who look at different artists and how much they cost. We’re learning a lot as we go along. I’ve worked for the city for 38 years. I never thought I would be in the entertainment business.”
Indeed municipal governments, as a rule, don’t do double-duty as concert promoters, and for good reason. The music industry is notoriously volatile; even the pros can misjudge a band's drawing power. Edwardsville tried to find a private partner to refurbish and operate the theater. No one stepped up; the margins were too small. So the city decided to go it alone. Officials believed it would cost more to abandon the theater.
"Not everyone liked the idea of spending taxpayer money on this theater, and there has been a definite learning curve," said Katie Grable, parks and recreation program director. "But we are winning people over. This theater helps keep downtown vibrant."
Next to old stadiums and restaurants, few civic institutions inspire as much devotion as theaters. A website devoted to the Wildey includes memories from an Edwardsville octogenarian who saw “The Jazz Singer” in the 1920s, a woman who attended the Wildey’s glamorous after-prom parties in 1950s and an employee who sold the final ticket to "The Big Chill," the last movie the Wildey screened as a first-run movie theater.
“Everyone has their own special memories of this place," Pfeiffer said. "For me, I remember as a kid I would go there every Saturday. Tickets cost 30 cents. It is the focal point of our downtown.”
112 South Buchanan Street, Suite 1, globalbrewtaps.com
If she weren't nine months pregnant, Laura High would be chilling this summer with a crisp American hefeweizen.
"It would be nice in this heat to have a good beer," High said. "As it is, I imagine I'll be able to have my first drink when the pumpkin beers come out. I love those or a nice clean-mouthed lager but, on the flip side, I like a really good chocolate stout."
Global Brew has them all — 50 beers on tap and more than 200 bottled craft beers from around the world. High and her partners, husband Ryan High and his lifelong best friend, Ryan Low ("I know, I know. High and Low — we could not make this up if we tried," laughed Laura High) opened Global Brew a little over a year ago.
"We wanted someplace where we would want to go with our friends," she said. "It's always nice when your hobby can be your job."
Especially when your hobby is drinking.
"Me and the Ryans try them all," High said. "I won't say that I like everything, but that's the joy of having 250 beers, you can find the styles you prefer and enjoy. Ryan High loves IPAs, and I don't think it's in my blood to be an IPA drinker. And Ryan Low loves a good brown ale, which I can also appreciate. And I love any seasonal beer. It's so much fun getting together and experimenting and getting excited about new beers."
Neighbor Jim Reppell was a domestic beer guy until he joined the bar's United Nations Club, a bars rewards program. Now he's tried about 100 beers and is shooting to sample 250.
"I really like Belgian ales," said Reppell, who was sipping a Juliet Belgian Ale, made by Goose Island. "The area really needed something like this. When I moved here 15 years ago, there wasn't a lot to walk to, but now there is some diversity of options."
Laura met the Ryans, as they are known, when she moved next door to their Edwardsville apartment in 2006. The three of them would go to the bars around Busch Stadium and the St. Louis Tap Room, home to Schlafly beer. They loved craft beer, but hated driving long distances to get them.
Edwardsville has always boasted its share of drinking holes, including beloved dive bar the Stagger Inn. But High said the convergence of three unrelated trends — America's passion for craft beers, the revitalization of downtown Edwardsville and SIUE's transition from commuter school to robust college campus — convinced the owners that Edwardsville had space for one more. They have since opened a second location in O'Fallon, Ill.
The vibe is lot like the best of the region's multitap bars. The bartenders are generous with both their knowledge and free samples. This summer, High is recommending O'Fallon Wheach, Schlafly Summer Lager and Unibroue's Ephemere, a Canadian beer made with apples. But Global Brew also does something different, perhaps even sacrilegious, with its beers: It mixes them into unusual beer shots. The Pink Elephant is Belgian strong ale with a splash of raspberry lambic, the Chocolate-Covered Blueberry is chocolate stout floating on blueberry ale, and the Hi-C is a citrus wheat beer with flavored cider and a witbier.
"We have a lot of homebrewers on staff, and they are wonderful coming up with new ideas," Laura High said. "Beer not only pairs well with food; it can pair well with other beers. We've seen people sip them, we've seen people shoot them, but either way it's fun to do a little mixology."
8 a.m.-noon Saturdays, Main Street next to the courthouse, goshenmarket.org
For decades, the Seibold family of bakeries transformed butter, flour and sugar into delectable sweets. But these days, if you want a famous Seibold smiley-face cookie, you must come to the Goshen Market in Edwardsville.
"The butter cookies are the best, though people really like our cream horns," said Larry Seibold, a 32-year veteran of the bakery business. "We've been at the market five years, and the diversity here is great."
Even Seibold's stand is diverse. Next to the pastries are Siebold's watercolors of Edwardsville's landmarks, such as the National Bank and the old-school A&W.
Among the first and the best of the region's farmers markets, the Goshen Market runs through Oct. 20 and features artist demonstrations and live music. So far this summer, local artisans have taught visitors to make jewelry, cane chairs and create crafts out of duct tape. This weekend, visitors can learn rope making and listen to Zack Balousek.
Other stands feature organic produce, felted purses, savory scones, grass-fed beef, handmade soaps and the world's most adorable aprons sewn by Ruth Bickline. She calls her business "Retro Aprons."
"I didn't know what retro meant until my daughter explained it to me," Bickline said. "I use fabrics and patterns you can't find anymore. Young people don't really cook any more, but I love coming up with these designs. Food and fabric are two of my favorite things."
EDWARDSVILLE ARTS CENTER
6165 Center Grove Road, edwardsvilleartscenter.com
Fifteen years ago, the Edwardsville Arts Center had no center, just a borrowed brick wall in a downtown coffee shop where artists hung their work.
Two moves later, the EAC has an expansive gallery in Edwardsville High School where it hosts exhibits, sponsors lectures, offers adult classes and sells local artwork.
The current show, “Contemporary Artists Respond to Art History,” runs through Aug. 17 and is curated by Brigham Dimick, an EAC board member and head of the SIUE drawing department. He asked artists, many of whom are professors, to have a visual conversation with an existing work of art. Inspired by an ancient Greek kouros ravaged by 2,500 years of history, Christopher Smith sculpted a torso that never knew its arms or legs. And Zach Koch shows both his admiration and disdain for baroque portraiture with his "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous," a series of small paintings with the faces smudged and distorted.
“It’s a way of framing contemporary art,” said Dimick, who juxtaposed reproductions of the historical paintings next to the new works. “The viewer sees each of these artists is a scholar who understands art history but also that there might be unforeseen affinities. Not only do the people who work in a traditional, figurative manner have a strong engagement with history, but so do the people who work abstractly."
Edwardsville artist Jason Bly says the juxtaposed works serve as metaphorical branches of art history's family tree. His painting is a riff off a woodprint by German master Albrecht Durer.
"Everyone is aware you are not in a bubble," Bly said. "When you create, you are narrative. But we don't always see those connections. Having both works there really shows those relationships."
Many of the artists, such as Nick Martin, Bly and Koch, have studied or have taught at SIUE. The school has a strong reputation and is building a new gallery, set to debut next year.
“Our majors really know how to work with their hands and really learn their craft,” Dimick said. “At the same time they are nurtured to think conceptually and interdisciplinary.”
Dimick is from Pennsylvania and wanted to find a tenured teaching position in a vibrant city. He figured Edwardsville was close enough to St. Louis, but he says Edwardsville now offers all he needs.
“It’s a great cycling place — rails to trails everyplace, so I am a 12-month-a-year commuter,” he said. “The farmers market, the folk music scene, the restaurant scene — it's all picking up.”