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ST. LOUIS • The demise of a beloved downtown restaurant may have had less to do with the opening of the 122,000-square-foot Ballpark Village entertainment district — and more with underage drinking and years of dipping revenues, according to city records.

Not two months ago, an auction house sold off the last of Harry’s Restaurant & Bar.

Its white tablecloths, foie gras and succession of top chefs had long disappeared. Still, Tim Pieri, co-owner and manager at the Market Street restaurant, blamed its death squarely on the sparkling new complex of sports bars, restaurants and nightclubs across the street from Busch Stadium.

“It was 100 percent Ballpark Village,” Pieri repeated this week. “When you’re doing $18,000 on a Saturday and two weeks later, when they open up, you go down to $3,000 — I’d say that would be a good indicator.”

But Harry’s had bigger problems than Ballpark Village, according to records kept by the city’s excise division, which monitors liquor licenses.

Sales had dropped precipitously. And then, last year, liquor control agents twice caught Harry’s serving minors — including at a 900-student Washington University event.

On Jan. 5, Harry’s co-owner Harry Belli — the restaurant’s namesake — signed a settlement with the excise division to close the restaurant.

Two weeks later, however, Pieri blamed Harry’s collapse on the market.

“Downtown is just a dead area right now, unfortunately,” he told the Post-Dispatch then. “Obviously, the sad part is nobody is talking about it. Iconic places are going out of business, and nobody cares.”

The perception and vitality of downtown St. Louis is of particular importance now. The federal government has just committed to building a $1.7 billion compound — two miles north of downtown — for its National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. City leaders are banking on the ultra-high-tech facility attracting a workforce of millennials who want an urban lifestyle.

They’re betting that such an investment will revitalize not only the city’s near north side, but its Washington Avenue downtown core, too.

And yet a stubborn spike in crime is frustrating city officials. Bars and restaurants are indeed closing — Joe Buck’s closed in October; the Dubliner in November; Prime 1000 in December; Harry’s and Mike Shannon’s Steaks & Seafood at the end of January.

But few, outside of Pieri, blame Ballpark Village entirely.

“I had 30 years downtown,” said Shannon’s owner, Mike Shannon. “I decided to go out on top. It has nothing to do with Ballpark Village.”

Steakhouses, millennials

Shannon said the entertainment district’s opening hurt business at his outdoor patio bar but brought traffic to the steakhouse.

And customers quickly returned outdoors, he continued. Now he’s renting the patio to his grandson, Justin VanMatre, who, with business partners, is opening a similar game-day bar outside. VanMatre promises local fare and isn’t worried about Ballpark Village.

Seamus McGowan, who owns several bars on Washington Avenue with his brothers, said Ballpark Village’s first season was hard. “It definitely took a toll, when something that large opens,” he said. But losses varied. Flannery’s Pub, a sports bar, might have lost 20 percent of its business initially, he said. Rosalita’s Cantina, a Mexican restaurant, barely felt a thing.

“Everybody wanted to go check it out, and, over the first few months, it had a dramatic impact,” he said. “We’re back to pre-Ballpark Village levels.”

Downtown is, as a whole, gaining bars and restaurants, not losing them, said Missy Kelley, president and chief executive of the downtown booster and development agency Downtown STL.

Ninety-nine have opened since the end of 2013, Kelley said; 40 have closed. Ballpark Village opened at the end of March 2014, and Kelley said it’s adding business, not taking it away.

Ballpark Village is jointly owned by the Cardinals and the Cordish Cos. Jim Watry, chief operating officer there, said they spent $1.8 million on marketing last year. They met with a national bus tour association.

“We’re working to bring people from a larger geographical region than the city,” he said, “and to make downtown busy on non-game days.”

Places such as Shannon’s and Harry’s were classics, Kelley said. But millennials, she said, “are probably not going to go to a steakhouse.”

“I think it’s really easy to point to something that’s new and successful when a concept that worked for a very long time doesn’t work anymore,” Kelley said. “I’m not sure if anyone went to Harry’s for food anymore.”

‘We hung on’

Harry’s was clearly struggling, according to excise division files. Food and drink sales steadily dropped from $2.3 million in 2008 to $1.3 million in 2014, the most recent year available.

The restaurant added a nightclub and underage nights. Then, late one night last summer, nine liquor control and police officers raided Harry’s.

Pieri, the co-owner, had contracted to host a Washington University event. He expected 200 students; 900 showed up, according to the city report.

The officers quickly busted five minors for underage drinking, the report said. Several had recognizably fake identification, from Oklahoma, Connecticut or New York.

One student presented a Rhode Island license. When agent Adam Shook told him it was fake, the student tried to hand him a business card and said, “My uncle is a police officer,” according to the report. “He said that if I run into any trouble, I should give you this.”

Shook issued the student a summons. Other students, now aware of the liquor control agents, fled the restaurant, the report said. Within 20 minutes, there were 100 customers left.

In January, Harry’s attorney, John Bouhasin, brokered a settlement with the city. The city agreed to reduce a $3,000 fine to $500. The restaurant agreed to close.

Pieri said earlier this week that Harry’s was on its last ropes. “We hung on as long as we could,” he said. “It was time.”

But he insisted:

“You can keep asking the same question. I’m telling you, it was 100 percent Ballpark Village.”

David Hunn is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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