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Rapid change in the CWE: Restaurant just the latest neighborhood institution to say goodbye

Rapid change in the CWE: Restaurant just the latest neighborhood institution to say goodbye

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ST. LOUIS — The black phone at Culpeppers Grill and Bar in the Central West End rang every few minutes Thursday afternoon.

“Yes we’re closed for good,” Tony Merklin, a manager who met his wife while working at the restaurant, told a caller. He paused to listen: “I know, I know, yes last night was the end.”

The restaurant, on the corner of Maryland and Euclid avenues, has operated under the Culpeppers name for all but a few years since 1935. But this week, it was one of three businesses on the block to announce it would soon be closing to make way for an expansion of the St. Louis Chess Club.

Along with Culpeppers, the popular Brennan’s bar, which has been open for nearly 17 years, will close this spring with plans to relocate in the neighborhood. The frozen yogurt shop next door, froYo, has already closed.

The departures have now left some in the neighborhood worried that the character of the Central West End — one of the oldest, busiest and most cosmopolitan neighborhoods in the region — is being eroded as worn, well-loved fixtures are elbowed out and sparkling new investment moves in.

Residents list the shuttered businesses like old friends: The eclectic 24-hour coffee shop Coffee Cartel shut down in 2018 after 22 years. That same year, Llewelyn’s Pub left its original location on McPherson Avenue after 43 years, and Handcrafted by Bissinger’s, the chocolatier that opened its first store in the neighborhood in 1927, closed its last shop in the area. Since 2014, Kopperman’s Deli closed after 34 years, The Majestic restaurant shut down after 53, as did 34 Club, a bar open since 1941. Duff’s, a dining institution here, closed in 2013 after 41 years in business.

The intersection with Culpeppers and Coffee Cartel used to be resident Jim Ricklefs’ favorite corner in St. Louis for the characters and diversity it would attract.

“That old-school Central West End is pretty much gone,” Ricklefs said sitting at Rosie’s Place, a dive bar with roots to the 1940s that’s still a neighborhood staple. “I try to be optimistic, but the vibe is definitely changing.”

Meanwhile, new businesses and development flooded in: A Whole Foods grocery store, luxury condo developments, boutique fitness offerings, a smoothie shop and two different 24-hour cookie delivery businesses have all arrived in the past five years.

Kate Haher, executive director of the Central West End Business Community Improvement District argues that the changes are a natural result of growth that keep the neighborhood vibrant.

“There is still so much energy here,” Haher said. “You can see it in the new residential growth, national retailers choosing the neighborhood for their first locations in St. Louis like (jewelry store) Kendra Scott and (makeup chain) Blue Mercury. There is a lot to be excited about.”

Making way for the chess club

Culpeppers in the Central West End closes

Tony Merklin unloads liquor from behind the bar at Culpeppers Central West End location in St. Louis on Friday, Dec. 6, 2019. The restaurant closed earlier this week after a being long time neighborhood watering hole. Merklin, who was most recently the general manager at the bar, worked there for 24 years and met his wife at the bar. Photo by David Carson,

Lou Garesche planned to take his two grown sons to Culpeppers Thursday afternoon to grab a bite and share some memories. Instead, he found workers dismantling the bar.

“This is just really sad,” he said. Garesche grew up in the Central West End in the 1960s and used to come to the restaurant with his family when Culpeppers was primarily a pizzeria. He remembers, as a kid, the bar had a bottle chute down to the basement and staff would let him watch the bottles fly down.

Culpeppers, which still has a St. Charles location, is today known for its wings and bar food.

But the restaurant at 300 North Euclid Avenue changed with the neighborhood around it.

In the 1930s, the Central West End was home the city’s elite and wealthy, and Culpeppers was billed as a cocktail lounge.

By the 1950s, as money left for the suburbs, it transitioned into a pizza parlor.

It closed for a stretch in the 1970s and then spent short stints under other names.

By then, the neighborhood had transformed from a home for the city’s upper crust into a mellow area heavily influenced by the LGBT community and hippy movement, said Kris Kleindienst, a co-owner of neighborhood institution Left Bank Books.

Slowly, as the neighborhood revitalized, demand for restaurants returned, Culpeppers reopened and, by the 1980s, it became a favorite lunch spot of Post-Dispatch food critic Joe Pollack.

Pollack said it had “arguably the best” soups, salads and sandwiches in the city then and credited the restaurant with introducing the first buffalo wings to St. Louis.

1988 Culpeppers review

An October 1988 review of Culpeppers in the Post-Dispatch by restaurant critic Joe Pollack.

Next door, Brennan’s opened in 2003, in the same building. It quickly became an establishment itself, with basement ping pong and arcade games, an upstairs cigar club, and row after row of scotch.

“It was a place were everyone knows your name, knows your drink, just like in ‘Cheers,’” said bar regular and neighborhood resident Marc Dangerfield.

Dangerfield said he’s open to change. “I just hope the changes in the Central West End keep the overall livability of the neighborhood,” he said. “I live and work here and I don’t own a car. There’s not many neighborhoods in St. Louis where you can do that.”

Culpeppers server Deja Lawson worked at the restaurant until it closed, and she said it remained one of the last affordable sit-down restaurants in the neighborhood.

“There’s not too many places left where you can get a full meal for $15 here,” she said. “So many places here are so expensive. So, yeah, it’s an end of an era.”

Change nothing new in the CWE

The St. Louis Chess Club came to a deal with the building owners last month, the nonprofit said in a statement.

The chess club was founded by St. Louis financier Rex Sinquefield, who has long steered money to political causes and the promotion of chess. It opened in 2008 at 4657 Maryland Avenue, but expanded across the street three years later, opening the World Chess Hall of Fame. An affiliated restaurant, The Kingside Diner, opened next to the club in 2015.

The nonprofit did not elaborate on its plans for expansion but said in the statement the organization sees the change as further solidifying the city’s role as a global destination for elite chess.

The owner of the building, Gerhardt-STL LLC, put in an occupancy permit request last month for a new retail space in the building specializing in clothing and accessories.

Business owners are torn.

Kleindienst, whose Left Bank Books is on the corner of Euclid and McPherson avenues, says the Central West End has always been evolving, and is again.

“It’s like it’s shedding its skin,” she said.

Nick Georges’ family immigrated into the neighborhood from Albania in the 1950s, and in 1977 his parents bought the bar that is now Rosie’s on Laclede Avenue when it was still a grungy cop bar without an air conditioner.

“It’s the big money that’s behind all the change here,” Georges said. “The rents are high and all the landlords want to jump on the big condo money here now. It is changing fast, but it took 40 years of transition to get here.”

Chris Sommers, owner of Pi Pizzeria, which has a location on the corner of Euclid and McPherson avenues, said the Central West End is a victim of its own success, attracting out-of-town firms to buy into the neighborhood.

“These firms are paying top dollar for the properties, so they jack up the rent to make their institutional investors happy,” Sommers said in an email. “National retailers and new, hip fitness concepts are some of the only tenants who can afford the high rent, and the result, a neighborhood loses its local feel.”

Still, Sommers remains positive about the future of the Central West End.

“I know the CWE will remain a cool, diverse, beautiful neighborhood,” he said.

“But change is afoot,” he continued. “And we need to be thoughtful so the transformation doesn’t destroy the soul and diversity of the neighborhood.”

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