By Bill Beggs, Jr.
Maplewood, MO — Not too long ago, this close-in St. Louis suburb suffered from low self-esteem. Situated it seemed just a few intersections along the journey to either the City of
St. Louis or west to suburbs like Clayton and Webster Groves. People would only venture to Maplewood to visit Aldi Foods, Wal*Mart, Shop ‘N Save or, at one time, Venture.
Downtown Maplewood didn’t seem to be much more than a place for young men to go to pawn their guitars.
Those who choose to listen to the Maplewood muse can still do so, but today they’ll travel down a Manchester Road that’s populated by boutiques and unique eateries and even a java joint that offers wi-fi.
Would-be guitar wizards will pass old haunts like The Grateful Inn, where Jake’s Leg continues to revive The Dead, but also a few new ones such as Boogaloo, where Caribbean jazz can be heard. Even the venerable Focal Point has changed its focus somewhat. Some who thought of letting go of their instruments clutch them now a little tighter, stash them in the trunk and stay awhile.
So goes the neighborhood. If you haven’t been to Maplewood lately, you might not recognize it. And if you’ve been looking for just the right spot to start a restaurant or club, open a retail emporium, or relocate your offices, you might do well to swing by before too many more of the prime spots are gobbled up.
That’s what Nardi Hobler did when looking for a spot to relocate her business, Party Arts, an upscale purveyor of rental items such as linens, silverware and glassware. She’d been scouring the city and the ‘burbs’ for ages. Finally she gave her commercial real estate broker the boot and went with her gut. In early 1999 she opened her showroom in Deer Creek, a retail plaza formerly home to a Kmart and prior to that, a Venture store.
Just a few years ago, she says, the uninitiated would turn up their noses. But that was before fine restaurants like Monarch (honored in 2005 by St. Louis’ The Riverfront Times for “Best Business Lunch”) came to town. Monarch has anchored one key intersection, Sutton and Manchester, since 2003. Not too long afterward, Tom Schlafly opened his second microbrewery and restaurant, Schlafly Bottleworks, a few blocks to the east, at Southwest and Manchester.
Now those same noses sniff fine wines in Monarch’s new wine bar and fresh brews at Schlafly Bottleworks. Not one to say “I told you so,” Hobler couldn’t be happier.
“It used to be, ‘Oh, it’s in Maplewood—ewww’,” she recalls. These days, not so much. “Maplewood is an ugly duckling that’s turned into a swan. We’re going to be another Delmar Loop.”
Party Arts is a destination business, says Hobler, which is what Monarch co-owner Jeff Orbin says about his restaurant. Paul Stark of Boogaloo, who refers to himself as just a “worker bee,” says the same for an establishment that features swings, not stools, at the bar on one side (you have to sit on ’em to believe ’em).
“People don’t just wander in,” notes Hobler, with a grin. That is, unless they were already in the neighborhood for “some of the best pizza this side of Chicago” at Pizza World or to conduct business at the Missouri auto license bureau.
Maplewood faded after a heyday in the mid-20th century, when its downtown was like thousands of other small towns in Middle America, with businesses including a hardware store, jewelry store, barber shop and drugstore. All but the drugstore remain. With its vintage red neon sign illuminated 24/7, Paramount Jewelers is a landmark in the middle of the block next door to Boogaloo. Katz, the drugstore that anchored the northwest corner of the Sutton-Manchester intersection and featured a huge cat’s head above the entrance, for years was another familiar sight. But it went the way of neighborhood stores the likes of Woolworth that featured everything from a pharmacy and grill to records and kids clothes.
The building sat condemned for years, and reopened for a while as a Cajun eatery before its renaissance in 2003 as Monarch. Orbin says the area fizzled for a short time after the restaurant opened as a bistro, but recently has gone great guns. Monarch was recently expanded to include 60 additional seats in a spacious wine bar, which also has been a draw for its well-stocked bar and jazz on Thursday nights.
Orbin acknowledges that finding financial support for his venture was no mean feat; hesitant bankers suggested the Central West End and other already well-established neighborhoods. “We were able to put money into our space, rather than having to pay more for a space.” A higher-priced area would likely have curtailed his plans.
But he, like Hobler and other (sub)urban pioneers, knew they could make it work. Maplewood, after all, is smack dab between the two interstates that connect the western and southwestern ‘burbs with downtown: I-64/U.S. Hwy. 40 and I-44, respectively. The airport and downtown both are less than 20 minutes away. Two stops on MetroLink, the light-rail system expanding to the suburbs, are slated to open later this year in Maplewood.
Ten or so years ago, few would venture into the area just to bowl at Saratoga Lanes. Today, however, the alley is a wonderful anachronism, and like bowling alleys elsewhere, a fun place to just hang out… and to stage weddings and hold meetings. The Focal Point, while still a venue for some of the best folk and country music anywhere, is another prime gathering spot, as well as a unique place to hold a meeting or stage a wedding.
In fact, Rochelle L’Ecuyer, Maplewood’s director of community development, is scoping out the Focal Point for her wedding this year. The venue can accommodate 150 or so guests. She has plenty of places to choose from, as do wedding consultants and corporate meeting planners.
Another prime location is Maya Cafe, which can hold 100 or so, L’Ecuyer says. Maya’s offerings are anything but ho-hum, including empanadas, pico de gallo and the best guacamole L’Ecuyer’s had anywhere. Dedicated to creating return visitors and diners, Maplewood’s restaurant chefs are determined to create unique fare with flair. What’s more, one of the area’s most successful catering companies, LaCHEF, calls Maplewood its home. They can cater any size meeting or banquet, as well as prepare and deliver power breakfasts, executive box lunches, party trays, gourmet dinners, hors d’oeuvres and desserts. You name it. They can create it!
And if you want to start your evening with beer and end it with wine, then visit the Schlafly Bottleworks, which offers a great casual menu, a wonderful beer garden and a community garden where it grows some of its restaurant’s fresh offerings. Schlafly also shares this garden with Maplewood’s residents and welcomes them to plant their own sections of the garden. Schlafly features several options for meetings, including one room that features a window to the brewing operation.
After dinner, mosey a few blocks west along Manchester to Monarch, where the wine bar offers a dizzying array of vintages. Of course, they’ll put their dirty martini up against anyone’s. Meeting possibilities here range from banquet space to a conference room to smaller private dining areas.
But with everything else cropping up in the Sutton-Manchester neighborhood, including antique stores and a shop for model railroad enthusiasts, there’s plenty to distract a visitor or group.
Although it’s been said many times before, for Maplewood it couldn’t be more true: You’ve come a long way, baby! MM&E
(Bill Beggs, Jr., is a contributer from St. Louis, MO.)
7344 Manchester Rd. – 314-645-4803 – www.boogaloorestaurant.com
The Focal Point:
2720 Sutton Blvd. – 314-781-4200 – www.thefocalpoint.org
The Grateful Inn:
7336 Manchester Rd. – 314-647-3323
Java Java Java:
7298 Manchester Rd. – 314-644-2055
7169 Manchester Rd. – 314-647-5350 – www.lachef.com
City of Maplewood:
7601 Manchester Rd. – 314-645-3600 – www.cityofmaplewood.com
Maplewood Chamber of Commerce:
7550 Lohmeyer Ave. – 314-751-8588 – www.maplewoodchamber.com
2726 Sutton Blvd. – 314-781-4774
7401 Manchester Rd. – 314-644-3995 – www.monarchrestaurant.com
3252 Laclede Station Rd. – 314-781-1400 – www.party-arts.com