Inside St. Louis

Uncle Bill's Pancake & Dinner House
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 An original watercolor of Uncle Bill's Pancake & Dinner House
y local artist Marilynne Bradley.

Uncle Bill's Pancake & Dinner House



   The quaint European-style structure that houses our featured Uncle Bill’s Pancake and Dinner House on Kingshighway has been described as either being that of an English village pub or a German hunting lodge and if it looks as if it’s been there a while you’d be right; as here in 2010 the place is celebrating its 77th year of continuous operation as an eating establishment. The building was designed for its original owner Bill Medart, a noted anglophile, in the style of a countryside English inn. But, even though Uncle Bill’s lays claim to the title of St. Louis’ first pancake house, the restaurant started out as a hamburger spot when it was a spin-off of Bill Medart’s Olde Cheshire of 7036 Clayton Rd.. That’s the place that has gained new fame, even though it’s been closed for some time, as one of the locations in the George Clooney movie “Up In The Air.” Plus in another recent honor the Olde Cheshire now best known as the Cheshire Inn has been nominated to be on the National Register of Historic Places which could stop or at least slow the potential demolition of the building. Unfortunately most all the noteworthy artifacts from the inn’s interior have been sold and removed; a fate which once befell the contents of the great Chase Hotel. We need to clarify that the neighboring Cheshire Lodge remains in full operation under the auspices of Dan Apted and is replete with the eclectic and antique articles initially installed by Dan’s dad, the bigger than life late Stephen J. Apted whose mom was Florence Hulling Apted of Miss Hulling’s fame and fortune. Steve Apted took over The Cheshire Inn on January 1st, 1960 and quickly shut down the drive-in operation.       

     Just so there’s no confusion - Uncle Bill’s is NOT named for William S. “Bill” Medart, but rather for the restaurant’s second owner Bill Ernst. Here in a nutshell is how Bill Medart started in the dining biz exactly 80 years ago. Medart who hailed from St. Louis was known as something of a playboy and for whatever reason was lounging around in the Hollywood, California area playing a lot of golf as he was a highly rated amateur on the links. At that time as the flickers were switching from silent to sound he wed a movie starlet also from St. Louis named Blossom Breneman who used the screen name of Donal Blossom. She’d been in several films including a couple by legendary producer Cecil B. De Mille and she also had the only female role in “The Bride of Colorado” which was shot on location at the Grand Canyon.  The two became a sightem (as Jerry Berger might say) and as Bill was casting about for something to do to earn a good living, he noted that in those waning days of the Roaring 20s roadside stands were the cat’s meow out west and the and the most successful ones were either on a busy highway, street or intersection. He said he’d make it big if he had “the right stand at the right roadside.”

     Blossom and Bill, a salesman by trade, came back to the old hometown and set up housekeeping at 4928 W. Pine Blvd.. He quickly started a hamburger stand at the well traveled crossroads at the edge of St. Louis at Clayton Rd., Oakland Ave., McCausland Ave. and Skinker Rd. (now Blvd.) just across from Forest Park. Medart wasn’t the first to note that the location had strong merit, as sandwiched between two service stations the site already held an orange and black frame A&W root beer and hamburger stand with a counter and 8 stools. This establishment as well as our town’s other A&Ws was noted for both their Missouri and Hollywood burgers. Medart bought out the A&W and took notice that their California burgers with a “special sauce” was the best-seller, so he tinkered a bit with the condiment concoction and it evolved into the much emulated Medart’s “secret” sauce. The place opened on October 9, 1930 just a year into the Great Depression. Bill’s burgers were half cloaked in a napkin to catch any juices from the meat, sauce, lettuce, pickle and onion and the combination of the sandwich, the sauce and the manner of serving them started a legend. Those first Medart burgers sold for 15 cents.

     With three years of the burger biz under his belt Medart decided that another hot spot might be S. Kingshighway Blvd. which was Highway 99 and later would be a leg of business Route 66. So in ’33 he opened his Medart’s Log Cabin using the name Medart Mercantile Co.. The place would modestly expand over the years but would not become nearly as grand as the Olde Cheshire (which for years was spelled Cheshyre) structure that remains today. Cheshire was carefully created under Medart’s supervision in 1935 as both a tribute to Merrie Olde England and to most of the nearby Washington University buildings. The inn’s exterior was made to look like a village street and was copied from Ye Olde Hotel of God Begat at Canterbury; the Great Hall of the Cheshire was inspired by a cottage at Tintagel in Cornwall and the Rose and Crown Room had Georgian styled décor taken from Hatfield House in England. The drive-in was patterned after the Hauch at Venizen Inn at Salisbury. Many of these design concepts were the direct result of the Medarts taking a 5 week journey through Europe in 1938.       

     Before too many years passed Bill Medart was proclaimed to be “The Internationally Known Hamburger King.” Oddly enough later on a real King would indirectly play a role in Medart’s life when his daughter Marie (Mimi) became a “girlfriend” of King Farouk of Egypt. She’d later marry the Earl of Coventry continuing a family connection to England. The Medarts were also  parents of William S., Jr. and Edward F. Medart. The senior Bill Medart would die in1951 as the result of a fall from a 4th story window of the Continental Hotel in Paris. It was ruled a suicide as he was said to be depressed over world affairs. Blossom would soon marry Maurice Amara of Paris and would continue the operation of the two restaurants for several years.

     It’s seems that as Medart somewhat replicated A&W’s sauce, Fitz’s on Clayton Rd. east of Brentwood Blvd. would come up with their version of a  “secret” sauce (a bit more tangy) as would many other eateries including Schneithorst’s Big Bevo on Hampton Ave. at Wilson Ave. and at their drive-in on Clayton Rd. and Lindbergh Blvd.. Interestingly, in a tribute to the automobile all of the aforementioned at one time offered “curb service.” A good representation of the Medart burger is still served  at John’s Town Hall in the Dorchester Apartments at 665 S. Skinker Blvd.. Co-owner John Ruprecht has passed away but his partner Steve Mueller, at least at this jotting, continues the Medart’s Burger tradition that includes what they proclaim to be the original and authentic Medart sauce on which they hold a copyright. John‘s long-time manager Patty McMenamy reports that Sterling Properties of NYC plans to shut the place down though there’s a local effort being made to save it. Therefore, by the time you read this the Medart’s burger may have faded into history. Before going over there you might want to make sure they’re still in business by calling 314 725 3555. At the end of this article we’ll give a source to find a version of the Medart “secret” sauce recipe. It’s close - but a bit more complex than the original.

     Now let’s get back to Uncle Bill’s. The Medarts sold the Log Cabin to DiFranco Restaurant, Inc. which was operated by Dominic Gianino, Dominic DiFranco, Tom Carbone and Carmen DiFranco. Then in 1957 one Bill Ernst bought the business bringing with him his food expertise after having operated the Wagon Wheel restaurant on Arsenal which was not related to the Wagon Wheel dining spot that in the 1940s operated in the old Lambert Field terminal building on Lindbergh Blvd. nor the Wagon Wheel that was at 8787 N. Broadway in Baden. Uncle Bill had also been a car salesman for Simms Oldsmobile and Weber Chevrolet and was a co-owner of Million Motors and later a consultant for Joe Nesser Motors. The DiFranco name was out when Bill came in, but he first called the place The Fireplace which related to the large fireplace in the center of the restaurant.

     Today there’s a close connection to the past at Uncle Bill’s as current owner William Choi and - we the people - have the good fortune to have Betty Kraus supervising the busy dining activities that prevail at this landmark institution where she’s toiled for an astounding 46 years and still works 6 days a week. The position of manager and greeter during the Ernst era was the task of Bill Ernst’s outgoing wife Bette, while Bill pretty much attended to the business end of the business in his upstairs office. Choi took over the restaurant in December of ’87 and Richard Lee runs the Manchester Rd. location. But I digress. In a short time after taking over the place, Ernst sold out to a man who “got into trouble” and Bill bought back the restaurant in 1961 at which time it became Uncle Bill’s Pancake and Dinner House. He’d imported the idea of a 24 hour breakfast dining house from trips to Vegas. But Bill then did something that many told him would kill his business. He took out the sizeable bar and eliminated all alcoholic beverages…and as fate would have it, that’s when his business really took off.

     He also had Uncle Bill’s at the former Venegoni’s Huddle on the northeast corner of Hampton and Columbia Avenues from 1963-1965 and then sold the place to Lou and Joe Parente who operated it from 1965 to 1969. As I recall, the transaction had something to do with trading a farm in Bourbon MO but these details escape me. The Parente boys, now deceased, would sell to the Bart Saracino family who stayed for 30 years but have now moved their Italian delicacies to the Drury Inn at Hampton and Wilson Avenues.

     A fire in 1973 did heavy damage to Uncle Bill’s on Kingshighway and to keep his employees working and customers happy, Bill Ernst moved for 6 months to Shaw and Hereford in the space that’s now home of Guido’s Spanish/Italian eatery. He planned to stay at these digs but his customers didn’t take to the new location as they were deemed too fancy, and fancy it was as the restaurant had once been home of the very upscale Giovannina’s restaurant. (See the Antique Warehouse Inside St. Louis archives for a story on Guido’s and an historical story of that property). So after a complete renovation on the Kingshighway version of Uncle Bill’s which included adding the front addition; the griddle, pancake mix, syrup and coffee came home again. That classic porcelain neon sign in front of the building, the type Greg Rhomberg collects for the Antique Warehouse, has been there for decades. Bill and Bette would stay on until 1980 when they sold out to another man who would eventually get into really hot water when he shot his wife to death. That’s when the team of Choi and Lee took charge at Uncle Bill’s. To paraphrase what used to be said on Dragnet I’m purposely leaving the names of the two owners who ran afoul of the law out of this story to protect the innocent. Bill Ernst died of a stroke at age 74 in 1992. In 1997 at age 65 his widow Bette drowned in a backyard swimming pool accident.

     Uncle Bill’s is not only a haven for loyal customers but for loyal employees as well. In addition to the Betty Kraus reign which started in 1964, her sister Lynn Sprung has been waitressing there for 35 years, waitress Annette Smid joined the team in 1976 and Diana Treis is a long-time bustling buser. Plus back in the busy kitchen you’ll find long-time employees such as Kerry Moses who makes double darn sure that the dishes, utensils and glassware are sparkling and spotless and Mr. William “The Best” Jenkins is the man who is the master of preparing your eggs and omelettes the way you like ‘em. He also meets the challenge of the meats insuring that your extra thick hickory cured Oscar Meyer bacon, Miller ham, sausage, steaks, chicken, Canadian bacon, pork chops and burgers are perfect. Uncle Bill’s cuts the Miller hams themselves and they grind their own extra lean (93/7) beef for burgers. I’m honored that these perfectionists, Kerry and Mr. William, have been Johnny Rabbitt listeners since the early 1960s.

     The Oscar Meyer folks announced on the 4th of July, 1999 that Uncle Bill’s had at that point in time served over 1 Million slices of bacon. Manager Betty is going to check with them to see what the count is today 11 years later. By the way this bacon is not sold in any store. You can only imagine how many millions of pancakes have been sold with Uncle Bill‘s year after year, decade after decade, serving hundreds of customers a day…sometimes 1,200 to 1,500 of them often filling all 250 seats. The place seems busy whenever you go whether it’s 7 a.m. on a weekday, at lunch or dinner time, 3 in the morning or after church on Sunday. And you’ll see all types of people enjoying the food and the camaraderie that prevails at Uncle Bill’s. It’s a good example of the melting pot that’s one of the great strengths of America. And a good cup of their fresh and hot Ronnoco coffee from a gleaming pot can’t help but make you feel that life is good.

     Just in case you didn’t know, breakfast is always served 24 hours every day at Uncle Bill’s and if you were wondering they sell more pancakes than waffles…but they serve more waffles than anywhere else. Don’t come to Uncle Bill’s expecting a trendy, chic atmosphere serving things such as sushi and pate on linen tablecloths but rather you’ll find a solid down-home atmosphere of old St. Louis with many touches of Europe such as the two story high chandeliered ceiling in the main dining room, tinted glass windows in the “porch” addition, a fireplace surrounded by hand-painted tiles from Holland, off-white brick walls augmented by birch wood. There’s a subtle feeling of subdued grandeur that’s quite unique and certainly different from the typical pancake or waffle house.

     After you’re greeted and seated your friendly and efficient waitress, check pad in hand, will take your order…which she’ll quickly serve “on her arm” rather than by tray. Then enjoy your home-style food and all the coffee you want as you take it easy and relax in this friendly oasis - they won’t give you the bum’s rush at uncle Bill’s. And feel free to order any combination you’d like from the menu; they don’t mind at all. For example one person likes buckwheat pancakes with mustard - another goes for the baconburger with an over easy egg on top – and yet another likes the pineapple filled pancake Hawaii with sausage gravy. I’m kidding about that last one (at least I think I am), but the first two are regular real orders.

    Unless you’ve got the appetite of the Jolly Green Giant you might go for the short stack of buttermilk pancakes, made from Uncle Bill’s sorta-secret recipe, as the full order’ll fill you up fast. The Pennsylvania style buckwheat flapjacks  are hearty and heartwarming as are the German style potato cakes. Then there’s the crepes Pee Chee, sour cream roll-ups, Panama banana pancakes and others, plus 5 waffle choices including the Alaska which is topped with ice cream and pure fudge sauce. There are egg dishes of every type including eggs served with grilled chicken breasts, corned beef hash, T-bone steak, or a juicy hamburger and they have 9 omelet choices including turkey and cheese and the Western. Is it omelet or omelette? They use the latter on the menu. There are 8 breakfast special such as Supreme French toast with bacon or sausage links and hash browns or 3 Little Pigs, dressed up for eatin’. Plus you can get grits, fluffy biscuits and rich sausage gravy or mashed potatoes and gravy if you order that between 11 a.m. and 10 p.m..

     At lunch there’s fried chicken - it takes 20 minutes, Uncle Bill’s Deluxe Club that rivals anything in town, crunchy on the outside, tender on the inside country Fried steak, the sling shot (hash browns, topped with a big burger, 2 eggs smothered in chili and 2 pieces of cheese), two tamales with chili and lots more. Dinner’s served from 5 to 10 p.m. and there’s always a $2.99 kids meal selection. Your placemat is your menu and it’ll keep you busy making a decision as to what to order as it lists 118 items!       

     On your way in or out take note of the eclectic display case in the vestibule that these days shows off handmade dolls and take a whiff the aromatic wood that’s on the walls. The only other place, that I know of, in St. Louis that has this wood is Cheshire Inn (assuming it hasn’t been sold). It also lined the walls of the old Coal Hole cocktail lounge in the Coronado Hotel. I need to investigate to see if it’s still in place. The Coal Hole, with its unusual outside entrance, was directly below the spot now occupied by Nadoz.

     Manager Betty Kraus succinctly sums up the philosophy of Uncle Bill’s: “I treat people as if they were guests in my own home. I take good care of them.”

     Note: A version of the Medart’s Special Sauce recipe can be found in Norma Maret Bolin’s book The Route 66 St. Louis Cookbook – “The Mother Lode of Recipes from the Mother Road.” The recipe is similar close but more complex than the original recipe. The folks at John’s Town Hall say they have the original and if we’re able to get it from them we’ll publish as soon as possible here on Inside St. Louis. Incidentally it was my honor to have written the foreward to the Route 66 Cookbook.  The book sells for $19.95 and is available in most independent bookstores. St. Louis Transitions Publishing 2009.

Reviews of Uncle Bill’s can be found in the following books:
Beyond Toasted Ravioli – A Tour of St. Louis Restaurants by Joe & Ann Lemons Pollock. Virginia Publishing 1998.

The Great St. Louis Eats Book by Joe and Ann Lemons Pollock. Virginia Publishing 2005.

"Breakfast, Lunch & Diner" by Robert Rubright. RO Press 2009.

Written by: Ron (Johnny Rabbitt) Elz Host of Route 66 Saturday nights on News Radio 1120 KMOX &, March 2010.

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Contact Information

Uncle Bill's Pancake & Dinner House
3427 S Kingshighway Blvd. - St. Louis, MO 63139
Phone: 314.832.1973

Uncle Bill's Other Location:
14196 Manchester Rd. St. Louis MO 6301
Phone: 636. 394.1416

General Information
Handicap Accessible
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Hours of Operation
Open 24/7

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