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Famous in its day: Busch’s Grove

Busch’s Grove was a clubby, table-hopping haunt of privileged residents of Ladue, Missouri, and its environs. An unpretentious white frame roadhouse fronting right on a busy thoroughfare, it didn’t look like much from the outside – or the inside for that matter. It didn’t need to show off. This was its charm.

I ate there just once, in the 1970s. I wanted to experience eating in one of the screened-in log huts in the restaurant’s back yard (pictured, courtesy Esley Hamilton). Even then they seemed quaintly out of sync with the times. I have no idea what I ate. What sticks in my mind is the elderly woman alone in the next hut with her dog. I remember a tall, white coated waiter bringing the dog’s dinner, a large serving of prime rib.

Prime rib was what you’d expect at a restaurant as traditional as Busch’s Grove. As were iceberg lettuce, shrimp cocktail, and squishy soft dinner rolls. It was the kind of place where it wasn’t a bad idea to have a few Manhattans or whiskey sours before tackling your meal. Nevertheless, in 1958 Holiday magazine gave the Grove a “Dining Distinction” award.

As for the food revolution of the 1970s, it didn’t happen here. In 1998 a review by Joe and Ann Pollack in their book Beyond Toasted Ravioli made it sound as though the Grove was permanently stuck in the beef & bourbon 1950s. Though ostensibly giving a favorable report, they identified numerous red flags for discriminating diners such as packaged croutons; the strange “viscous texture” of the microwave-heated vichyssoise; garlic powder in salad dressings; vegetable medleys; and potatoes baked in foil. Perhaps the old roadhouse was in decline.

The Pollaks characterized the restaurant’s decor as “Ralph Lauren when Ralph was still selling ties.” “Dowdy” would have been equally apt. But keep in mind that Ladue was (is?) the kind of town where actual living conditions could surprise you: such as the cockroach I once saw crawling on expensive grasscloth wallpaper in one stately mansion, or another estate filled with ancestral oil paintings but lacking air conditioning despite St. Louis’s tropical summers.

Busch’s Grove began its hospitality career in the 1860s as a stage coach stop 10 miles west of downtown St. Louis. It was not known as Busch’s Grove until it was taken over by John Busch in 1891. In the 1920s, when it was run by Busch’s son and a partner, the surrounding community of Ladue had grown into a woodsy enclave of wealthy families attracted in part by a number of country clubs that had located there. The restaurant served as an unofficial annex to the nearby St. Louis Country Club. No doubt patronage also derived from Ladue’s elite prep schools, among them John Burroughs, Country Day, Mary Institute, Chaminade, Villa, and Priory.

Until 1973 the restaurant contained a bar for men only, perhaps explaining its reputation as a hangout for power brokers. When it was nominated for the National Register of Historic Places in 1981, the researchers interviewed a patron of 30 years who remarked, ‘Some of the biggest early deals in St. Louis County politics and finance were arranged in this restaurant.”

Old patrons mourned when the restaurant closed a few years ago and was razed, along with the log huts.

© Jan Whitaker, 2010

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