66 Through St. Louis: Spencer's Grill

This is the eighth in a series of posts highlighting Route 66 stops of interest through St. Louis. We encourage you to learn more about their history and then check them out in person. Even better, snap some photos and share them with us on Twitter and Instagram by using #ShowMe66 and tagging @mohistorymuseum.

When most St. Louisans think of Route 66, they tend to think of Watson Road in South County. Watson is widely known as Historic Route 66. With stops such as Ted Drewes, Donut Drive-In, Crestwood Bowl, and the gone-but-still-infamous Coral Court all within a few miles, it’s easy to see why that stretch is so memorable. But when Route 66 passed through large cities, it was rarely just one road; drivers could actually choose which alignment of Route 66 they wanted to take.

Black-and-white photo of Lindbergh Blvd, April 1936Lindbergh Boulevard (Route 66), April 1936. Missouri History Museum.

Beginning in 1936, a very different path of Route 66 took travelers around the northwest side of St. Louis. It entered the city at the Chain of Rocks Bridge and traveled across Dunn Road and Lindbergh Boulevard before reconnecting with Watson Road in southwest St. Louis. This looping ride around Lambert Airport and the inner suburbs has its own, often-overlooked, Route 66 treasures, including one of the last original Mother Road diners.

The Rise of the Diner

The diner is a uniquely American creation that debuted in big cities in the 1920s. Diners were set up to feed many people quickly, staying open long hours and selling a predictable set of foods that worked as breakfast or dinner, including hamburgers, chili, potatoes, eggs, and coffee. With urban space at a premium, they crammed into any open piece of land and required a bare-bones, no-frills layout. They usually featured little else but a kitchen, a few stools, and a counter for eating and paying. At a time when urban dwellers were still wary of what went into their food, diners let customers see their food being made and used slick porcelain tile and stainless steel to invoke a feeling of cleanliness.

Black-and-white photo of Spencer's Grill as it looked in the 1950sSpencer's Grill as it appeared in the 1950s. Image courtesy of Joe Sonderman.

By the 1940s the humble diner had become a quintessential American experience, memorialized in books such as Jack Smiley’s Hash House Lingo and artwork such as Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks. Diners were a space between the public world and home. You could always find the food you liked, it tasted close to homemade, and you could comfortably be “alone together” with everyone else. Over the next decades, these food stops would evolve into the multibillion-dollar fast-food industry, but for the time being they were mom-and-pop endeavors, with single families taking on all the work for individual establishments. The Spencers were one such family.

Spencer’s Grill

Bill Spencer moved from Arkansas to St. Louis in the middle of the Great Depression, searching for work. He eventually found employment through Lee Morse, a restaurateur who owned 23 different Lee’s Grill restaurants. It was at the Lee’s Grill at Gravois and Hampton that Spencer met his future wife, Irene Harlow. They married, and in 1941 the young couple bought the Lee’s Grill at 303 South Kirkwood Road. They renamed it Spencer’s Grill, but this original Spencer’s Grill lasted just two years until Bill was drafted during World War II. He returned safely from the Pacific theatre, and in 1947 the Spencers decided to reopen their diner. They bought the building at 223 South Kirkwood Road, and Spencer’s Grill has stood there ever since.

Color photo of the red Spencer's Grill sign and analog clockThe working neon sign at Spencer's Grill dates to 1948, the year after the diner opened. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The couple wanted to catch as many Route 66 travelers as possible, and keeping the restaurant open 24 hours a day was just one of their tricks. The year after opening, Bill gave the grill a personality with the famous neon sign that can still be seen today. Together with Irene he regularly entered a giant hamburger-topped Spencer’s Grill float in local Kirkwood parades. He even got a local airport (the now-gone Loffman Field, which once stood along Route 66 near the present day I-44/I-270 exchange) to fly an airplane over St. Louis pulling a Spencer’s Grill banner behind it. The advertising paid off: By 1973, Spencer’s Grill had outlived Route 66’s Lindbergh alignment by nearly a decade.

Bill maintained ownership of the building until 1980, when he completely retired from Spencer’s Grill operation. The restaurant lived on through five other owners before Chris Powers purchased it in 2004 and began long-delayed restoration work. A few years later, he got Spencer’s analog clock spinning again after more than 30 years of it being stuck in time. Today, owners Mary Sly and Lisa Campbell—the diner’s first female owners—continue welcoming Spencer’s Grill regulars and new faces alike.

—Andrew Wanko, Public Historian

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