the haven photo by david kovaluk

The Haven is a St. Louis landmark

When John Gasperi bought The Haven in 2009, he knew he was buying an old bar. He didn’t know exactly how old. The Haven’s new owner had printed his new menus with “established in 1950” emblazoned next to the bar’s name. A relative of Ed and Dot Beck, The Haven’s original owners, had confirmed the date was at least roughly accurate. “And then when I opened, I had a guy down the street, Tony, come in yelling at me, ‘I've been coming in here since ’42!’” Gasperi said. Later, another customer brought in a pack of matches branded with the bar’s name, which was previously known as Dot and Ed’s.

No matter when The Haven actually opened, the stories Gasperi tells about the bar’s early years are a throwback to what feels like a distant era. “The mom was in the kitchen and the dad had a bow tie and used to stand behind the bar every day,” Gasperi said. It was a meeting place for the neighborhood, whatever the weather. “When it snowed, if you wanted your mail, there was a good chance the mailman was down at the bar,” he said.

In the process of renovating and getting to know his new bar, Gasperi learned that the basement had once doubled as an off-the-record meeting place for regulars, including local aldermen and their associates. When he took over the bar, someone even presented him with a photograph of a group who referred to themselves as “The Haven Club.” “In the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s even, they used to have meetings down there,” Gasperi said. “There was a bar in the basement, and they used to play cards down there.” Cleaning out the basement, Gasperi even stumbled upon a dusty pack of playing cards, a gin rummy score card, and some dice.

Under Dot and Ed Beck, The Haven was renowned for its brain sandwiches, served with raw onion and mustard. “They sold a ton of them,” Gasperi said. By the time he bought the bar, however, the kitchen space had lain unused for around 20 years. Ed and Dot Beck had retired, and the bar had lost its vigor, the old regulars gradually outnumbered by underage drinkers. “It had just kind of gotten worn out,” Gasperi said. When Gasperi came into the picture in 2009, The Haven had been closed for a couple of years.

Gasperi “totally revamped” the space, painting and retiling, adding booth seating and hanging an array of memorabilia and art on the walls. Reviving the kitchen was another priority. There are no more brain sandwiches, but Gasperi introduced a wide-ranging menu that combines bar food standards – burgers, steak sandwiches, Reubens – with comfort foods that reasserted The Haven’s status as a classic south St. Louis city tavern.

Gasperi was also keen to rehabilitate The Haven’s reputation in the neighborhood, establishing the bar as a family-friendly dining spot. He would dress as Santa Claus for Christmas parties, and host fish fries around Lent. He would give out whoopee cushions and clown noses to amuse kids who came in with their parents. Now, some of those kids are customers. “They’ll say, ‘Hey, Big John, want to do a shot with us?’” Gasperi said. “I’m like, ‘Nah, I know your grandparents!’”

Amid all the tweaks and changes, The Haven’s revival was also built on a degree of continuity; the current team includes several employees Gasperi worked with prior to taking over the business. “There's hundreds of bars, what makes one better than the other?” Gasperi said. “People go there for comfort. They see somebody that they know, they know what they drink, so it's a social thing. You can't do that if you're getting somebody different every time.”

Fish fry season will soon return to The Haven, and it’s always a busy time. “It’s pretty insane,” Gasperi said. “It’s like Long John Silver’s: just fish, fish, fish.” Gasperi is proud of the kitchen’s fried and baked cod, and the catfish platter, but the Jack salmon (the local name for whiting, or hake) has an important place in the local memory. “Jack salmon is a South City classic,” Gasperi said. “That was huge in the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s.”

We’ve all witnessed a beloved old bar or restaurant lose its way, and experience teaches us that no comeback is guaranteed. Gasperi said he knew The Haven’s revival was on the right track when people from the neighborhood began to return in numbers. “One guy came in and said something like, ‘Thanks for bringing a little bit of class back to the neighborhood,’” he said, laughing. “I said, ‘Wow, that’s pretty nice – but don’t be so quick to judge.’”

6625 Morgan Ford Road, St. Louis, 314.352.4283, Facebook: The Haven Pub

Editor's note: This article was updated at Tuesday, Jan. 9, to change the verbiage around fish fry season.