Nestled in the corner of Washington Avenue and 20th Street in Downtown St. Louis, Bootleggin’ BBQ is known to the wider community for its whole hog roasts, games of bags and giant Jenga and its formidable selection of beer. But to regulars such as Matt Crogan and Mitch Pilla, Bootleggin’ is the local tavern where you can engage in ferocious banter with your neighborhood bartender, ask for an off-the-menu brisket quesadilla (shhh!) and get a fist bump from the infamous Jackson.
Jackson, a regular of the establishment, has been a friendly presence around Bootleggin’ BBQ since its predecessor, The Pour House. Much like many of The Pour House’s customers, when Bootleggin’ BBQ merged with The Pour House and later bought the business, Jackson stayed. On his 40th birthday, he went to Bootleggin’ BBQ for gifts and to enjoy a bag of Doritos. According to Jackson, Bootleggin’—as its known by neighbors—is worth visiting because “they’ve got good business, everybody respects you, everybody ain’t cranky,” and his favorite menu item is “pork, just the tips.” He’s got a list of regulars he knows by name, who he describes as “good people”: Reggie, Dorothy, Terry, Al, Ron…
A t-shirt emblazoned with a fist bump and the slogan “Jackson is my homeboy” is draped over a ceiling beam by the ’ bar, a symbol of his popularity and consistency, and a testament to the community built by owners Brenton Brown and Eddie Belter. Whether people are looking for a place to celebrate a birthday, host a fundraiser or jumpstart a political campaign, Bootleggin’ BBQ opens its doors.
“People are always works in progress,” explains Brown. “Life throws a lot of challenges at you. With a restaurant, there’s always something that needs to be fixed, improved, tweaked. It’s never complete. That’s how you have to see people. No one’s ever complete.” Brown and Belter’s optimism and openness to change have made the restaurant as much a place for regulars to make meaning of the protests throughout our city as a place for families to enjoy a chili cook-off, or for neighbors to wind down after work.
“I grew up in Independence, Missouri, the ‘burbs up in Kansas City,” Brown says. “Down here, you’re going to get the diverse cultures, diverse people. That’s something that we need as a society, as a people. You can’t just get holed up in your little hole of the ‘burbs. I’ve seen some people hide in their little communities Downtown, too. They just get stuck in their own little bubble and don’t want to move outside of that, they’re scared, I don’t know what it is.”
Belter’s challenge to those looking to connect to community is “get off your bed, get off your phone, come down and talk to somebody.” You might become someone that Jackson knows by name. Like Crogan and Pilla, you might invent a secret menu item during one of your regular visits after work. Over a new home-brew, you might find someone with whom to brew a new home. Or maybe, just maybe, you will use the Bootleggin’ BBQ space to start a community tradition of your own.