Saint Louis’ Long Time Haunt, Hammerstone’s,
is Soulard’s Blues Destination
Story: Mark Rolf
Photos: Cory Weaver
Hammerstone’s in Soulard offers a little bit of everything: live music 12 times a week; breakfast, lunch and dinner; comfort food menu options like raved-about fried chicken; classic cocktails and beer; all in a rumored-to-be haunted building that once housed a doctor’s office and a possible speakeasy.
We sat down with proprietor Cory Hammerstone to ask her some questions about the Soulard mainstay that’s gushing with history, hauntings, great food and music.
Paul Bonn & the Bluesmen perform a four-hour set at Hammerstone’s
Tell me a little about the current state of Hammerstone’s, how you got started, and what makes you stand out from other eating and drinking establishments in Soulard?
I feel as though we are constantly working to make things better. We don’t want to just be a watering hole. We strive to be a destination—with good food, good drinks, good service and live music.
Opening at 6:30 for breakfast during the week sets you guys apart from the majority of the places in the neighborhood. Why did you decide on serving breakfast?
I believe that my dad decided to start breakfast service just two years after we opened because he saw a need for it in the area. At the time, there were not many options other than diners and fast food places. Breakfast is touted as the most important meal of the day, and we believe that as well. I am happy that he made that decision 20 years ago, because it sets us apart from other bars in the area, and breakfast food is delicious.
Your building dates back to the 1800s. I’ve heard rumors around Soulard that this was a speakeasy back during the prohibition era. Have you found any history of that or any other cool things since your family purchased it back in 1996?
We have a small brick building in the far corner of the patio that was described as a “carriage house” and estimated to be built in the ‘20s. It has some interesting features such as NO doorway large enough for a carriage, and four stovepipe holes along the back wall. Who would have the use for four stoves other than a still? The main building historically was a pharmacy with a doctor’s office upstairs. During prohibition, there was a way to obtain alcohol legally, and that was with a prescription from a doctor on a government form, which could then be filled by your local pharmacy. I imagine with all of that alcohol sitting around waiting to be prescribed, there was probably some imbibing happening within the walls of the building.
As a former Soulardian, I believe many places in the neighborhood could be haunted. Have you ever experienced any paranormal activity?
Yes—there have been a lot of incidents in the 22 years that we have had the building. So many employees as well as customers have shared their encounters with us, but personally I have a few stories of my own. My favorite was one evening when I was training a new bartender on closing the bar, and as we were talking in the dining room, the service bell in the kitchen rang on its own. We both heard it and looked at it, and when we turned on the light and went back to investigate, the bell button was pressed down. We both hurried up and got out of there and finished our conversation about closing duties another day. I have heard disembodied voices upstairs, seen shadows moving and tripped over a cat that was not there.
At one point the fried chicken you served was the famous St. Louis Romine’s recipe. I’m not sure if you still use it, but if so, how did you acquire that recipe? Regardless, you have some of the very best fried chicken in town. Do you still have the all-you-can-eat fried chicken on Sundays?
Back when my dad was a salesman working for DuBois Chemical Company, he became good friends with Al Milke, who was the owner of Romine’s. Our Mayfair recipe actually came from him for sure, but I am not certain about our fried chicken recipe, although it has certainly gotten better through the years with only slight tweaking. I do believe that it was Romine’s recipe to start, if not inspired by the recipe. We do have the fried chicken on the menu all the time, and we feature it as a special on Fridays, but we are always changing things up. We used to feature it as a special on Sundays, and at another time we featured it on Mondays. We actually have a stainless steel rooster on the wall that used to be one of two that was on the exterior wall at Romine’s, next to their front door.
Hammerstone’s is one of the only places in the St. Louis area that has live music (mostly blues) seven nights a week, and twice on Saturdays and Sundays. With great blues bands constantly coming through the doors, how do you keep up with them, knowing how musicians can be (being a former musician yourself)?
Actually, we have added quite a few more shows to the mix—we now have afternoon music on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. That is a total of 12 live shows weekly! The only issue we have with the musicians and the bands (aside from getting bombarded by new acts who want a chance to play) is that it is a small room, and sometimes the music is a little loud. Knowing how musicians can be, sometimes it could be because they have hearing damage, or sometimes it is a little bit of wanting to be louder because there are horns involved, in which case everyone’s volume comes up and there’s no way around that. And sometimes it is because they just want to be out in front of all of the other sounds. When it is a packed house, the music never seems as loud.
Why is it so important that you offer live music at your establishment?
When Hammerstone’s first opened, there were a lot of bars in the Soulard neighborhood who had live music all the time. Now we are down to us, McGurks and 1860s that do it consistently. People love that they can catch part of a live show during happy hour, before they head home for dinner. My mom fell in love with the live music on Beale Street, and that is the vibe she wants for our place.
You have some amazing blues musicians come through on a regular basis like Roland Johnson, Jeremiah Johnson, the Voodoo Blues Band, and my personal “Honky-Tonk” favorites Ross Bell and Steve Reeb. How do you keep them coming back, and getting locals, and visitors customers coming back without losing any luster?
To keep them coming back, we try our best to keep all of the music free and only charge a cover on Friday and Saturday nights, when we hire a door man for security reasons. We have some regular weekly acts, and we have some rotating acts that are so talented, I don’t know how you couldn’t come in to see them all the time. I think there’s our fans who love the music no matter who it is or how many times they have heard it, and then we have a lot of visitors from out of town who may be seeing these acts for the first time. Our food and drink are pretty tasty as well. Try the chicken tenders.
How does music influence your day-to-day activities?
I would say that while food and beverage are our main focus, it is the music that will keep us alive. We could have great food and drinks, and still get lost in the mix with the competition we have in this town. Having music at our place helps up the ante.
Blues, booze and a burger: one of Hammerstone’s best sellers