Eat-Rite Diner, the 516-square feet flagship of a greasy spoon empire, sat on Route 66 for decades in St. Louis, at the intersection of Chouteau and Seventh street. Today it’s gone, but not forgotten. Here’s what happened to Eat-Rite Diner, the icon that struggled to make it into the 21st century.
The Eat Rite Diner at 622 Chouteau in St. Louis operated under that name from 1970 to 2020, with one interruption in 2017-2018. Today Fleur STL, an upscale take on traditional diner food, lives on at the old Eat Rite flagship location.
Eat Rite Diner, St. Louis
The sign marking it as a Route 66 Attraction got it wrong. It wasn’t established in the 40s. It was older than that. And it wasn’t always called Eat Rite either. It went by several names, but it went by Eat Rite longer than any other.
A 2015 article in The Riverfront Times said it was built in the 1930s. I think it was before 1929. Here’s why. A St. Louis Post-Dispatch story from May 1, 1929 about a robbery of $33.30 at 622 Chouteau called it the White Castle lunch room. But there was a White Castle hamburger stand at 1208 Chouteau, not even half a mile away, that had been operating since 1924. Maybe someone at the paper made a mistake, or maybe the Eat-Rite was briefly an early White Castle. Whatever it was, it was a viable business. Adjusted for inflation, $33.30 is over $500 today.
By 1935, two Lebanese immigrants, Elias and Elizabeth Mahanna, owned the White Kitchen. The tiny lunch counter changed hands a number of times over the years. In 1943, Charles L. Reed, who announced the purchase (and asked to be contacted by creditors) in an ad in the June 21, 1943 issue of the Post-Dispatch. By 1955 it was the Regal Sandwich Shop. In the 1960s it used the name Gateway Sandwich Shop, and later, Serv-Rite.
But the late 60s weren’t kind to the diner or the area. It seemed like it might be past its prime, and falling to the same social conditions that did in Velvet Freeze, another St. Louis institution. But then in 1970 it joined the Eat-Rite chain. The pairing reinvigorated both the old diner and the chain, which was one of many diner chains in St. Louis at the time.
Not the first Eat-Rite in St. Louis
Although the location at Chouteau near Busch Stadium became the most famous, it wasn’t the first location. Lewis B. (L.B.) Powers worked in diners practically his whole life. His uncle managed a Courtesy Diner location at 18th and Olive streets. He was working there at age 16 when he met his future wife, Dorcas. After they married, they amassed an empire of diners throughout the St. Louis metro area, starting in 1957. (Cross-pollination between St. Louis restaurants happens a lot–it happened in St. Louis-style pizza too.) There were at least seven Eat-Rite locations over the years, though a maximum of six were open at a time.
- 1633 Tower Grove Ave, St. Louis (closed around 1986)
- 1070 S. Kingshighway, St. Louis (closed around 1994)
- 2539 Woodson Rd, Overland (now George’s Diner)
- 5513 S. Lindbergh, Concord Village (became Dave’s Diner sometime after 2009)
- 11690 Baptist Church Road, Concord Village (became T.J.’s Diner between 1994 and 1998)
- 1059 Gravois Road, Murphy (now Murphy’s Diner; this is actually in Murphy but it’s so close to Fenton that some people call it Fenton)
And of course, 622 Chouteau.
Lewis bought the Chouteau location in 1970. Dorcas called the location a disgrace. It was a run-down and dated building in a run-down neighborhood. And there was more to it than just appearances. Between 1967 and 1971, there were five robberies, four of them armed, and three of them involving the same employee.
But he saw potential. By the 1980s, the neighborhood around it cleaned up, and the tiny white brick shack gained a cult following. Diners weren’t trendy anymore, but nostalgia had kicked in and the traditional diner atmosphere had some retro coolness again. And Cardinals attendance more than doubled in the decades they owned the diner, bringing a lot more traffic into the area. That increased traffic only be good for business.
Over time, the Powers family sold off the other locations to employees or friends. The other Eat-Rites around St. Louis weren’t imitators–they had all been affiliated at one point. But the similarly named Rite-Way was a different, slightly older chain.
They kept the Chouteau location until 2017.
The Powers family say the slinger, a St. Louis institution, was invented at the 1059 Gravois location in the 1970s. Lots of diners sell a dish with eggs, hash browns, hamburger or sausage patties and chili. When a visitor from Texas came in and asked for one, one employee told another to sling them together when describing how to make it. The name “slinger” stuck.
It wasn’t long before other St. Louis diners copied it. O.T. Hodge, another defunct diner chain, may have been the first. But Courtesy Diner, where Lewis worked as a teenager when he met Dorcas, also put it on the menu.
A similar dish goes by other names in other places (in Columbia, Mo., it’s called a Stretch), but only in St. Louis do they call it a slinger.
Famous people who ate at Eat-Rite
Allegedly, one night in September 1989, two men were sitting at the counter at Eat-Rite. One local, one British. The British man casually asked the local if he liked music. He said yes. The British man asked what kind, and the local said he liked the Rolling Stones. “So do I,” said the British man, who then left. The cook then told the local that the stranger was Keith Richards. The Rolling Stones were playing Busch Stadium that night.
The Rolling Stones have been known to sample local St. Louis favorites when they play here, so the story sounds about as likely as it does apocryphal.
Even if Keith Richards didn’t actually Eat-Rite on that night in 1989, one of his heroes ate there at least once. Chuck Berry ate there.
So have numerous local celebrities, including Cardinals broadcasters Jack Buck and Mike Shannon, U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill, mayor Francis Slay, radio host Jim White, and 2011 World Series hero David Freese.
Decline and the end of the line for Eat-Rite Diner
Somehow the Eat-Rite Diner got hit by cars not once but twice in 2014. The damage from one of the crashes required an exterior wall to be replaced. And there were three high publicity crimes over a 27-year period in the parking lot, two of which resulted in deaths and 30-year prison sentences and another that ended in probation. But it wasn’t crime that did in the Eat-Rite Diner. In that timespan, it likely served over 1.5 million customers, with countless others passing by. In spite of much heavier traffic, the number of instances of violent crime decreased.
First it was entropy. Then it was a once-in-a-century pandemic.
In October 2017, an exhaust fan failed, forcing the diner to close for repair. The unexpected expense seemed like an omen to Lewis Powers. He had been running diners for 62 years at that point. Nearly 81 years old and in declining health himself, he decided to retire.
Joel Holtman, a local realtor, heard about the closure and talked to Powers in the parking lot. He and his wife Shawna decided to buy the diner and rehab it. They made approximately $34,000 worth of repairs, and reopened in time for the Cardinals’ opening day in 2018. Then they fell victim to bad timing. The coronavirus pandemic forced it to close for a time in the spring of 2020. But even after restrictions were lifted, traffic was much less than it had been. Some nights there were only two carry-out orders. The Holtmans closed Eat-Rite in December 2020, one of countless victims of the pandemic.
Local chef Tim Eagan reopened Eat-Rite as Fleur STL in October 2022, with a chef’s take on traditional diner food. Knowing St. Louis, I’m sure some people will still just call it Eat-Rite. Fleur STL is no longer a 24 hour diner, however, it’s just open for breakfast and lunch.
Before it was Eat-Rite, or even a diner
It seems strange to say a plot of land seems to have a lot in life, but the plot at 622 Chouteau seemed to find its way as a diner. In 1879 it was some kind of private residence. I know this because I found personal ads in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch listing that address as his residence. It sounds like the difficulty of meeting people has a long tradition in St. Louis. I hope he found someone.
Closer to the turn of the century, there was a storefront at the location. Or maybe it was a storefront all along, with an apartment on the second floor.
But the storefront didn’t thrive. I found ads indicating vacancy from 1893. A laundry service operated there in late 1893 and into 1896, and an interior decorator was working out of the building in 1908, with at least one period of vacancy in between. By 1909 it was vacant again and advertisements indicated it remained so at least until 1916.
There is no official record of what happened to that struggling storefront. Nor is there any official record of who built the 516-square-foot eatery there now, or when, or for what purpose. But the book Route 66 St. Louis states a coal selling business opened in 1916, followed by a gas station in 1920. But by 1929 or certainly by the 1930s, it was a restaurant.