dressel's in the central west end photo by david kovaluk

Dressel’s in the Central West End is a St. Louis landmark

It’s tempting to think of a long-running restaurant’s or bar’s story as a linear tale of success, cheered on by generations of adoring regulars. The truth is usually a decades-long rollercoaster ride of blind corners, gut-wrenching lows and white-knuckle moments of existential jeopardy. The places that survive are often those capable of adapting and reinventing themselves, and that’s something Ben Dressel, the second-generation owner of Central West End institution Dressel’s, knows only too well.

Since purchasing the bar from his parents in 2005, Ben has overseen at least two major revamps of Dressel’s. The most recent, in 2023, saw Dressel’s reopen after a three-year hiatus triggered by the pandemic. A top-to-tail remodel freshened up the bar’s interior with a more contemporary look, though the soul of Dressel’s is still a reflection of the German and Welsh cultural influences that shaped the bar as it evolved through the 1980s and 1990s.

The major food and drink innovation this time – the one Ben believes will secure Dressel’s future for the next decade – is the launch of an in-house brewery, Rock & Horse Brewing Co. Ben got the idea from a bar owner he met while on a climbing trip in Colorado. “He opened my eyes that you can have a small brewery in the pub and make beer and not worry about distribution,” Ben said. “You can just create the culture of a brewery within the four walls of a pub and still have it feel like a pub.”

Although he doesn’t see himself in a brewing role in the long term, Ben is learning the ropes himself from experienced brewers. He recently collaborated with Perennial Artisan Ales to create the first Rock & Horse beer, a pale ale called Utmost Classic. Rock & Horse will start out brewing three or four beers, but Ben hopes to expand that rotation in time. The lineup will include a Welsh-style ale, recalling the days when Dressel’s poured Felinfoel Brewery’s Double Dragon.

Ben places Dressel’s in a lineage of traditional pubs that grew up around the Gaslight Square scene, starting with the original O’Connell’s in the 1960s. Then, as Gaslight Square declined, those pubs proliferated around the broader Central West End and other neighborhoods in the 1970s. When Ben’s parents opened Dressel’s in 1980, their vision was to create a literary, intellectual bar where students and academics from the city’s universities could enjoy a pint. Jon Dressel, Ben’s father, collected busts of classical composers that remain on display above the bar, and framed pictures of an assortment of writers, musicians and poets still hang on the walls.


dressel's new in-house brewery, rock & horse brewing co // photo by david kovaluk


With the relaunch, Dressel’s introduced a menu that combined a few new items with a greatest hits collection of dishes that recall some of the high-water marks of the restaurant’s 44-year run. There are the seasonal soups and stews, as well as the freshly cooked potato chips that have always been a Dressel’s signature. “It was the only thing on our appetizer menu,” Dressel said of the bar’s early days. “If you came here, you were getting a basket of chips, and a pint and a bowl of soup.”

Housemade chips weren’t to be taken for granted back in the early 1980s, Ben said. Jon Dressel had opened Llywelyn’s Pub with Jack Brangle in 1975 (just 100 yards away at 4747 McPherson Ave.), and Ben said he remembers Llywelyn’s chips vividly. “I could be wrong about this, but I don’t know of any other place in St. Louis that was hand-cutting potato chips in the ’70s,” he said. “I remember the cooks were chopping them with a knife, and eventually they figured out how to use a vegetable slicer to get them thin enough to start making housemade potato chips. Dressel’s just picked up that ball and ran with it in 1980.”

The current menu also includes the pretzel with Welsh rarebit (a hot Welsh cheese sauce), and the Porchetta Louie (Dressel’s famous porchetta sandwich), both of which reached a nationwide TV audience when Dressel’s was featured on an episode of Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives in 2012. “The next day, there was a line around the block and that continued for several years and lots of extra business,” Ben said.

That moment in the spotlight came on the heels of – and in many ways conflicted with – Ben’s first major overhaul at Dressel’s. His interest in the farm-to-table movement gave him the notion of reimagining Dressel’s as what he lovingly calls a “poor man’s Annie Gunn’s.” Ben began with caution soon after taking over the bar, but the project gathered momentum in the early 2010s. Chris Meyer and Mike Miller, now the co-owners of Songbird, were among those who helped bring Ben’s vision to life. Meyer helped Ben run the front of house, while Miller ran the kitchen as executive chef, before being succeeded by his chef de cuisine Derek Roe. “They were a powerhouse, really good cooks and they were well-trained,” Ben said. At one point, the kitchen was creating five menu items from a single hog. “It was a very high standard, as locavore as you could get.”

Ben’s pride at what his team achieved in the gastropub years is balanced by an acknowledgment that the experiment didn’t work out quite the way he hoped it would. “We actually started going down the tubes as far as foot traffic,” he said. “If you were looking for burgers and shepherd's pie, you're suddenly like, ‘This isn’t my place anymore.’ It was traumatic for a lot of people; it was a big break.”

While Ben works on transforming Dressel’s beer offerings with the launch of Rock & Horse, the revamped menu represents a decisive turn once more toward the tried-and-true pub fare that built the bar’s reputation. It’s not a repudiation of the bar’s previous direction: Ben’s belief in the virtues of culinary skill and rigorous sourcing is unshaken. Rather, it’s an acknowledgment that progress is often a messy process. It just so happens that for Dressel’s, the way forward right now involves creating that new brewery while also doubling down on the food that made the bar great to begin with. In this case, reinvention and rediscovery go hand in hand.

419 N. Euclid Ave., St. Louis, 314.361.1060, dresselspublichouse.com