Harold B. Plengemeier grew up in St. Louis' Dogtown neighborhood. He was drafted into the Army in World War II and served as a cook on a base in Little Rock, Arkansas. He became a cook at the Miss Hulling's Cafeteria downtown and was eventually promoted to manager and food buyer.
Plengemeier opened the Branding Iron restaurant
in 1950, across from the Clayton County Courthouse. He was
originally an operating partner, but by the early 1950s, he was sole
owner of the restaurant.
The Branding Iron was built on the corner of Meramec and Carondelet avenues. It was a squatty little brick building with a western decor on the inside and a large Budweiser sign on the roof.
When it was built, it was architecturally well suited for 1950s Clayton; the bank building at the other end of the block was squatty too. The County Courthouse was about all there was of the County Government Center. And there were a few stubby office buildings around the business district.
But then Clayton changed.
Glass and concrete and steel structures shot up all over. The bank mushroomed into a multistory facility. The government center spread into a two block behemoth. The Seven-Up company took over most of the block to the south.
And the Branding Iron still squatted on the corner of Meramec and Carondelet.
The Branding Iron was actually two eating
establishments – a street-level cafeteria and the Corral Room, a sit-down restaurant and bar in
the basement. Entering the
cafeteria was like entering a time warp. Wagon wheel light fixtures
hovered over well-worn wooden tables and chairs. A couple of pairs
of steer horns, along with an assortment of branding irons, adorned
the walls. In a mural behind the steam tables, cowboys wrestled a
Hereford calf to the ground.
Lawyers, jurors, judges and even a few criminals from the nearby county court lined up at the Branding Iron for lunch, and as Clayton grew, more corporate types joined them. Evenings brought multigenerational families for dinner.
The finest carved roast beef, with bread drenched in real gravy, was a favorite, as were the fillet of sole sandwiches with real tartar sauce and the chicken fried steak with cream gravy. Customers raved about the creamed spinach and the mashed potatoes and gravy.
Regular customers knew the cafeteria's specials by heart – fried chicken on Wednesday, sauerbraten with potato pancakes on Thursday, and cod and jack salmon on Friday. Many topped off the calorie-rich meals with homemade fruit or cream pies.
When restaurants selling alfalfa-sprout sandwiches and quiche invaded the business district to cater to the trendy set, the cafeteria's menu remained unchanged. Eating at the Branding Iron was like going home for lunch; you knew what was in the refrigerator before you opened the front door. And there was a certain comfort in that.
In the early 1980s, Harold B. Plengemeier's sons, Harold W. and David, took over the restaurant's operation from their father. In 1984 they gave the establishment a minor facelift, but they were careful not to do too much. They didn't want to change their image; they had to make the right decisions since they planned to be there for the rest of their lives.
But without fanfare or farewell, the Branding
Iron cafeteria closed for good after serving lunch on Tuesday, July
28, 1992, leaving a loyal clientele searching for alternatives to
its mom-and-pop fare. Harold W. Plengemeier died of cancer on April
5, 1994 at the age of 50, perhaps explaining the abrupt closing. The
property was sold to Commerce Bank as a place to expand, and the
location is now a parking lot for the Commerce Bank Building.
Harold B. Plengemeier died in 2006 at the age of 88. "He was very congenial – he had a lot of friends through the business," said his son David. "Everybody in Clayton knew who he was."
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