Mike Smith had a vision for a restaurant -- a little bistro with a welcoming atmosphere, a place for good conversation, good wine and good food.
"I told him it was just a crazy idea to do this time of his life," said Kim, his wife. "He was too tenacious to take no for an answer."
"'If not now, when?'" said Mike, 51, a former creative advertising director. "I have been collecting restaurant kinds of supplies over the years. I thought being in advertising it would be neat to open a place that's more like what you'd see in SOHO or Toronto."
"I was very nervous," said Kim.
"So was I," said Mike. "It's a humbling thing to open a place."
In November, Hemingway's Zen Garden came to life in a small downtown O'Fallon storefront.
"We did it on a shoestring budget," said Kim. "I told him we didn't have money to do it. He'd have to wait. Our daughter was a senior in high school when we got the lease."
They called it "Hemingway's" after the author and after a restaurant in Toronto by the same name.
"It attracted the right people," said Mike. "It would bring in thinkers, doers. (Ours is) a bistro to come and hang out. It's food for thought. Take your time. It's not fast food, It's slow food. Sit down, enjoy. Have a glass of wine. Food will come out in 20 minutes."
The decor is a mix of recycled materials, including tables and chairs. A former Borders bookshelf holds wine glasses. Old bicycles hang from the ceiling. Mike's artwork decorates the walls.
"I call it the Mike Smith retrospective," he said. "It's from high school to college to when we got married."
The eclectic menu ranges from cheese plates, $7.95 and $11.95, Zen bruschetta, with capers, fresh tomatoes, olives and grated cheese, $3.95 or $6.95, and edamame, $4.95, to Scottish salmon, $17.95, topped with capers, and served with mashed potatoes and spring vegetables. Burgers include the Zen turkey burger, $8.95 with roasted tomatoes, roasted asparagus, flash-fried spinach and feta cheese.
Baked Meatballs on Naan, $10.95, was a happy accident.
"We ran out of French bread," said Mike. "It's kind of Bangladesh meets Stockholm. We use a house-made marinara ..."
Desserts include what they call the 200-year-old Apple Dessert, $6.95, a traditional old Irish apple custard topped with meringue.
"We try to keep it simple and do a few things really good," said Mike. "The menus will follow the seasons."
Give them a heads up and they'll customize your dinner.
"If anyone wants a gluten-free dinner, call us in advance," said Mike. "We can accommodate anything. It just takes a phone call."
They use locally produced food whenever possible and serve local beers from Excel Bottleworks in Breese and Urban Chestnut in O'Fallon, Mo. They offer wines not often found in stores.
Local musicians play, including local Irish band Celtica on Tuesdays and Tailgate Troubadores on weekends. Steve Korritta is an every other Friday regular.
"They found us," said Mike. "They showed up, and offered to play."
On a late Tuesday afternoon, Billie Holiday music played in the background. Chef Dennis Miller stepped from the kitchen, tossing a metal pot of old-fashioned stove-top popcorn, drizzled with olive oil.
A regular named Raymond Brierly ordered pork loin with mashed potatoes and green beans, $17.95.
"It's good," he said. " I am not just saying that."
A few seats down the bar, Brooke Lobb, of O'Fallon, sat alongside Bryan Pease, of St. Louis.
"I heard they had really good beer and food," said Bryan, sampling a chicken quesadilla. "This is my warm-up. Oh my gosh, it's awesome, and I like good food."
Mike stepped behind the bar and engaged them in conversation.
"We try to know everybody by name," he said later. "Cheers is one of our role models."
The Smiths, who live a few miles from their restaurant, raise chickens and turkeys and tend beehives. Kim is a former dance and yoga instructor. One of Mike's claims to fame is creating the Budweiser "Frogs" advertising spot with three frogs croaking "Bud," "Weis," "er."
The restaurant is something the couple do together.
"It's fun, but very hard," said Kim, of owning a business, "the hardest job I have ever had. It can be stressful. It's a lot of late nights. We're revisiting our early 20s."
"My hours in advertising were about the same, 14 to 16 hours a day," said Mike, who still does consulting work. "It's taken so much time and energy to get off the ground. My impetus was being fired at 50. The whole idea of being self-employed, that's what drives me: to be off the grid and doing it on my own."
Their biggest surprise?
"The warm welcome we've received," said MIke.
"The customers who have become friends," said Kim. "There's almost a fellowship of people wanting us to be successful."
f you go:
What: Hemingway's Zen Garden
Where: 123 East First St., O'Fallon
Hours: 4 p.m. to 1 a.m. Mondays through Saturdays
Contact: 632-6008 or Facebook, for upcoming special events
Wheelchair accessible: Yes