The Wooden Tie Cafe is one of the newest restaurants in the Highland area, but it’s old school in many ways.
It’s housed in a 1920 brick home, filled with hardwood floors, massive woodwork, built-in cabinets and leaded- and stained-glass windows. It’s on a main drag in the quiet town of Pierron, off Interstate 70, which has fewer than 600 residents.
The restaurant is owned by the Jackson family, whose members do everything from smoke barbecue to pour drinks, including a wide variety of bourbons.
“It has way exceeded my expectations,” said Joe Jackson, 37. “We thought we were going to be a corner dive bar where you could get a burger and a beer. But it has evolved into a destination place with people traveling from as far away as St. Charles, just for lunch, and we also get traffic off the interstate.”
Joe was sitting at a table in the former living room, next to a wood stove in front of the fireplace. Shelves on either side are filled with memorabilia from the original owners, who ran Mewes & Schrumpf mercantile across the street.
Joe was wearing a wooden tie, which he made himself as part of a local woodworking club. The tie came into play when the Jacksons were trying to think of a name for the restaurant.
“A friend of the family said, ‘Wouldn’t I like to go to the Wooden Tie?’ And the light bulb came on,” Joe said. “We were like, ‘We’ve got to do it.’”
Restaurant uses locally raised meats
The Wooden Tie specializes in smoked meats, including pulled pork, beef brisket, turkey, chicken and ribs that are cooked all night ($9 to $13 for sandwiches with a side; $12 to $15 for most platters with two sides).
“We try to get everything as local as possible,” said Joe’s brother, Andrew, 34, who serves as manager in the afternoons and evenings. “Some of it’s homegrown or farm-raised. Some of it comes from the local butcher shop.”
The restaurant also offers hand-pattied burgers, horseshoes with house-made cheese sauce, chicken-salad sandwiches, BLTs, Southwest turkey wraps and tacos ($7 to $11 with a side), as well as loaded baked potatoes, soup, chili, salads and appetizers such as nachos and homemade chips.
Desserts include bread pudding made daily and Hank’s Cheesecakes from St. Louis. There are rotating specials and seasonal dishes with fresh fruit and produce.
“Usually, people don’t have room to eat dessert here, but they take a piece home for a midnight snack or early breakfast,” Mary said.
These customers love the food, service
Electrician Justin Frank, 33, who lives down the street, was glad to see the Wooden Tie open in the fall of 2017.
“There was nowhere to go to get any kind of food besides Highland,” he said. “There weren’t any options out here. This place has good food and a friendly atmosphere.”
Justin helped the Jacksons with wiring and other renovation projects. Today, he usually gets the Big Bad Piggy, a sandwich of pulled pork, bacon, cheddar cheese, cole slaw and fried onions with KC barbecue and Alabama white sauce ($11 with a side).
Other regulars include Highland residents Nancy and Randy Flachsbart, who stop in the restaurant about once a week.
“No. 1, the service is friendly,” said Nancy, 72, a retired pension specialist. “No. 2, the food is just superb, and No. 3, the prices are good. We’ve brought a lot of people here, and they all love it, too.”
“They have a bourbon list to kill for,” added Randy, 75, a retired fundraiser.
Nancy usually orders the Turkey Tie with cherrywood-smoked turkey breast, bacon and melted provolone, garlic aioli, lettuce and tomato on grilled wheatberry bread ($10 with a side). Randy likes the Big Bad Brisket with smoked brisket, grilled mushrooms, onions, peppers, pepper Jack cheese and Alabama white sauce on grilled rye bread ($11 with a side).
Family members are managers and chefs
The Jacksons originally employed a chef to run the Wooden Tie kitchen, but he moved onto another opportunity after nine months. Now family members work in shifts to keep things rolling.
Joe comes in early to prepare meats for the smoker before driving to St. Louis for his full-time position as automotive instructor at St. Louis Community College at Forest Park.
“He leaves and goes to what he calls his ‘real’ job,” said Andrew, a former John Deere salesman and Ameren real-estate agent. “I really think that this is more work, but that’s OK.”
Lunch is supervised by Joe and Andrew’s mother, Sharon, a retired KPLR-TV salesperson. Joe’s wife, Mary, 36, keeps the books when not working as a Highland High School counselor. Sharon’s husband, Bob, a retired boilermaker, also is involved.
“He’s like the wizard behind the curtain,” Joe said. “He cleans the smoker and is our general repairman. He wants nothing to do with the public or limelight.”
Mary and Joe’s daughter, Emma, 9, helps out by waiting tables or washing dishes. Seven-year-old son Tommy also has his say, earning the nickname “foreman.”
Owners renovated home in 2017
Construction on the Mewes home at 206 Illinois 143 in Pierron was completed in 1920. The Jacksons bought it in 2016, unsure of what to do with it. They already owned a vacant lot next door, where Jen’s Westside tavern had operated for decades before being destroyed by a fire and leaving the town without an eating place.
One option was tearing down the home and building a new restaurant, but the price tag was high. Another was renovating the home, which had major problems, including a collapsed roof over the porch and part of the upstairs.
The family went with Option 2.
“Originally, I said (to Joe), ‘Are you crazy?’” Mary said. “Then he started talking about the woodwork and the floors and the character of the home. So I came up here with the kids, and I said, ‘You’re right. We can’t tear this place down.’ So we rallied all the troops and spent nine months doing the rehab.”
They tried to save as many original features as possible while installing new handicap-accessible bathrooms and creating a commercial kitchen. With help from friends, they also custom-built a wooden bar in front of a built-in hutch in the former dining room.
Restaurant hours are 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays and 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sundays. The phone number is 618-973-1385. Two upstairs bedrooms are used for overflow seating, meetings and private parties.
“When big groups come in for birthdays or anniversaries, we get everybody together for pictures, and they get to decide who wears the wooden tie,” Mary said. “It’s fun. It’s just something different.”