James Probstein cannot verify the urban legend surrounding the chicken wings of his Ladue pillar, Sports park (9901, chemin Clayton, Ladue; 314-991-3381), but rumors have been circulating for years. Word on the street is that Jackie Smith, an NFL Hall of Fame member and former restaurant co-owner (along with James Norman’s dad), was the person who brought the Buffalo Wings to St. Louis when the restaurant took over. opened in the 1970s.. It makes sense; Smith’s footballing career took him regularly to Buffalo, where he played against the Bills and nibbled on wings when he wasn’t on the field. As Probstein explains, no one knows if it’s really true, but the mystery is part of the fun.
“Legend has it that he tried them on in Buffalo and brought them to town,” says Probstein. “We can’t prove it, but when we opened as Jackie’s Place in 1974 they weren’t on the menu at the very beginning, but soon after. We still sell a lot of them, but we are known for other things now. ”
Even though Sportsman’s Park’s status as the source of St. Louis’ chicken wing culture is false, that doesn’t detract from its special place in the heart of the city. Since opening 47 years ago as Jackie’s Place, the restaurant has become a popular gathering place, not only for its immediate neighbors in Ladue, but also for sports fans across the region, thanks to its impressive collection of photographs and memorabilia collected over the years.
Probstein’s father Norman had such a vision in mind when he stumbled upon the place nearly five decades ago. A longtime hospitality professional who operated several businesses around town in hotels in the area, the elder Probstein was looking for a well-located, self-contained location to open a small neighborhood restaurant. The building at 9901 Clayton Road ticked all the right boxes, and he was eager to sign the lease and get down to business with the right partner by his side.
That person would be Smith, to whom Norman was introduced by Bill Bidwell, then owner of the Cardinals football team. Norman, who knew Bidwell socially, was a regular at football games, often taking his son with him to watch the action on the pitch and meet the players. This connection led to a business relationship between Norman and Smith, and the two operated the restaurant together for four years until Smith decided to pursue other interests. Two years later, Norman changed the name of the restaurant to Sportsman’s Park, a nod to the former home of the St. Louis Browns and St. Louis Cardinals baseball teams.
From the start, James Probstein was there alongside his father and started making a living as a dishwasher as soon as he was of working age. While he was never explicitly told or expected to take over the restaurant when his father was ready to retire, he knew, deep down, that he was going to be in the hotel business in a way. or another because of his early exposure to it.
“Growing up with my father in the hotel and restaurant business, I went to work with him every Saturday morning,” says Probstein. “I never really knew anything else; I just assumed I would be in business, went to school and got a degree in hospitality and catering, and I got started with my father, without ever thinking too much about it. I never took it for granted that I would still be here in this place at this age, but it just happened. And I think that’s a good thing. ”
Probstein thrives in Sportsman’s operation because he knows what it means for the community. While he has seen Ladue’s gastronomic landscape change over the years – with mainstays like Busch’s Grove, Schneithorst’s and even the Ladue Market grocer shutting down – he can’t help but feel a sense of responsibility to keep living the legacy of Sportsman’s Park as a means of maintaining a connection to the history of the region. He admits it’s a balance. While he understands the importance of being adaptable and flexible, he has also learned over the years that people don’t want things to change so much and are more concerned with being able to walk into a place they see fit. familiar.
“We had to embrace without fundamentally changing who we are,” says Probstein. “For years I used to think that we needed to refresh and that we needed new items, so I would add the ones around the edges. I finally got to the point where I stopped doing it. do it several years ago because most people weren’t doing it. want things to change. They just want us to do what we are doing right and keep doing it, so why bother?
However, Sportsman’s has had to adapt over the past couple of years. Probstein notes the challenges presented by the pandemic, but he feels lucky to have done well in spite of them. He thanks his loyal customers for supporting the restaurant and his staff through it all, and he appreciates their grace and patience as he and his team have had to go through the ups and downs of the past year and a half. However, he is quick to recognize a silver lining.
“We finally have an outdoor seating area,” laughs Probstein. “It only took 46 years and a pandemic, but better late than never.”
Aside from this new outdoor space, Probstein doesn’t anticipate there will be any other changes to the deck at Sportsman, other than an upcoming Wayne Gretzky Memorabilia Wall hosted by The Great himself. It will join the tribute to the late Jack Buck that the restaurant has on one of its walls, one of the many reasons Sportsman’s is considered a temple of sports culture in St. Louis – and in turn, to the culture of Saint-Louis in general. This, plus the great food, longtime staff, and generations of regulars are what Sportsman’s resistance is and why Probstein believes he will be there for years to come.
“We’re in this great neighborhood and are just one of those one-off restaurants that people love,” Probstein said. “At the end of the day, if you have a cozy restaurant that people love to be in and feel comfortable in, and they have great food and good service, that’s what they want. make you feel like you’re somewhere else – not in the real world – and people like that. To keep doing that, you have to keep coming every day and act like it’s the first day you were here; you have to stay focused and not make yourself comfortable just because you’ve been here for a long time. ”
We are always hungry for advice and feedback. Email the author at [email protected]
- Sign up for our weekly newsletters to get the latest news, things to do and places to eat straight to your inbox.
- Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.