Many Jefferson Countians recall having a meal at Opal’s Restaurant, a fixture along Hwy. 21 north of Hillsboro for the last half of the 20th century. On the south side of the property was a gas station, and its above-ground tanks painted with a hillbilly motif were a landmark.
The 6-acre property, which includes an old, four-room motel, a large pole barn and a three-bedroom private residence, is on the market.
It is listed with Sarah Jackson of Realty Executives Premiere for $600,000.
Before the completion of I-55 in the county in the 1970s, Hwy. 21 was a major thoroughfare between St. Louis and points south, and Opal’s was a happening place.
“Between St. Louis and Potosi, that was pretty much it as far as a place to spend the night,” said the property’s current owner, Bruce Howard, grandson of founder Opal Howard. “There were a few other restaurants, a bar in Hillsboro, but there wasn’t much.”
Howard, 56, has been preserving the property for the past five years, with an eye to reopening the diner-style eatery, but he recently decided the time has come to sell instead.
“I had all sorts of hopes and dreams,” he said. “I wanted to reopen it, but you know, life just takes you in a different direction sometimes.”
Howard would love to see someone else take on the challenge, though.
“You’d be amazed how much traffic goes up and down that road,” he said. “I thought, if somebody wanted to, they could build a clientele really fast.”
Opal Howard opened the restaurant in 1958 and the motel was added in 1963.
“She was the chef and ran the place, and it was mostly local waitresses she hired,” her grandson said. “I was 19 when I started working there in 1982; I used to drive across the (Sandy Creek) Covered Bridge to get to work.”
The menu was hearty, home-cooked food, and lots of it.
“It was cafeteria style,” Howard said. “You picked up your tray and walked along in front of the steam tables and asked for what you want. We did bacon and eggs or biscuits and gravy for breakfast, then burgers or Salisbury steak or stuffed peppers for lunch. We didn’t buy anything pre-made; everything was from scratch.”
Opal’s was something of a hangout for locals, from students at the nearby Jefferson College to Jefferson County Courthouse staff to senior citizens.
“We had our regulars,” Howard said. “One guy used to come in and get a bacon and grape jelly sandwich. The church crowd came in waves on Sunday mornings.
“The daily regulars would come in and sit around and talk, nurse a cup of coffee for an hour or more.”
Opal stepped down in the late 70s, turning over operations to some of her employees. Her grandson said that led to a noticeable downturn in the business.
“They tried, but they just weren’t as invested in it, and they didn’t really know what they were doing,” he said. “Also, I think it was a lot more work than they thought it would be.”
In 1980, his parents, the late Leslie Howard and his wife, Elizabeth, bought the business and, over the next two decades, slowly turned it back around.
For a brief time in the 1980s, the restaurant even went to 24-hour service.
“There are lots of stories from that time – it was definitely an interesting crowd,” Howard said. “Man, you could really enjoy Halloween night, after the bars closed.”
The Howard family ran the business as a family enterprise.
“Monday through Friday, Dad was the morning cook, then again Saturday and Sunday evenings,” Bruce said. “He was putting in probably 70-80 hours a week. I was the chef in the evenings, and my brother, Curt, washed dishes. I worked there until 1991.”
Sky’s the limit
Opal’s closed for good in 2001, when the Howards decided to devote more time to traveling.
Bruce, who inherited the property after the 2015 death of his father, has been keeping up with maintenance and improvements ever since.
“I’d go at least once a week to work on things, and I put in a lot of time trying to keep it usable,” he said.
He replaced the HVAC systems and installed new windows in 2018, and has upgraded the plumbing and electrical systems over the years.
“All the kitchen equipment works,” he said. “All the stoves, ovens, fryers, the bar fridge, everything except the kitchen fridge; I can’t get the parts I need for that.”
He said the old adage, ‘They don’t make ’em like they used to’ definitely applies to Opal’s.
“These old machines, they were good quality and they have just lasted,” he said. “It has this terrific terrazzo floor. I just love that floor, the way it helps maintain the temperature in the whole building.”
In recent months, however, Howard said he’s stopped making improvements, because of the uncertainty of the property’s future. “Suppose somebody comes in and buys it and decides to gut it or even take it down? That would be a lot of effort wasted,” he said. “So I’m down to just mowing the grass.”
Howard hopes the next owner will reopen the restaurant as a vintage diner, but acknowledges it has potential for other uses as well.
“I would have loved to open the motel again,” he said. “But you could make it a duplex or a single home, or even turn it into four separate offices.
“The new owner could make the place into an event venue, build a new restaurant and use this one as a banquet hall.
“It’s a sizeable piece of property. Your imagination is the only limitation.”
For more information on the property, contact Jackson at realtyexecutives.com or by phone at 314-496-4983.