A conversation with Joe Edwards on life, peacocks and rock ’n’ roll history
I returned to the Peacock Diner for the first time since my 24-hour stay on a pleasant but brisk Friday afternoon. Joe Edwards, the diner’s owner, and I had arranged an interview. Late in our conversation, after discussing all of the arranged topics and questions, Joe Edwards belted out into song: “We’ve gotta get outa this place, if it’s the last thing we ever do!” It’s a classic tune, “We’ve gotta get outa this place” by The Animals, and one that Edwards said fits well with the passion he felt as a young man.
“It’s such a strong, emotional feeling…few songs have that,” he said.
But Edwards, who has a hand in many of the businesses and projects that have made the Delmar Loop one of the top 10 streets in America, has made his life purposeful by improving, not leaving behind, this place he calls home. This philosophy gets at a deeper meaning in the song: not the need to escape a location but to escape or rebuild a way of life or being that has become part of that location. Edwards has long worked to preserve St. Louis history, remembering both the good and bad, while making the Loop a safer and more enjoyable place for everyone.
“My theory is…[St. Louis is] known as the gateway to the west, so the whole east-to-west migration happened. But at the same time, or similar times, the whole south-to-north migration is happening…There was just this collision that resulted in an explosion of creativity,” Edwards said.
His passion for St. Louis culture, food and entertainment took its initial form in Blueberry Hill, the restaurant Edwards opened in 1972 as a tribute to pop culture memorabilia and rock ’n’ roll.
“I took my record collection and my pop culture collection and said, ‘I’m gonna try opening a pub. I’ve never run a restaurant or a pub in my life,’” Edwards said, looking back on that first venture.
But that desire to create an enjoyable space for people to gather and eat soon turned to grander social ideas.
“I realized within a week that if I didn’t work on the area I wouldn’t succeed at Blueberry Hill. So I got all the business owners that I could…and talked to city hall, talked to police and fire…to say, ‘Hey, lets not give up on the area.’”
This revitalization has, in more recent years, included the opening of the Lofts apartments for Washington University students. Edwards feels that the Lofts have helped make the Loop a more vibrant and safer place.
“They followed great city design by allowing retail to be on the first floor. What they did connects east and west just so much together. And it also makes it just instantly, the minute they open it, safer,” he said.
Another of his recent endeavors is the re-integration of a trolley system into the Loop. He highly values public transportation and said that an announcement about the trolley will be coming in several weeks.
“I want to make sure the trolley barn is right and the displays are good. I’m collecting stuff about transportation and trolleys in particular for that,” Edwards said.
This passion for collecting is nothing new, as is obvious by stepping into any one of Edwards’ restaurants. Blueberry Hill’s walls are lined with toys, records, sheet music and even stuffed deer heads. The Peacock Diner has displays dedicated to the eponymous animal, while Pinup Bowl is what Edwards calls “a great martini bar with a bowling alley in the back.” The passion for collecting interesting and colorful things has followed Edwards throughout his life.
“I collected rocks and stones when I was 2 because they were free and pretty soon baseball cards and comic books and records and all,” he said.
Pop culture is the obvious focus of Edwards’ collection, and his obsession even carried over into his time in the army. While at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, Edwards carried his shaving supplies in a Superman lunch box.
“It just helped me get through with a connection to being an individual. It really was nice to see those brilliant colors on that lunch box,” Edwards said.
When he speaks about something as simple and evocative as a drawing of Superman on a lunch box, you begin to see the clarity of vision and design that drives Edwards. I mentioned that this clarity of vision closely parallels the clarity of diction in the singing of Nat King Cole (a quality that was incredibly inspirational to Edwards’ close friend, musical legend Chuck Berry). Edwards softly smiled and said, “I never thought about it before. Possibly so.”
This clarity takes its most prominent form in the Peacock Diner, with its clean lines, bright pops of color and welcoming atmosphere. The diner has been open since the fall but is now entering what Edwards calls a period of refinement. The menu, previously separated into three separate pages, has been consolidated into one. Peacock Diner will also be developing more daily specials as a space to experiment with new dishes.
As successful as the Loop and Edwards have been in recent years, the area is not immune to failure. Cheese-ology, an all macaroni-and-cheese restaurant, recently announced its closing, and comic book store Star Clipper will be closing soon as well.
When I asked Edwards about these recent closings, he said, “It’s mainly part of the normal business cycle…it’s a typical time that a lot of businesses close.” His larger concern is what will become of those spaces in the future.
“The Loop built up around all these independent retailers,” Edwards said. He values these kinds of shops above chain restaurants, which, while often profitable, do less to inspire regional pride.
These ideals hit upon another element in The Animals’ lyrics that Edwards passionately sang. It’s the “we” that singer Eric Bourdon punches into at the beginning of the chorus. The “we” emphasizes that while every journey includes isolation, it succeeds because of cooperation.
Edwards was quick to admit the need for cooperation and acknowledge the importance of those who came before, whether in his love for rock ’n’ roll history or in his own business.
“Everybody, if they’re truthful, will admit, well, ‘I didn’t invent rock and roll, but I was influenced by so and so and I did so and so,’” he said. He was speaking, of course, about Chuck Berry, but the metaphor extends to his own life: “All I ever try to do is create something where people feel comfortable and enjoy life.”