Touted as being the oldest continuous operation saloon west of the Mississippi, First Ward House has had quite the history.
Opened in 1878, the restaurant, located at 2101 St. Joseph Ave., may have seen some rather famous guests who frequented the area, like Jesse James and Bonnie and Clyde. Of historical note, First Ward originally was four stories tall back in its heyday, and after dropping a few stories, its bricks were used as replacements at the Pony Express Stables.
“It’s had a lot of owners over a lot of years,” owner Ryan Gerster says. “But it’s still here, still operating, and that hasn’t stopped even though there have been some serious roadblocks.”
Those roadblocks came in the form of three separate fires, with the most recent one taking place in 2015, resulting in massive interior damage as well as a gofundme page created by the business to help restore the building.
The restoration effort led to First Ward proudly displaying the original burnt sign in its dining room, scorch marks and all. But that wasn’t the only thing that was saved.
“That is the original 1878 bar top,” Gerster says. “Not a lot of parts in there are original, but that one is. The history carries through that one piece, and that is why we do not change that one piece in the dining room.”
FIRST WARD TODAY
Walking into First Ward today, it can be hard to pinpoint one defining feature.
“It’s really great, because when you walk in, you can kind of do a 360-degree turn and find something for everyone,” Chelsea Reichel, the executive officer at First Ward, says.
Everything from a pool table to an original Nintendo Entertainment System to a dart board can be found along the edges of the dining area, all anchored by a stage the sits prominently at the far wall, where live music is played on the weekends.
“We’ve kind of established a name for ourselves as far as being a live music venue in Northwest Missouri, so when bands are coming through the area, they reach out to us for the most part,” Reichel says. “But we’re also a hub for our local celebrities. We do like our local bands that frequent here as friends and patrons as well.”
But from the outside, First Ward’s most notable feature is the covered deck outside, which Gerster and Reichel say continues to change as patrons ask for new ways to keep themselves entertained with friends and family.
“Over time, we’ve provided the cornhole game, we have deck Jenga and the outdoor bar will be functioning this summer,” Reichel says. “We have a live music series, that’ll be Sundays from 5 to 8 on the deck, and that will be a rotation of a few different artists.”
An outdoor stage is in the works as well. The deck is also pet friendly, and First Ward has been host to special events like graduations parties, birthdays and even weddings.
FOOD, DRINK AND SOCIAL MEDIA
With 20 taps that rotate to adjust for seasonal changes in alcohol, as well as soft drinks, coffee and tea, there’s no limit to the drink selection at First Ward, Gerster says.
And that variety extends to the menu as well, as the saloon specializes in sandwiches and burgers while also featuring a number of appetizers, wraps and salads. And while the kitchen is open until 9 p.m., the extended menu, made up of appetizers, is available up to midnight on the weekends, earning it the nickname “the Gremlin Menu.”
“Our most popular item is the Jesse Jameson, which is melted cheese on three meats, or the Uncle Jesse, which is a reference to ‘Dukes of Hazard’ rather than ‘Full House,’” Gerster says. “It’s three meats, three cheeses and bacon.”
The meats, such as the pulled pork, turkey, brisket and wings are all smoked in-house, and both Gerster are Reichel are constantly looking for feedback, something that becomes apparent when you look at the saloon’s Facebook page.
“It’s our greatest weapon,” Gerster says of social media.
They recently started doing Facebook giveaways, selfie contests, weekly lunches and trivia on Wednesday nights.
“It’s good to be directly interactive with your customers,” Gerster says. “It helps us figure out where we need to go next. And people will tell us, personally.”
First Ward House is open from 11 a.m. to 1:30 a.m. Monday through Saturday, and from 9 a.m. to midnight on Sunday. The late menu is available from Wednesday through Saturday.