Inside St. Louis

Gordon’s Stoplight Drive-In

An original water color of Gordon's Stoplight Drive-In by local artist Marilynne Bradley.

Gordon's Stoplight Drive-In

     You’ll get a first hand feel of the way Mid-America was, is, and will be, any day you hop on a stool at the counter of that legendary Crystal City landmark - Gordon’s Stoplight Drive-In, as this is where the past, present and future truly blend together. The Stoplight has been both an eating and meeting-place since the late Gordon Heddell started this hamburger and chili haven in 1948. Heddell, who was a WWII naval aviator, passed away in 2007, but he’d already turned the business over to Lori and Curt Grass ten years earlier. Lori and Curt as was their predecessor at the grill are Twin City natives; Lori actually grew up next door to Gordon. Their son Chris, who has a degree in Business Management from Lindenwood University, has taken over the operation and today as always Gordon’s original recipes are carefully followed including the chili that’s just the way it was 61 years ago – thick, rich and just a tad spicy. So for $2.79 you can enjoy a bowl of history that can take you back to the halcyon days of Crystal City when it was the plate glass capitol of the world. The glass companies starting in 1871 with the American Plate Glass Co. came there because of the high quality silica to be found along Plattin Creek. The owner of that firm, Ebenezer B. Ward was from Detroit and gave the town its original name of New Detroit.


     The Stoplight as seen from a satellite map is dangerously near the pesky Mississippi River a few blocks to the east, and ‘Ol Man River must know the reputation of the good eats at The Stoplight ‘cause it’s been an occasional unwanted visitor there as well as to much of this City of Crystal. But the regulars and the newcomers who come from far and wide know the Stoplight welcome mat is always out for them…and people do come from everywhere. You might find Mehlville residents Nick Berring and Glen Bartels enjoying a hearty Stoplight breakfast such as the Slinger - jam packed with hamburger, a couple of eggs, cheese, hash browns, chili, tomato and onion piled on toast for $5.99. Or when former U. S. Senator and basketball star Bill Bradley, a Crystal Citian, comes calling, he might put away a Stoplight Famous Jumbo Burger with slaw, chopped onion and BBQ sauce for $2.39. (This special sauce is now bottled and available at the Stoplight as well as the local Shop and Save supermarket.) Ex-Congressman Dick Gephardt and former Missouri Governor Bill Holden enjoyed Stoplight fare when they inspected the flood of 2002 from the sand-bagged sandwich center. But for the most part the clientele is made up of locals who in many cases have been Stoplight diners for decades. It wouldn’t surprise me if Crystal City mayor Tom Schilly and city clerk Debbie Johnson might also be Stoplighters.


     There are no booths and no tables at the Stoplight, just a counter with just 20 stools that are often occupied, requiring a very short wait. The Stoplight’s popularity and bill of fare, is much like that of Carl’s Drive-In at 9033 Manchester Rd. in Brentwood with their foamy home-made root-beer, Crown Candy Kitchen at N. 14th St. and St. Louis Ave. (where you’ll find the Johnny Rabbitt Special Fresh Banana Malt with whipped cream, chopped nuts and nutmeg) or Dr. Jazz in downtown Lebanon IL. And it’s the way it used to be at past places such as Art Wild’s Palace of Poison on Lemay Ferry Rd., Hoppe’s Drive-In in the 6000 block of Chippewa, Schem’s on Hampton at Pernod Aves, the original Fitz’s Drive-In on Clayton Rd. in Richmond Heights and Eaker’s hamburger stand on S. Vandeventer just north of Shenandoah Ave.


     Your Stoplight server might well be Nicole Jercinovic who started working there when she was sweet 16 and a Crystal City High School Hornet. Now at a sweet 22 she’s studying behavioral science and psychology and will soon start on a Masters Degree program. Most of the Stoplight staff has been there for 8 to 12 years and usually know exactly what the many regular customers want as soon as they come in the door. Curb service is a thing of the past at the Stoplight, but there is a walk up window that stays pretty busy in nice weather and a good number of people will call in their order and pick it up at the window. The Stoplight has two mottos: #1 “Serving the best hamburgers in the world since 1948” and #2 “Serving freshly cooked breakfast since 1948.” Breakfast is available Monday through Saturday from 8:30 ‘til 11 and their big fluffy omelets are worth the trip with a two-egg version at $4.99. Or you might go for a couple of big pancakes with a pair of eggs, 1 sausage and 2 strips of crispy bacon for $4.69. The sausage is specially made using the 1948 Stoplight recipe. I’d suggest a cup of Ronocco coffee, the brand that got its name by reversing the name of the old O’Connor coffee company in St. Louis.


     If you pass the Stoplight some Friday at dawn and swear there’s a whole football team in red and white numbered jerseys manning the stools, it’s not an illusion, as the place is filled with uniformed players from Crystal City High on game day. Preparing the breakfasts is the team’s wide receiver coach who also just happens to be none other than the Stoplight owner Chris Grass supervising what’s become a tradition. Tradition is strong in Crystal with schools such as Crystal City High, St. Pius X High, Jefferson College and a business district on Bailey Rd. and Truman Blvd. (61-67) that would be the envy of town’s 10 times the size of Crystal City with it’s population of, at last count, 4,549. Not bad for a town built for an industry that abandoned the city 19 years ago. The glass manufacturing businesses started with American Plate Glass that sold to Crystal Plate Glass in 1877 and in turn they sold out to Pittsburgh Plate Glass in 1895. The glass companies actually owned the entire town until 1906. 101 years ago PPG built a new factory that was powered by steam generated by electricity. It was called Crystal City Works Nine and was the largest such operation in the entire world. The glass that was made there gave life and growth to Crystal City but the glass era came to an end when the plant shut down for good in December of 1990. Then came two huge debilitating floods nine years apart. But through the strength of its people and its proximity to Metro St. Louis this bastion of small town Americana has survived and if today you were to take a ride on its main drags you’d be amazed by the more than 100 active businesses that line the streets in this thriving community. The Miller theatre may be gone, but so are most old movie houses in any community in the country. The theatre building is still there as is the former Crystal City bank building that’s now occupied by the Bank of Bloomsdale. And of course there’s the Stoplight a place that’s far more than a hamburger joint - it’s the heart of Crystal City.


     Under the red roof of the Stoplight Drive-In Chris Grass could see the world go by through the made in Crystal City windows, but he doesn’t have to as the world comes to him at the 20 count ‘em 20 stools in this place where time has a tendency to stop and old and new customers of all ages share their days past and present as well as their dreams.



     Gordon's Stoplight Drive-In is located 27 miles south of St. Louis.  Click here for MapQuest directions.

Click here for a few images of the Stoplight Drive-In


Written by: Ron (Johnny Rabbitt) Elz of KMOX and Channel  5’s Show Me St. Louis.


Contact Information

Gordon’s Stoplight Drive-In

500 Bailey Rd. (Highway 61-67)
Crystal City, Missouri
(636) 937-9678

Hours of Operation

Monday - Saturday:  8:30 to 8:30
Sunday:  10 to 8:30

Click here to view all of the featured places from Inside St. Louis

Return to E-Newsletter

What is Inside St. Louis

Click here to return home