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Turning to the River

Emily and Uriah Steber sat on the tailgate of their pickup and imagined how their restaurant, Drifters Bar and Grille, might fit along the banks of the Missouri River.

American rivers were once treated as the backyards of our cities, convenient places for unsightly factories, meatpacking plants, city dumps, salvage yards and such. South Dakota was no exception, even along the fabled Missouri River. Sioux Falls architect Tom Hurlbert saw that paradox when he traveled to Fort Pierre to assist with plans for a new riverside restaurant called Drifters Bar & Grille.

“It was a bit surprising that for as much as Pierre and Fort Pierre, and South Dakota for that matter, are influenced by the Missouri, that much of the city and state has turned its back to the river,” Hurlbert says. “Drifters was an opportunity to turn back toward the water.”

The vision, says Hurlbert, came from the Zarecky family — especially Emily Zarecky Steber, a Pierre native who grew up on the river. “We spent our summers on the water, sometimes from sunrise to sunset,” she says.

Her parents, Mark and Glennis Zarecky, bought the property 12 years ago and had development plans “shovel ready” in 2011 when the great flood hit the Missouri, swamping the river valley for months. Emily always thought the riverside location would be perfect for a restaurant. She went off to college at the University of South Dakota where she gained restaurant business experience while working at Chae’s, a then-popular Vermillion eatery. After graduation, she continued to learn the trade at top restaurants in Denver and Sioux Falls.

As the riverfront property recovered from the flood, Emily longed to go home. Her family redrew plans for the development — which include a 78-slip marina, commercial and residential space — and then her fiancé, Uriah Steber, also grew enthused about the dream of a restaurant.    

“We sat down here when it was all dirt and had dinner on the back of my pickup truck and envisioned what we wanted,” says Emily. “Uriah and I got engaged there where that middle booth would be.” The restaurant opened in May of 2016 and they were married in June of 2017.

“Clearly our major theme is nautical,” says the young restauranteur, “but we wanted to have western and industrial elements as well, along with an outdoor fireplace and cedar siding.”

Hurlbert says the Zareckys’ love of the Missouri was inspiring. “Emily and her family had lots of experiences and ideas that came from being on and around the Missouri, but they were also influenced by travels around the country, particularly from the architecture and landscape around other bodies of water. They saw an opportunity to help create and capture a river identity.”

Emily’s love of the water is reflected throughout the 13,000-square-foot restaurant and event space. Her father stamped a nautical compass on the concrete floor. Boat cleats serve as purse hooks. An authentic wooden canoe from Steber’s home state of Wisconsin was repurposed and wired for lighting over the bar. Exposed ceiling beams were shaped like the hull of a large ship.

Aficionados of both beer and boating seem to enjoy the Brewski, a wood water ski with 16 holes that hold 5-ounce sampler glasses. Visitors also love to pose for pictures with Mojo, a giant steel pelican created by a Florida artist.

Immense windows offer views of historic LaFramboise Island, Griffin Park and a sandbar known as Discover Island where waterfowl and eagles often gather.

Drifters soon became a popular part of the Pierre-Fort Pierre dining and entertainment culture, and the satisfied customers include the architect. “I’ve had the opportunity to sit outside on the patio on a cool summer evening with a fire going and enjoy a great meal with the sounds of the river in the air and the silhouette of the capitol against the Missouri Hills,” says Hurlbert. “It’s a beautiful place. Of course nature and the kitchen did most of the heavy lifting on that night. All we had to do was create a nice space to land and get out of the way.”

Editor’s Note: This story is revised from the September/October 2018 issue of South Dakota Magazine. To order a copy or to subscribe, call (800) 456-5117.


09:03 am - Mon, January 6 2020
James Fry said:
Great story about a great establishment. Thanks for highlighting a crown jewel of the Pierre/Ft. Pierre area and giving due credit to these people who have worked hard to make this a reality and a success.
06:00 am - Fri, January 10 2020
Dedra Shaw said:
So happy and proud to have such a beautiful place like this along our river! We are very lucky that someone had the guts to go for it!!!
10:59 pm - Thu, February 27 2020
Stefan Lewandowski said:
Inspirational story, hard work and vision gives a profound benefit. Same happening here in Murray Bridge, South Australia where a revival of paddle ships and boutique dining experiences is evolving around a river theme.

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