Tag Archives: St. Louis

Steakburgers and shakes

After recently reading Roger Ebert’s wonderful book Life Itself, I decided to write this post and dedicate it to him. I loved his depictions of his childhood, which included his first restaurant meal, a steakburger at Steak n Shake, near the campus of the University of Illinois in Champaign where his father worked as an electrician. He has also written about the restaurant on his Sun Times blog.

Even though I grew up in St. Louis, where there were many Steak n Shakes, most with curb service in the early years, I knew nothing about the chain’s history then and mistakenly believed it originated in St. Louis. I’m embarrassed to admit that I held a widespread St. Louis prejudice that few good things came from Illinois, the chain’s first home.

The chain was founded by Gus Belt and his wife Edith. Their basic problem was the Depression. The gas station Gus operated in the town of Normal, Illinois, was not thriving. In 1932 he and Edith decided to extend into the restaurant business by converting a house on the property to an eating place serving Edith’s fried chicken and beer, which was about to become legal in the first stage of Repeal. They called it the Shell Inn.

According to Robert Cronin’s Selling Steakburgers, beer was a bigger hit than chicken. Because Normal was the home of a state college that trained teachers, who were supposed to be morally upright, the town had a long history of forbidding the sale of alcoholic beverages. After a brief wide-open period following Repeal, the town voted 2 to 1 to remain dry. Seeing what was about to befall their eatery, Edith and Gus decided to turn it into a hamburger joint.

They followed an honored tradition in the restaurant business of studying the successful practices of others and copying them like crazy.

The Shell Inn’s prime customers were the students at the nearby teachers college. No doubt the Belts had observed how much college students in the neighboring town of Champaign enjoyed hamburgers at the White Spot, the White House Lunch, Wimpy’s, and Maid-Rite. With the switch to burgers, the Belts renamed their place “Whitehouse Steak n Shake.” Later, they would adopt another idea from Champaign’s hamburger sellers, that of selling burgers by the bag (“Buy ‘Em by the Sack” advertised White Spot), borrowing the “Takhomasak” slogan from a Colorado restaurant. The idea of advertising that your hamburgers contained higher grades of steak was not unique to Steak n Shake. In Detroit during the Depression, there were a couple of places advertising this: the Marcus All Steak Hamburger Restaurant chain, and Meyers Real Steak Hamburgers. I wonder too if the Belts got the idea of serving food on china from Champaign’s Wimpy’s.

Their timing was good. Led by youthful first adopters, hamburgers, once shunned by the middle class who associated them with poverty and adulteration, were gaining respectability. Also reassuring was Steak n Shake’s squeaky clean white tile interior characteristic of 1920s lunch rooms and hamburger chains such as White Castle.

Theirs was among a number of hamburger chains that proliferated in the Midwest and other non-coastal areas during the Depression. Among the chains that got their start then were Little Canary Castle (Winston-Salem NC, 1931), Krystal (Chattanooga TN, 1932), Wimpy Grills (Bloomington IN, 1934), White Hut (Toledo OH, 1935), and Rockybilt (Denver CO, 1936). So the 1930s, which had begun so poorly for the couple, turned out well for them.

By 1940 the Belts had units in Normal’s twin city of Bloomington, as well as Champaign [1937 advertisement above], Decatur, E. Peoria [pictured at top], Galesburg, Danville, and Springfield. In the late 1940s Steak n Shake moved into St. Louis and in 1959, five years after Gus’s death, with Edith at the helm, there were 14 units in that city. Indianapolis [pictured 1965] and Florida were other early markets. By the time Edith sold the family’s controlling interest to the Longchamps corporation in 1969, there were 50 or so units.

After that the story shifts to corporate history, with decades of ups and downs, aborted openings in Chicago and Texas, modernizations and returns to roots, changes in ownership, and further expansion until today when there are almost 500 units in 22 states.

© Jan Whitaker, 2012

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Famous in its day: Miss Hulling’s Cafeteria

In 1978 two of the nation’s top grossing independent restaurants were New York’s Tavern on the Green and Mama Leone’s, according to Restaurant Hospitality magazine. At the first, guest checks averaged $14.50, while at Mama Leone’s the average was $13. A big aspect of both restaurants’ business was alcohol, accounting for 30% of revenues in the case of Warner LeRoy’s Tavern on the Green.

Meanwhile, a sturdy favorite in downtown St. Louis, the venerable Miss Hulling’s, home of chicken livers, creamed spinach, and carrot marshmallow salad — with a negligible drinks business – had a check average of $2. Yet it still managed to rank #58 out of the 500 restaurants in the survey.

Miss Hulling’s was the creation of Florence Hulling, who came to St. Louis around 1907 as a teenager from rural Illinois to work as a private cook. After a few years in domestic service she went to work for the Childs restaurant chain. Eventually she was promoted to manager, a rare status for a woman at that time. Childs closed in 1928 and she and her sister Katherine took over management of the cafeteria in the Missouri Hotel. When it closed in 1930 Florence bought the failed restaurant on the opposite corner and named it the Missouri Cafeteria.  It would stay in business there for the next 62 years [shown just before razing].

In 1934 the Apteds opened a second cafeteria at 8th and Olive, calling it Miss Hulling’s, a name that would eventually apply to the Missouri Cafeteria as well. The Olive Street restaurant occupied a basement site that had previously held the Benish cafeteria [entrance shown] and before that – I think — Lippe’s, a restaurant operated by Detlef van der Lippe.

How well I remember a job I once held chauffeuring an alcoholic boss to Miss Hulling’s, his regular eating place and virtually his true home when he wasn’t bunking in the office of his advertising agency. I suspect he was not the only St. Louisan who relied on Miss Hulling’s for more than just food.

A 1939 Miss Hulling’s menu reveals the kinds of homelike dishes featured there. In addition to those shown, a mimeographed attachment lists a number of dishes not found much in restaurants now. Among the choices are Stuffed Baked Veal Hearts and Braised Ox Joints. If a complete dinner was ordered, for about 50 cents, the diner also got soup or salad, bread and butter, a vegetable such as Creamed Kohlrabi or Fried Egg Plant, a beverage, and a dessert such as Peach Rice Pudding. (See Miss Hulling’s Sour Cream Noodle Bake on my Recipes page.)

In the 1940s and 1950s Miss Hulling’s was just the kind of place that earned high ratings from Duncan Hines and Gourmet’s Guide to Good Eating, the latter reporting, “Everybody in St. Louis swears by Miss Hulling’s. Food is exceptionally delicious, clean, and of high standard.” The cafeterias served their own ice cream and baked goods, used fresh fruit for pies, and prepared food in small batches.

Through succeeding decades the Miss Hulling’s enterprise, headed by the couple’s son Stephen J. Apted, grew large. It acquired Medart’s (turning it into the Cheshire Inn), and opened numerous restaurants in the metro area, among them The Cupboard and the Open Hearth, as well as running food services at two hospitals. Headquarters, including a bakery, were at 11th and Locust above the two-floor cafeteria. At the same location were the more formal dining spot Catfish and Crystal, His Lordship’s Pub, and a bakery and ice cream shop. In 1993 the entire operation at this site was closed down, the same fate having befallen the Olive Street cafeteria some years before.

© Jan Whitaker, 2012

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Famous in its day: Busch’s Grove

Busch’s Grove was a clubby, table-hopping haunt of privileged residents of Ladue, Missouri, and its environs. An unpretentious white frame roadhouse fronting right on a busy thoroughfare, it didn’t look like much from the outside – or the inside for that matter. It didn’t need to show off. This was its charm.

I ate there just once, in the 1970s. I wanted to experience eating in one of the screened-in log huts in the restaurant’s back yard (pictured, courtesy Esley Hamilton). Even then they seemed quaintly out of sync with the times. I have no idea what I ate. What sticks in my mind is the elderly woman alone in the next hut with her dog. I remember a tall, white coated waiter bringing the dog’s dinner, a large serving of prime rib.

Prime rib was what you’d expect at a restaurant as traditional as Busch’s Grove. As were iceberg lettuce, shrimp cocktail, and squishy soft dinner rolls. It was the kind of place where it wasn’t a bad idea to have a few Manhattans or whiskey sours before tackling your meal. Nevertheless, in 1958 Holiday magazine gave the Grove a “Dining Distinction” award.

As for the food revolution of the 1970s, it didn’t happen here. In 1998 a review by Joe and Ann Pollack in their book Beyond Toasted Ravioli made it sound as though the Grove was permanently stuck in the beef & bourbon 1950s. Though ostensibly giving a favorable report, they identified numerous red flags for discriminating diners such as packaged croutons; the strange “viscous texture” of the microwave-heated vichyssoise; garlic powder in salad dressings; vegetable medleys; and potatoes baked in foil. Perhaps the old roadhouse was in decline.

The Pollaks characterized the restaurant’s decor as “Ralph Lauren when Ralph was still selling ties.” “Dowdy” would have been equally apt. But keep in mind that Ladue was (is?) the kind of town where actual living conditions could surprise you: such as the cockroach I once saw crawling on expensive grasscloth wallpaper in one stately mansion, or another estate filled with ancestral oil paintings but lacking air conditioning despite St. Louis’s tropical summers.

Busch’s Grove began its hospitality career in the 1860s as a stage coach stop 10 miles west of downtown St. Louis. It was not known as Busch’s Grove until it was taken over by John Busch in 1891. In the 1920s, when it was run by Busch’s son and a partner, the surrounding community of Ladue had grown into a woodsy enclave of wealthy families attracted in part by a number of country clubs that had located there. The restaurant served as an unofficial annex to the nearby St. Louis Country Club. No doubt patronage also derived from Ladue’s elite prep schools, among them John Burroughs, Country Day, Mary Institute, Chaminade, Villa, and Priory.

Until 1973 the restaurant contained a bar for men only, perhaps explaining its reputation as a hangout for power brokers. When it was nominated for the National Register of Historic Places in 1981, the researchers interviewed a patron of 30 years who remarked, ‘Some of the biggest early deals in St. Louis County politics and finance were arranged in this restaurant.”

Old patrons mourned when the restaurant closed a few years ago and was razed, along with the log huts.

© Jan Whitaker, 2010

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Famous in its day: Tony Faust’s

By the 1880s Anthony E. Faust had established quite a culinary empire in St. Louis. He ran a Café and Oyster House downtown on Broadway which had a nationwide reputation. Since 1878 it had featured rooftop dining, uncommon in the U.S. then. From his adjoining “Fulton Market” he also retailed and wholesaled “Faust’s Own” oysters and other delicacies such as truffles, soy sauce, and curry powder which he shipped to Southwestern and Western states. His Faust label beer, made for him by the Anheuser brewery, was also sold in the West.

He didn’t start out in the food business but as an ornamental plasterer who immigrated from the Prussian province of Westphalia at age 17. After being shot accidentally while watching a parade, he gave up his trade and decided to open a café in 1865.

Obviously he had a knack for the new business. And it helped that St. Louis was a booming hub of shipping and commerce positioning itself to dominate commerce with the West. His closeness to the Adolphus Busch family of beer fame was undoubtedly another asset. In 1886 Tony opened a second restaurant in a huge new Exposition Building on Olive Street between 13th and 14th which hosted conventions of architects, music teachers, fraternal organizations, and the Democratic National Convention of 1888.

In the late 1880s he razed his restaurant and replaced it with a finer building. With an interior of carved mahogany woodwork, a tapestried ceiling, and an elaborate mosaic tile floor, the restaurant catered to the fashionable after-theater crowd. At some point, perhaps in 1889, a second story was added, eliminating the rooftop garden (above image, ca. 1906).

Success seemed to mean Tony could do as he wished. Caught serving prairie chickens out of season (under the frankly fraudulent name “Virginia owls”), he freely confessed and flippantly said he’d pay the fine or “break rock” if need be. When the Republican National Convention was held in St. Louis in 1896 he claimed his staff would not prepare or serve meals for Afro-American delegates. Even after the convention’s managers offered to hire a space, furnish stoves, and buy provisions to feed the black delegates if Faust would oversee the work, he absolutely refused to do it. Period.

In preparation for the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair (the Louisiana Purchase Exposition), Faust joined half a dozen of St. Louis’s top restaurateurs in a trust, the St. Louis Catering Company, probably designed to buy in large quantities and possibly to set prices too. Faust went into partnership with New York’s Lüchow’s to create a Tyrolean Alps Restaurant at the Fair which seated 5,000 diners and featured costumed singers (pictured). It represented brewers’ interests as well, leading one observer to joke that the enormous beer hall should have been named “Budweiser Alps.” According to the Fair’s Official Program there was also a Faust restaurant in the Fair’s west pavilion on Art Hill.

At the time Tony Sr. died in 1906 the Faust empire included a second Fulton Market location, and another Faust restaurant in the Delmar Gardens amusement park in University City managed by his son Tony R. Faust. Like many a successful businessman in the Midwest, Tony R. went to NYC to see about opening a branch there. There was a Faust restaurant in NYC’s Columbus Circle in 1908 (pictured), but I am not certain whether this belonged to the St. Louis Fausts. In 1911 Tony Jr. was declared insane. After that his older brother Edward, an executive of Anheuser-Busch who was married to a daughter of Adolphus Busch, took over the restaurants and markets. The downtown restaurants in St. Louis and NYC, and probably the others as well, closed in 1915 and 1916, casualties of looming Prohibition.

© Jan Whitaker, 2010

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Decor: glass ceilings

There’s a couple of reasons why I’ve been thinking about glass ceilings in restaurants this week. I took a look at the total number of visits to my top posts and, apart from the various Taste of a decade posts which draw a lot of traffic, Swingin’ at Maxwell’s Plum is #1. An elaborate stained glass ceiling was one of the most striking features of Maxwell’s Plum in New York City, and another was created for the San Francisco Plum (pictured) which opened in 1981.

The second reason is that last Sunday I went to the antique paper show Papermania in Hartford CT and brought home a 1970s-era menu from a pizza restaurant in St. Louis that I used to go to but had forgotten all about. It too had a glass ceiling though, as I recall, it was fairly plain. I won’t name the restaurant but will say that it was located in the vicinity of Washington University where I went to graduate school and there was a second place in Creve Coeur.

On one occasion I went there with a group of friends and we witnessed a kind of free floor show – only it took place inside the glass ceiling. We heard the sounds first, of little claw feet scratching on glass. Then we looked up. We saw silhouettes of a legion of four-footed creatures with long tails which were furiously scrimmaging above us, as though playing a game of football. We laughed, considered leaving, but ended up staying. If the management noticed anything amiss they certainly didn’t show it. No one came over to explain away the incident (not that I know how you’d do that), no one offered us free drinks, nothing!

The menu from this restaurant which I just acquired displays on its cover a pledge of quality accompanied by the signature of the restaurant’s owner. One of the sentences jumps out at me: “More ingredients go into our pizza than the normal recipe calls for.” Yikes, say no more!

© Jan Whitaker, 2010

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