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