Tag Archives: St. Louis restaurants

Down and out in St. Louis

D&WSnackShop779

Restaurants for those short of money are not always hospitable places like those I wrote about in my last post about community restaurants that feed the poor. The photo above looks unfriendly to me. Diners like it are often viewed through a haze of nostalgia that softens the edges – but that’s not how I see it.

I know this place though I’ve never been there, probably never even seen it before. I used to wait for a bus on a desolate corner in St. Louis, the city where I bought this photograph at a yard sale for 5¢. There sat a diner much like this one. My feet and hands might turn to ice from the cold winter wind on that corner but it never would have occurred to me to go inside to warm up. That’s how uninviting it was.

STLBrains25cWmStageIt had no parking lot. Probably, like me then, its patrons didn’t have cars. Assuming there were any patrons, that is. I don’t remember any. The location was a no-man’s land where nobody lived or spent any more time than they had to. Down the street was a place selling Brains, 25¢. A photo of it by William Stage has achieved a measure of fame. As an image I like it, but as a place to eat or hang out, no.

The photograph of the snack shop exudes a Not Welcome feeling. Mean-spirited signs warn “No loitering,” “No shoes, no shirt, no service, ” and “Relish, 10¢ extra.” Did people try to make a free meal out of relish?

All the menu cards posted on the walls are homemade by someone who lacked both lettering skill and a good, dark marking pen. There are other signs of neglect and failure. Stale looking pies, poorly wrapped. Jumbled electrical cords behind the milkshake machine. A sales tax cheat sheet taped on the cash register. A kitchen passthrough no longer in use. Because they fired the cook?

I’m guessing that the photograph dates from the late 1970s. The prices are not especially low for then . . . considering how unwonderful the fare must have been. Three Pieces Chicken, French Fries, Cole Slaw, 2.99. Baconburger, 1.95. As though they couldn’t decide the most basic pricing dilemma: 99¢ or 95¢.

I haven’t been able to learn much about the D&W Snack Shop whose name I guessed despite the Pepsi clock that awkwardly hides part of it. It was a Missouri chain incorporated in the mid-1950s.

I found a nice night scene photo of the exterior of a D&W in South St. Louis on Cherokee and California (in a fascinating blog on bricks). It could even be the same place.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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Filed under lunch rooms

Dining by gaslight

GSThreeFountainsINTThough it seems fairly obvious when you think about it, the development of entertainment districts post-WWII encouraged the growth of restaurant-ing in many cities across the U.S. On the minus side, the fate of such restaurants was highly dependent upon the fate of the districts.

The Three Fountains [pictured] was the star restaurant in the entertainment district of St. Louis which began in the late 1950s and was officially named Gaslight Square in 1961. The one-and-one-half block area attracted affluent suburban St. Louisans and the city’s many conventioneers with restaurants, live theater, and clubs that featured national acts such as the Smothers Brothers, Joni Mitchell, Lenny Bruce, and Miles Davis.

Developing out of a racially borderline, transitional neighborhood populated with apartments, music schools, and antiques stores, its pioneering establishments included the Crystal Palace theater, the Gaslight Bar, Smokey Joe’s Tavern, the Laughing Buddha coffeehouse, and the Dark Side jazz club.

GSThreeFtnmenuThe Three Fountains exuded luxury with a multi-level interior lavishly decorated with  antique fixtures complemented by an oversize menu filled with expensive dishes (the $6.50 pepper steak would cost about $46 today). Its decor, like most of the restaurants and clubs in Gaslight, consisted of an extravagant, crazy melange of salvaged windows, doors, railings, paneling, statues, fountains, and light fixtures from structures mowed down by a city obsessed with urban renewal.

gsMillCreekValleySlum clearance in an area known as Mill Creek Valley brought its bounty. There the destruction of residences formerly housing 20,000 people (95% of them Afro-Americans) freed up tons of antique woodwork and hardware for decorators with a taste for Victorian. The transfer of objects from Mill Creek to the nightclubs and restaurants in Gaslight Square can also be seen as an illustration of a troubled relationship with the city’s black population who lived close by, worked in Gaslight’s restaurants, and performed in its clubs, yet whose patronage was not welcome.

According to Jorge Martinez, owner of a couple of jazz clubs, the block’s business association ruled against his proposal for a dance hall out of fear it would attract Afro-Americans. Terry Kennedy, an Afro-American who grew up in the neighborhood adjacent to the area and became a city alderman in 1989, observed that if you were black “you better not be there too long, or the police would run you off.” (Interviews with Kennedy, Martinez, and others are found in the book Gaslight Square, an Oral History, by Thomas Crone.)

Yet, Gaslight Square offered opportunity to a few Afro-Americans. Sandra J. Parks occupied a rare position in America, that of black female chef. She cooked in several of the area’s better restaurants, including Kotobuki and Port St. Louis and managed Two Cents Plain before moving to Chicago for a career in catering.

Compared to the city as a whole, Gaslight Square was a somewhat integrated area. Nonetheless racial tension would become a major factor in its downfall, most evident in white patrons’ grossly exaggerated fear of black-on-white crime.

From the area’s beginnings as an entertainment zone to its serious decline by 1968, at least 20 restaurants, dozens of nightclubs, and numerous coffeehouses and theaters were in business there [see map]. After-hour parties took place above street level, in apartment buildings and flats.

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There were steakhouses (Magnolia House, Marty’s, Jacks or Better, Mr. D’s), two Mexican restaurants (Tortilla Flat and a branch of Chicago’s La Margarita), a Polynesian restaurant (The Islander), a Japanese restaurant where servers dressed as geishas (Kotobuki), a fish restaurant where servers dressed as sailors (Port St. Louis), a Greek restaurant (Smokey Joe’s Grecian Tavern), a deli (Two Cents Plain), an Italian eatery (Bella Rosa), a tavern (O’Connell’s Pub), and several places whose cuisine I could not determine (Red Carpet, The Georgian, Carriage House, Die Lorelei, Left Bank).

Many of the restaurants were in converted town houses. Whenever possible they had patio dining in front, and most featured entertainment such as cabaret, folk music, or Dixieland, ragtime, or cool jazz.
GSLaughingBuhdaSTL60sThe more expensive restaurants were first to suffer from the area’s decline as well-dressed, well-heeled customers stopped coming. Conventioneers were warned off, in many cases, by cabdrivers who refused to drive there. Clubs with go-go dancers in the windows displaced coffeehouses with folksinging and poetry as a younger, more casually dressed crowd took over.

Although Gaslight Square was in ways a model for Chicago’s Old Town and Omaha’s Old Market, many businesses began closing or moving away by the mid 1960s. Port St. Louis and Two Cents Plain moved to more promising locations. In 1965 Craig Claiborne gave the Three Fountains a short – and horrid — review (“It is said to be the only French restaurant in the city and, if this is true, it is unfortunate.”) A few years later a number of gaslights were extinguished for nonpayment of gas bills. By 1972 when O’Connell’s moved to South Kingshighway, the area was largely in ruins.

Aside from a memorial constructed out of the pillars that once stood outside Smokey Joe’s, not a trace of Gaslight Square remains standing today.

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

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Filed under atmosphere, Offbeat places

Famous in its day: the Parkmoor

It’s been somewhat frustrating researching the Parkmoor chain of drive-ins that once did business in St. Louis, my home town. My main source has been a book written by Lou Ellen McGinley, daughter of the chain’s founder and manager of the Clayton Road Parkmoor from 1977 until its closing in 1999.

The book is called Honk for Service, yet throughout it are shown menus that say clearly at the top “Flash Your Lights for Service.” Alas, this is but one tipoff that somebody wasn’t totally on the job.

Nevertheless, the book enlightened me about a number of things, especially that there were once six Parkmoors in St. Louis. I had thought that the Parkmoor at Big Bend and Clayton was the one and only. In fact it was the sole survivor as well as the original, in 1930 the site of a Tudor-style drive-in. Three more Parkmoors opened in the 1930s and two in the 1950s, but all five of them were gone by 1971.

From 1940 to 1953 there was also a McGinley Parkmoor in Indianapolis. Parkmoor was a popular name for mid-century drive-ins. The Parkmoors in Amarillo TX, Knoxville TN (one O), Dayton OH, and Sarasota FL were not related.

I enjoyed the book’s charming illustrations, but I was disappointed to find only a single blurred and partial image of the exterior of the modern orange-roofed Parkmoor building that most St. Louisans knew (pictured above after being closed; razed in 2004). And there was no mention of when it was constructed, who designed it, or why the McGinleys chose what was for architecturally conservative St. Louis such an exotic, California-style design.

As I remember it, the interior was impressively ugly. It had a tall peaked ceiling and a lava-stone back wall. All the seating was built-in and covered in orange leatherette. To the right of the entrance was an L-shaped counter with cantilevered seats that projected up diagonally from the base. Down the center of the room was a 3-foot high divider with plants growing from the top. On either side of the divider were rows of two-person mini-booths, while larger booths ran along the continuous windows to the left.

From what I’ve been able to discover poking around, the Googie-style Parkmoor was built in 1969. By that time the restaurant was no longer a drive-in. Honk for Service does not say when carhops were dispensed with, but according to a newspaper want ad they were still being hired in 1963 even though two locations had adopted speaker-based ordering systems by then.

Lou Ellen’s father, William Louis McGinley, began his business career in the 1920s as head of a Texas company that sold trays to drive-ins. According to Honk for Service he was inspired to open a drive-in in St. Louis as an “I’ll show them” response after he was informed by Dorr & Zeller, an old-line catering company, that St. Louis was not the kind of city that would accept drive-ins.

Was it a similar motive that led McGinley to open a Parkmoor very near Dorr & Zeller on DeBaliviere in the city’s west end? It turned out to be an ill-fated locale. A brawl there in which police shot and killed two men in 1965 may have contributed to the demise of that location a few years later.

Both generations of McGinleys were cattle ranchers who spent much of their time in Texas while overseeing the Parkmoor. As with most drive-ins, the menu featured hamburgers; the beef was ground in a two-story commissary building erected on a corner of the Clayton Road Parkmoor’s parking lot. The beef, however, did not come from the family’s Texas ranch.

A little taste of Texas appeared on a 1930 menu which offers a Top Sirloin Steak served with French fried potatoes, lettuce, tomato, bread and butter – plus a “Texas preserved fig” – all for 55c. Add a Dr. Pepper for an additional 5c.

© Jan Whitaker, 2012

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Filed under drive-ins, restaurant decor

Regulars

The modern idea of eating out revolves around choice. Where shall we go? What shall we order? We are looking for change, novelty. We want to vary our routine.

It hasn’t always been this way.

Choice in dining out did not become the norm to any great extent until the second half of the 19th century, and then slowly and incompletely. Before that patrons were divided into “regulars” and “transients,” with the first category making up the backbone of the fledgling restaurant business.

In early American taverns the regulars were male groups such as firemen, clubs, or religious societies who turned up on a scheduled basis and were served group meals for a prearranged price. To put it in other words, much of the business of a tavern or eating house was conducted on a catering basis. Male college students, in the decades before dormitories and dining halls, grouped together in dining clubs that operated similarly.

By the 1870s restaurants filled with the same old people eating the same old food day after day came to be regarded as somewhat archaic. A visitor to a chop house in lower Manhattan that served steaks and baked potatoes observed patrons who, curiously, “did not give any order.” He reasoned that they were habitues and learned that one, a dry goods merchant, “has dined there every day for the last seventeen years.”

The system of regular diners and regular meals worked effectively during an era when there was not a large dining public like today. But even by the time things had changed significantly, in the early 20th century, many small cafes tried to take the guesswork and risk out of their business by cultivating regular customers. They sold meal tickets for which patrons paid in advance for a number of meals in order to receive a discount.

Even today there are probably still some individuals who would rather eat at the same place on a frequent, even daily basis. There are those who order the same thing every time or are automatically served the day’s special without even glancing at the menu. Is there an invisible straight line in NYC connecting the 1859 eatery where “regular patrons at the sandwich counter merely sit down and their sandwich is placed before them” and The Colony, where in the 1950s a woman was enjoying her 28th year lunching on lamb chops, salad, and grapefruit? Likewise in that same decade regulars at a Mississippi City restaurant were fond of sitting down and telling the proprietor, “Joe, fix us up.”

Another vestige of the old system that lingered on for decades was that of men’s professional groups who ate together regularly at the same restaurant – and the same table – for years on end.  Around the turn of the century insurance adjustors — members of the Firebug Club (whose name commemorated the olden days when adjusters colluded with policyholders to commit arson for profit) – used to meet at Mike Lyons’ in NYC’s Bowery. About the same time St. Louis’s Lippe’s was set up with alcoves for trade groups. There was a “Hoo-Hoo” decorated with a painting of a black cat that was designated for lumbermen, and another called “The Roost” decorated with a goose and other birds, meant for tailors. Might “The Chapel” have been intended for ministers? The tradition continued into the 1940s at the century-old Speck’s in that city where there was a bankers’ table, a doctors’ table, etc.

Journalists were well-known for socializing together in restaurants. In Chicago, Ric Riccardo hosted correspondents for the major national magazines and newspapers in his restaurant’s imitation jail called the Padded Cell in the early 1950s. By the 1970s the room had become dedicated to the weekly luncheons of the St. Louis Browns fan club.

Restaurants highly esteemed their regular patrons, none more so than Maylie’s in New Orleans, which closed its doors in 1920. The all-male restaurant admitted patrons each day at 11:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m., seating them at long communal tables. When a regular died, his chair was left empty for several days.

© Jan Whitaker, 2012

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Filed under patrons