Restaurant Roundtable: A discussion of the local dining sceneThere are at least three good reasons to reflect on the vitality of the St. Louis restaurant scene: breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Join Sauce Magazine, for a casual roundtable with five chefs and independent restaurateurs with decades of combined experience. The conversation meandered between topics such as population density and foie gras to price-setting and dream restaurants – or dream restaurant, we should say; turns out, the roundtablers all long to work with a bare-bones staff, a couple of dozen covers and the freedom to serve what they love.
In the meantime, they’ll be investing their smarts and passion into the restaurants you already know. In return they ask this: Make a reservation for a Tuesday sometime.
SAUCE: How have you seen the tastes of St. Louis diners change over the last 10 years?
ZOË ROBINSON: I don’t know that their tastes have changed. I think that they’re keeping up with trends just as much as people in other cities.
SAUCE: Have you changed the approach of what you were doing to respond to diners’ tastes?
JIM FIALA: Ten or 12 years ago, if you were open, you were pretty much guaranteed that you were pretty busy. Whether you were good or bad. There weren’t that many options in town. Now there’s an option on every corner.
SAUCE: So it’s a lot more competitive.
FIALA: You earn every customer. It’s harder now than it’s ever been.
Too many cooks in the kitchen?
SAUCE: Some people say there are too many restaurants. What do you guys think about that?
ROBINSON: Well, I think in a dream world, you’d be the only restaurant.
BILL CARDWELL: I first met Zoë in 1983 when she had [Café Zoë] in Lafayette Square. … It was small. You didn’t have to fill it with 500 people a night.
ROBINSON: No, and I think I was only open Friday and Saturday nights. I was open for lunch and then I’d only open on weekend nights. There was nobody living there.
CARDWELL: There has been a real big revolution in St. Louis in the last 20 years – by neighborhood. Lafayette Square, downtown … Clayton was another example. When I came to Clayton in 1987, it was simply because I had a very good opportunity with a developer who couldn’t find a local St. Louis restaurateur that had a vision to open a restaurant. Everybody said, “No, we will never make it. Clayton closes up at 5 o’clock.” … It was the same thing when I went to Frontenac 15 years ago. No one wanted to go to Frontenac.
SAUCE to GERARD CRAFT: What made you decide that St. Louis was a place that you wanted to take a risk and open a restaurant?
CRAFT: Something about ... the neighborhood I’m in really kind of feels a little bit like Brooklyn or certain parts of D.C. when I was growing up. I definitely liked the feel of it. And then knowing that there were a lot of top-notch chefs here between Bill Cardwell and Larry [Forgione] and Kevin Nashan at Sidney Street. … When I looked at restaurants in D.C., I’m like, “Look, if I’m going to open my first restaurant at age 25, I’m not going to be able to come up with that kind of money.” ... My rent’s probably one-twentieth of what it would be in Chicago. And you still have the sophisticated diners here – people who are willing to drive for food, and that’s really what we needed.
SAUCE to LARRY FORGIONE: Do you feel you’re able to be as creative at An American Place as you are in New York?
FORGIONE: We certainly didn’t compromise by coming to St. Louis. But on another note …, everybody’s saying there are too many restaurants. I think part of that problem in general is that there are more and more restaurants, but not more and more customers. There are not other cities that feed into here. There’s not a New York where people come in from 50, 60 miles away and they’ll try something new. And as far as downtown’s concerned, I think it’s a little ludicrous for the city to think that because a loft building opens, that there needs to be another restaurant in that building. You’re talking about maybe 175 people who live in that building – and so because of 175 people ... we should open a restaurant?
ROBINSON: I used to be in the Clayton business district [after relocating Café Zoë]. Five, six, seven years ago, they just let every Tom, Dick and Harry open a restaurant – which just didn’t make sense from a planning standpoint.
What’s for dinner
FORGIONE: I think a good example of [the] St. Louis mindset is what happened at Balaban’s. You had a well-known local chef go in there, change the menu, and fail purely because he changed the menu and didn’t give people what they wanted. I think the customers of St. Louis dictate – it’s not chefs dictating what they want to do.
CARDWELL: I have to agree with Larry on that one. I think after 20 years, there are things that I serve that I don’t necessarily want to serve anymore. Customers are very structured in what they expect from going to restaurants. In some ways, I’m the same. … When I go someplace, there’s a certain thing on that menu that I happen to like and I know it’s executed well, and I’ll probably order that every time I go to that restaurant – even out of town. I can remember conversations when I had my Clayton restaurant [Cardwell’s]. Customers would come in and they would say, “I was just in Chicago or I was in New York and I had such-and-such and why don’t you have that?” And I’d say to them, “Because you won’t buy it. Or you won’t pay the price.” I have never ever been able to sell foie gras, which I love.
SAUCE: That’s interesting, because some places can.
CARDWELL: Some places can. Gerard can sell it.
CRAFT: I wouldn’t say I sell a lot of it.
CARDWELL: So the clientele you have ordering that food item recognize it and like how you’re doing it or you have that niche of customers that is different.
FORGIONE: Everybody keeps saying there are people in St. Louis with sophisticated tastes – it’s a little miniscule section of St. Louis that has a sophisticated palate. They can’t even get past why their food isn’t hanging over the edges of their plate. As if that is some sort of a dictate as to the quality of a restaurant.
Saturday night reservations
SAUCE: What do you wish that your customers knew or understood about the restaurant business?
CRAFT: Dining out happens other days besides just Saturday at 7:30.
ROBINSON to Craft: I’m sorry, I’ve tried to get into your restaurant on plenty of Tuesday nights and I haven’t been able to.
CARDWELL: It’s just a cultural thing. People have big kitchens, they have big homes, they have big backyards, they have great grocery stores –
ROBINSON to Cardwell: But Bill, out in Frontenac, don’t you do a good weeknight business?
CARDWELL: It’s OK.
CRAFT to Robinson: They’re always packed – always.
CARDWELL: I think that St. Louis, being Midwest, has a value-oriented equation. So people expect a certain amount of food for a certain amount of money.
FORGIONE: I don’t think anybody serves miniscule portions –
CARDWELL: No, they don’t.
FORGIONE: – but what I’m concerned about is when somebody doesn’t think a 12-ounce steak is big enough. Or when their double pork chop isn’t quite as big as someone else’s double pork chop. And I think it’s a hard sell to convince people of the quality-quantity spectrum.
SAUCE: That leads us to another question. It’s a trend to source locally, but you do end up having to charge more because raw ingredients cost more. How much do you think your diners really care about sourcing locally?
FORGIONE: I think a certain percentage really cares about it. It’s a novelty thing. But … just basic ingredients have gone up in cost somewhat dramatically over the past couple years. Does anybody charge more than they charged three years ago?
ROBINSON: You can’t.
FORGIONE: They accept paying $5 for a gallon of milk at home when they used to pay $2, but they will lambaste you if you charge 50 cents more for a cup of coffee.
SAUCE: So if your raw ingredients cost more and you can’t charge more, where do you make up the difference?
CARDWELL: You don’t. … My fixed costs every day are so great that I need to be busy Monday through Sunday. I can’t have a soft Monday night and pay the overhead.
There is no recipe
SAUCE: So how do you come up with that formula – your own personality, what the customers want, the right price points – because you guys have all been very successful at what you do.
ROBINSON: I think that’s just instinct.
CARDWELL: I think you look for something the market doesn’t have.
FIALA: I’m sorry, but every time I see a guy sink millions of dollars into a restaurant, I just put “three years” in the calendar – in three years they’ll be done.
CRAFT: There are a couple of big restaurants that have opened, and they’re charging exactly what I charge, if not less. And I’m thinking, “I barely support my dinky little restaurant compared to this multimillion dollar [place].”
Staying in the loop
SAUCE: How do you attract people to your restaurant? If you guys open a place, we know the food’s going to be great, the wine’s going to be interesting …
FORGIONE: Somebody explained something to me about the St. Louis state of mind for restaurants, and I think it’s very accurate. They said that the typical person who goes out all the time has five or six restaurants that they go to. It’s just a loop that they make. If you open a new restaurant, they’ll break off the loop to go over and check you out. And they might even do it one or two more times. But then you have to provide for them something that one of the other five or six restaurants in the loop doesn’t provide –
CARDWELL: You’ve hit it.
FORGIONE: – and then one of those restaurants will be dismissed from the loop and you’ll join the loop.
ROBINSON: That’s true.
FIALA: St. Louis doesn’t have a tourist industry. They can say that the Cardinals bring a lot of money in, but they’re not eating at my restaurants. Who in town is bringing people to town to go out and eat dinner? I get [a schedule] from the Convention Center sent to me and I think, “Well, they’re not going to be eating at restaurants, and they’re not going to be eating at restaurants.” There’s not an infrastructure to support restaurants, so you have to look at neighborhoods and creating relationships with the people that are here.
FORGIONE: I can tell you that when there’s a convention in town, it’s like night and day. We have to open two extra hours to take in everybody. We’re lucky that the Renaissance is starting to do more of mini-conventions in their banquet facility so that people don’t have to go into the big space. And that, of course, works well for us.
The power of the (cyber)pen
SAUCE: Tell us what role restaurant critics play in the restaurant scene.
CRAFT: It’s been huge for me. I noticed the night I was reviewed by Joe Bonwich in the Post-Dispatch – I was suddenly full. I went from doing 20 covers to 80 covers in a second. … Some people dismiss some of the sources, but every single one of them has been beneficial to us.
SAUCE: But what about when someone says something negative about you? Can you bounce back?
CRAFT: That’s why I stay awake for a week before a review comes out. I’m a nervous wreck.
SAUCE: How do you react when something negative is said about your restaurant?
CRAFT: I’ve had people criticize a dish or two on my menu and, looking back on some of them, they were exactly right. Sure, you get your feelings get hurt, but they’re the ones who are paying your bills.
SAUCE: How do you feel about the new phenomenon of bloggers – people who aren’t professional critics at all?
CARDWELL: There’s a reality check about it. … But you don’t have a way to respond to it. So I would rather have a guest call me or send me a letter.
CRAFT: I’ve met some bloggers, and some are really good at what they do. And then there are some who make their site look really professional and then they just go on and rant and rave about their latest bad experience. Then you can go and look at five other of their reviews and they’re nasty.
FIALA: If somebody comes into a restaurant and has a good experience, they’re going to go out and tell one person. If somebody comes in and has a bad experience, they’re going to tell 15 people and blog about it.
SAUCE: Do you generally find that restaurant reviewers understand how food should be prepared? Do you think they really understand what you’re trying to do with the food?
CARDWELL: They always review places that are new. But places that have been around a long time rarely get much mention.
ROBINSON: Whenever I open a restaurant, everybody’s there within the first few weeks, and I think, “This isn’t going to be very good yet.”
FORGIONE: I think it’s more that each reviewer wants to be first.
SAUCE: How long after you open do you need to get your sea legs?
ROBINSON: It takes a few minutes. It does. … I do think that getting reviews and positive press in St. Louis built my career. That’s what made people come to Lafayette Square in 1983.
From farm to kitchen – or not
SAUCE: Let’s get away from the business stuff. Let’s talk about the fun stuff: the food. What are you guys playing with right now?
CRAFT: Curing our own meats – things like lardo and even things as old as saucisson. So I’m definitely into anything cured.
FORGIONE: I’m probably still a little more focused on contacts and purveyors and making sure that the raw ingredients are always available. … I worry about the St. Louis farmers. They all seem to be having a rough time of it. We had this guy sell great free-range chickens and ducks and he’s gone. … Just one week, he wasn’t there anymore. And he’d been pretty popular.
SAUCE: Do you think that going back to a small farmer who supplies the restaurant is something that’s not going to be sustainable?
CARDWELL: It’s a great ideology, but it’s unfortunately probably not business-realistic, depending on what kind of restaurant you have. … We depend on so many places for our basic ingredients. But I still think you can source individual products that have uniqueness. You can buy naturally raised meats, you can only use wild fish – you can do things that set you apart from everybody else. … I don’t think my guests care if the salmon’s wild or if I bought farm-raised salmon. I care – hopefully they understand it.
CRAFT: There’s a place in Washington, D.C., that does similar food to what a lot of the guys here are doing, and they’re charging about $85 for a four-course dinner. That’s double, easily, of what we can get here in St. Louis. The market will not sustain Niche putting out a four-for-$85 menu.
More is more
FORGIONE: People are always going to want prices the best they can get them. But in order to have these small farms and small farmers’ markets survive, there has to be a change in culture. You have to accept that better things cost more. … As long as that’s not acceptable, then that’s where the real tragedy lies with the local farmers.
SAUCE: How do you put out something that you’re proud of and excited about and also have staying power year after year?
FIALA: I’ve never stopped working on The Crossing and it’s 10 years old. I’ve never stopped working on Liluma. I won’t stop working on Acero. They’re all works in progress. … When I first opened The Crossing, some customers came to me and they said, “I get three scallops from you and it costs me $12. I can go down the street and get 12 scallops and it’s eight bucks.” And I’m like, “If you can’t tell the difference, go down the street.” I can’t make everybody happy. … I don’t try to do what I don’t know, I try to do what I do know. … The goal is not money. The goal is taking care of people, whether it’s a customer or it’s a staff member.
SAUCE: How do you train the front-of-the-house staff to reflect your philosophy in the kitchen?
ROBINSON: We don’t have that pool of professional waiters in St. Louis that other cities have – bigger cities: New York, San Francisco, Chicago.
CARDWELL: I’m open seven days a week, two meals a day. And I’m only closed six times a year. So I need a lot of people. …We have 65 [employees] on a shift.
ROBINSON: You do?
CRAFT: That’s why everybody’s dream restaurant is small.
FORGIONE: I think that’s what everybody’s saying here: We’ve all got to have something we love doing, not necessarily what you want us to do. … We’ll have our little inn or our little restaurant and we’re going to do exactly what we want. There’s going to be one person in the front, one person in the back and a dishwasher. And if you like it, come on. If you don’t, it’s not going to kill me to be here anyway.
FIALA: I see parents from Wash U. more than I see St. Louisans at The Crossing.
FORGIONE: Except on Saturday.
FIALA: I mean, I make incredible friends with L.A. people, New York, Boston. They drop off their kids freshman year at the school, they come to The Crossing for dinner. And I get ’em parents’ weekend, graduation – bam bam bam bam bam for the rest of the time. And I get to know them.
SAUCE: So how do you make it click for people who are St. Louis diners? How do you get them to come in on a Wednesday night for a plate of fabulous pasta?
CARDWELL: You gotta be part of the circle. If you’re not part of the circle…
FIALA: But you can be bumped off not just for having bad food. You can get bumped off just because they’re on a new diet. They’re on no carbs and they want to go to Ruth’s Chris or something because they get steak.
CARDWELL: I think it’s hard to be all things to all people.
FORGIONE: I think that what all this is saying is that St. Louis is just not big enough … to say, “There’s a carb fad going on but there must be enough non-carb-fad people that want to come to a pasta restaurant.” Unfortunately, it just doesn’t have the density.
When you’re good, you’re great
SAUCE: There was recently a long thread on an online food forum about “St. Louis good.” People are saying, “People in St. Louis don’t know any better, so they’ll go to XYZ restaurant, but if it were plunked in a more sophisticated city, the restaurant would never fly or wouldn’t do nearly as well.” How do you feel about that?
CARDWELL: I think there’s some element to that.
CRAFT: I think it’s hard to stay busy in some of the bigger cities. It’s pretty hard to stay busy here in St. Louis. A lot of the people who I see – all of the crew down at American Place, all of the guys at Sidney Street, all of [Cardwell’s] guys, all the guys at The Crossing and Acero – they’re all working extremely hard to stay on top and to be the best, because it’s really hard to win this small pool of customers. It is extremely hard to keep that person in there every single Sunday or whatnot, and not knock somebody off of their loop – or to bring in one new person. In a more densely populated area you’ve got people walking in all the time. I don’t have anybody who walks by my restaurant.
SAUCE: But there’s also mediocrity at restaurants in more densely populated areas. It’s almost as if people assume that if a restaurant does well in a larger city, then it must be good.
CRAFT: That’s what I’m saying: I think the people who are really good in this city are really good. To stay on top and to do that every day, I think it’s more difficult here.
FORGIONE: Is there a lot of mediocrity in densely populated cities? Yes. But “dense population” means that even if it’s still just one percent or two percent of the population that understands the type of restaurant that we would like to do, you’re talking about an audience of two million people or 100,000 people as opposed to an audience of 60 or 70 people – not on a Saturday night.
CARDWELL: It’s very basic: The pie is pretty small. So the more places that open, the pie gets wedged a little smaller. If they’re in the loop, they do come back, unless, like Larry said, if you do something they don’t like, they don’t come back. … I was out [one] Saturday night at a new restaurant and I knew 75 percent of the restaurant. The person who was taking my wife and I out for dinner said, “God, you’re popular.” I just said, “No, I’ve just been around a long time and this is a new restaurant.” These people – they all go there now. They do that for a few weeks, and then they move on to the next place for a few weeks. I just think it’s the way it is.
FIALA: Life is so much easier now that we don’t have people crawling out of the rafters to eat.
ROBINSON: But that’s a good problem to have.