roast chicken at ibby's photo by jonathan gayman

Review: Ibby's in St. Louis

Nestled inside the Danforth University Center, in the heart of Washington University’s campus, is a small restaurant called Ibby’s. It’s easy to miss this quiet, inviting dining room tucked away in a corner of the bustling student center. Unless you’re a student or faculty member, you’ve probably never even heard of this place or knew it was named after Elizabeth “Ibby” Gray Danforth, the late wife of Wash U.’s former chancellor William Danforth.

But if you follow St. Louis culinary news with even a passing interest, you know there’s been a revolving door of top area chefs leaving some pretty good gigs over the past few years to work at the university, including Amy Zupanci (Fond), John Griffiths (Truffles), Wil Fernandez-Cruz (The Restaurant at The Cheshire), and Ibby’s current chef de cuisine, Jon Lowe (Oceano Bistro). But why? Isn’t Ibby’s just another college eatery owned by some food service conglomerate that’s dishing out crappy, high-profit food to meal card-carrying students with dull palates? Oh wait, that was my college.

Ibby’s is, indeed, operated by the national corporation Bon Appétit Management Company. But that’s where any similarity to other food-service giants ends. Bon Appétit’s Farm to Fork program is built around ecological practices (e.g., reduced carbon footprint, cage-free eggs, sustainable seafood) and local sourcing from farmers and area producers. At each of its 500 sites, including The Docket at Saint Louis University Law School and Saint Louis Art Museum’s restaurant Panorama, meals are cooked from scratch using seasonal ingredients, and the chefs have fairly free reign to create and innovate. It’s no surprise, then, that Wash U.'s food service has landed on several “Best Of” lists, including The Daily Meal’s “Top Ten Universities for Food Lovers.”

Even though it doesn’t advertise off campus, Ibby’s is the antithesis of a neighborhood restaurant – it’s open to anyone, including civilians like you and me. During a couple of visits, Ibby’s struck me as a restaurant that could thrive off campus. Aside from backpacks piled around the coat rack and tables full of undergrads paying with meal cards, you’d never know you’re situated inside the student center of a major university. There’s room for about 50 diners and, weather permitting, 50 more on the patio. There’s a large, open kitchen in the back of the restaurant and a chef’s table for up to 10 people. The lighting is subdued, and the tables are draped with white tablecloths and butcher paper. The menu – with its emphasis on local procurement – could easily compete with any number of local bistros.

Case in point: pork, braised so long that collops of luscious, tender meat slid off the bone with the slightest poke of a fork. A sprinkle of Mexican cotija cheese added salty whimsy, and the accompanying bed of creamy polenta was a nice change from standard mashed potatoes. A napping of pan jus mixed with mirepoix added a deeper savory flavor, but any taste of the advertised green chile was so faint as to be forgotten.

the open kitchen at ibby's // photo by jonathan gayman

Trout from Troutdale Farm is another entree worth trying. Smaller appetites will appreciate the simplicity of two fillets char-grilled quickly to retain moisture and flavor, served atop a bed of white beans and cherry tomatoes with a crown of wilted kale. If desired, fill out the large white plate’s real estate with a seasonal side or add a house or kale salad, both lightly dressed and excellent. The roast chicken alone is worth a repeat visit: an unadorned half-chicken with a memorable crust, a few roasted Brussels sprouts and a dollop of sweet potato purée.

The potato gnocchi were light – with just the right chew – and quickly pan-seared after their boil, before being tossed in a Parmesan cream sauce with broccoli, cherry tomatoes and leeks. There was no praise for the Winter Risotto, however, with its asteroid-sized Brussels sprouts weighing down the clearly undercooked arborio rice. Cooked properly, the magic of risotto happens when the diminutive grain naturally renders its creamy starchiness; any ingredients added should be chopped small enough to fit on a fork with the risotto for the perfect coupling of tastes. There was no magic here.

Economical eaters, like some students I noticed, can easily build a meal from the eight appetizers, such as pairing a salad with a crispy flatbread smeared with rosemary-onion spread and loaded with potato, oyster mushrooms and havarti; or ordering the meze plate with the excellent French onion soup – deeply flavored and stringy with local cave-aged Swiss cheese.

Just because Ibby’s sees a lot of students doesn’t mean service is slack or inattentive; when our server accidently filled a water glass to the brim, she instantly whisked it away, replacing it before we even noticed. Don’t look for craft cocktails or any hard liquor for that matter; the beverage program is limited to wine and beer and mostly recognizable, middle-range labels like Artezin, Shooting Star, Steele, Castle Rock and Schlafly. Desserts also are pretty standard issue: creme brulee, apple crumble and a take on s’mores. Local Serendipity ice cream shows up by itself or atop dishes like the crumble (salted caramel) or a warm sweet potato pound cake (Tahitian vanilla bean), which is latticed with caramel and sprinkled with pumpkinseed brittle.

Whether attending a performance at the Edison Theatre, cheering on the Bears, conducting a sociological study of modern campus life or just because it’s worth the trip, Ibby’s is a fine spot for an above-average meal. It may be hard to find, though, so let me give you a little insider advice: Park in the basement garage of the Danforth University Center (Sometimes it costs, sometimes it doesn’t; either way, it’s cheap.), take the elevator to the first floor, wander into the main student dining area, think about your college student center and sigh. Ogle the Citizen Kane-sized fireplace, and sigh again. Find the corner of the food court and then proceed through the only doorway that looks like a real restaurant – the one with the cheerful college kid standing behind a host stand.

First floor of the Danforth University Center, Washington University, 6465 Forsyth Blvd., St. Louis, 314.935.3940,

Don’t-Miss Dishes
Roast chicken, trout, pork

It’s a university campus; come as you are. There’s a lunch buffet, but at night the white tablecloths come out.

Entree Prices
$12 to $24
Lunch: Tue. to Fri. – 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Dinner: Tue. to Sat. – 5 to 10 p.m.