grassi’s ristorante & deli​ in frontenac photo by david kovaluk

Landmark: Grassi’s Ristorante & Deli​

The cafeteria line feels like a bygone mode of food service. In recent years – and especially after the pandemic – the thought of going down a line and selecting your lunch items by hand seems more and more foreign; but not at Grassi’s Ristorante & Deli, where it’s been the standard for many years, to great success. “If customers have never been in before, I think they’re kind of going, ‘OK, what’s going on here?’” said Frank Dyer, who took over the business in 2012 and co-owns it with his son, Cameron Dyer. “But when they see how fast the food comes out and how good the food is, they quickly get over the fact that they had to stand in line and get a tray.” 

Part of what makes the cafeteria line successful is that customers have the opportunity to interact directly with the staff in order to get their food exactly how they want it. First on the line is the salad station, which low key turns out some of St. Louis’ best Italian salads daily. “You can build it a lot of different ways. Trust me, every salad’s different,” Dyer explained. “The salad person listens to you and creates this beautiful salad for you.” He went on to say that the salad is by far Grassi’s most popular item, speculating that the dressing, copious green olives and croutons play a big role in that fact. “People buy croutons by the quart,” Dyer said. 

After the salad station, you can select a cold sandwich and a dessert from the line or order a hot sandwich or pasta that will be made in front of you. Other hot dishes, like the steak sandwich, grilled chicken and the Italian press (a weekly special), are made in the back kitchen. “Those are coming off the grill, but we’re able to get the food onto the tray before you even check out,” Dyer said. Suffice it to say, they’ve got the system pretty dialed in. 

grassi’s ristorante & deli // photo by david kovaluk

A lot of the menu has been the same since the early days of Grassi’s, which opened its first location in South City in 1968; a second location, Grassi’s West opened in Frontenac in 1976, followed by a third, located in the Central West End, a few years later. Eventually the first and third locations closed, but Grassi’s West kept going strong, moving to its current location in 1996.

According to Dyer, the menu and its history make up an organic story that’s still being told by customers. “There’s always memories being shared of people and their sandwiches they were eating back in the day.” Recently, a customer came in and said that she used to work at the car dealership across from the original location and that she would eat cucumber and onion sandwiches for lunch there. She asked them to make her one. Dyer took the request seriously and even occasionally considers adding dishes like this to the menu. “They’re developing it. We’re eating it now. If we like it, if our staff and families like it, there’s a good chance we’d roll it out to the community.”

For Dyer, Grassi’s legacy is what makes the restaurant so great, which is why it still maintains an old school vibe, from its food to its setup. “We don’t want to change it. St. Louis deserves it. It was an institution long before Cameron and I took it over,” Dyer recalled. “We’re just trying to take care of it so it doesn’t go anywhere.” On that note, the Dyers were able to keep Grassi’s running throughout the pandemic by building a patio and offering carryout through delivery apps. “We used to interface with customers three ways; now we interface with them eight ways,” he said, laughing. “I think it’s important that St. Louis knows that we, my family, appreciate their support during the pandemic. It’s been unbelievable, from customers and corporations buying gift certificates, people coming in religiously, ordering food, buying food for their friends. The local hospitals are big supporters of Grassi’s.” It seems like, maybe, more restaurants should consider the cafeteria model.