First Look: Mainlander in the Central West End
Mainlander, the “American supper club” from chef Blake Askew and partner and maître d’ Gordon Chen, opened in July at 8 S. Euclid Ave. in Central West End. The restaurant serves prix fixe menus highlighting local and seasonal produce in a space that evokes the supper clubs of an earlier era, including the 1960s Clayton restaurant that inspired its name.
Co-owners Askew and Chen developed the restaurant out of a supper club pop-up they launched at Bulrush (where Askew was then working) in February 2022. “It was super small, we were just trying to dip our toe and see what we were capable of,” Askew said. A series of pop-ups followed over the ensuing year, before plans for the restaurant were announced in February 2023.
While Askew describes Mainlander as a Modern American restaurant, he said the restaurant has equally grown out of his “desire to understand why American dining is the way it is, and how we got to where we are.” The first pop-up was billed as a “rum dinner,” and leaned into a tropical, Polynesian aesthetic. However, as they learned more, Askew and Chen consciously steered the concept away from that vibe, recognizing the conversation around issues of cultural sensitivity and Tiki culture as it emerged in the United States in the mid-20th century with places like Trader Vic’s.
Mainlander is intentional about evoking a sense of escapism that has frequently informed American dining trends – an impulse Askew says has always fascinated him. But Mainlander leans more on subtle decorative, musical and sensory nudges and references to spirit diners out of their day-to-day environment.
Mainlander’s exploration of American dining lore also pulls on numerous threads that contribute to a bigger story. Don’t be surprised here to find dishes whose names alone conjure dinner parties or family gatherings from days gone by – one of this month’s dishes is Askew’s take on an ambrosia salad, with a Watergate salad coming up on the September menu. “Really the ’60s was when what we know as American dining now really took shape,” Askew said. “It was informed by all these different things: That's when Julia Child hit the airwaves, that's when all the big money French restaurants are opening in Manhattan, country club culture as we know it now is taking shape.”
While the dimmed lighting fosters intimacy and wonder in equal measure, arriving at Mainlander also genuinely feels like being invited into somebody’s home for dinner. The interior’s liberal use of midcentury chairs, cabinets, lamps and other decorative items, which Askew, Chen and the team collected patiently, sets the scene effectively. But the hospitality is just as important: Upon arrival, diners are greeted with a welcome drink, and an opening dish will already be on the table to provide guests with something to snack on before the dinner proper gets underway.
A new menu is released each month, and Askew said that the menu is “intentionally vague,” to allow the team the flexibility to “change and adapt and try new things.” In July, Askew said that what started as a fairly traditional rumaki evolved into something closer to a parfait.
The menu is divided into three courses – lazy susan, supper and dessert – but each contains multiple dishes. The current menu includes glass dumplings – inspired by Chen’s mother’s Taiwanese cooking – marinated Ozark Forest mushrooms, ambrosia salad and a dish called General Grant’s chicken, as well as tomato Provencal, a roulade of inland fish, and for dessert, mint Chantilly cream. September will include a St. Paul sandwich, delicata squash poppers and beef cheek stroganoff. Many of the dishes are meat-free to begin with, but when you make your reservation, you can opt for a strictly vegetarian menu that offers substitutes for the meat and seafood dishes. As a teaser for winter, Askew said he has plans for a beef Wellington in the works.
In order to stay true to a philosophy driven by ingredients and seasonality, Askew said he sources as much as he can from local producers in Missouri and Illinois. “Eat Here St. Louis has been indispensable so far in connecting us with small farms and absolutely beautiful product,” he said. “The most mundane things aren’t mundane when you source that way.”
He points to a recent batch of celery he feels is so good that it hardly even needs to be cooked or seasoned – and it has even been featured in a cocktail at Mainlander. “It comes from a farm right outside of Alton; they pick it young and it’s just perfect,” Askew said. “In a bigger restaurant or a different type of restaurant, I would just be ordering celery from US Foods or Sysco, and we’d have to do a lot more stuff to it.”
Dining at Mainlander is strictly by reservation only, a format that allows the kitchen to work with a higher degree of precision. Bookings are available on Resy, where you’ll pay for your meal in advance. Askew is keen to see tipping become a thing of the past, and says Mainlander’s prices are set so that the restaurant can pay a fair wage that does not need to be supplemented by tips.
A “basic” drinks package is included in the cost of your meal – this encompasses a welcome drink, water, sparkling water, coffee, tea and beer. However, to take things up a notch, you can opt in to one of three beverage pairing options: wine, cocktails or NA cocktails. Each beverage pairing package includes three drinks, with bar manager Riain Ó Ceallacháin crafting cocktails or pouring wines to complement each phase of the meal. The NA cocktails hew as carefully as possible to the flavor profiles of those with alcohol, with minimal switching of ingredients. Wine and cocktails can also be ordered a la carte if you prefer it that way.
“This is not your average restaurant in terms of the way we’re structured,” Askew said. By that, he partly means that Mainlander has no outside investors or silent partners “trying to twist our arm creatively,” as Askew said. The whole enterprise is five people, including the two owners, working together in the kitchen, behind the bar and on the restaurant floor. “Everybody that’s involved in this project is in the room, and we all view this as a creative venture,” Askew said. “It’s a huge privilege to be in a restaurant like that.”
Mainlander is open from Wednesday to Saturday, with two seatings each evening at 6 p.m. and 8:30 p.m.