Meet Me in St. Louis

The B.E.L.T. sandwich from Rooster in St. Louis (photo: Steve Dolinsky)

There are no cabs in St. Louis.


Well, that’s not completely true, of course. But hailing a taxi here, in the “Gateway To The West” and the home of baseball’s World Champions, isn’t nearly as easy as it is in Chicago, as I found out over the course of 24 hours. I was here to see the Blackhawks game on Saturday night, and I took my son, Max, on a little road trip adventure that naturally included eating, drinking and sight-seeing along with the game.



“Did you guys bring the beer?” the 40-something, graying dude in the Toews jersey asked his friends, as he boarded the Amtrak train in Joliet. We had already been riding for about an hour (our 7 a.m. departure was particularly brutal, considering I was on the air at 10:15 p.m. the night before), and this was our first stop on the way to St. Louis. I had opted to splurge on the Business Class car for an extra $32 each way for both of us, affording us larger seats, our own AC outlet and a couple of free drinks in the adjacent dining car. The trip was scheduled for a little more than five hours, so I figured it would be worth it; it was. We couldn’t believe how many Hawks fans were riding with us already, and the fact another dozen or so boarded in Joliet made the trip go by fairly quickly.


We pulled into downtown St. Louis at 12:15 p.m. It was a beautiful day, so we walked the 10 blocks to our hotel, the Millennium – a spherical building across the street from the Arch – which looked a lot better online. Granted, we were just sleeping there one night (a reasonable $86 including tax) but the absent staff, 40 minute wait for a cab and “hi-speed ethernet” service, (which felt more like an early ‘90s dial-up modem), will have me looking elsewhere on my next visit.


City Museum's outdoor climbing apparatus

We took a cab over to the City Museum, which is kind of like an indoor/outdoor playground featuring multiple slides and a gargantuan climbing apparatus made from recycled steel and scrap metal. Best-suited to the under-13 set, this museum is a must for families. I loved roaming through the vintage arcade, playing old pinball machines and gazing at the antique artifacts from ancient fairgrounds. Max spent a solid hour playing in the ball pit, chucking kickball-sized orbs at his new friends.


After a few hours at the museum, we walked about 8 blocks to the Union Square Metrolink station, paid the $9 round-trip fare for two tickets, and rode the sleek rail system 10 minutes west. I had been seeking advice all week on Twitter and Facebook, as to where we should eat before the game. It was pretty unanimous I should try Niche, a modern American restaurant helmed by Gerard Craft, a fairly recent Food & Wine Magazine Best New Chef. The restaurant is less than three miles from the Scottrade Center, but rushing through the meal there, in order to get to the game on time, seemed pointless. I opted, instead, for their sister restaurant, Taste Bar, which is located on a quiet street in the Central West End. They opened at 5 p.m., so we walked in and got a table right away.


They had me at the cocktail list. But I also loved their cozy interior, the focal point of which is the massive bar, jammed full of wonderful liquor of all hues. Ted Kilgore (at far left, in picture above) is kind of the Dale DeGroff of St. Louis, having “basically trained every other bartender of note in St. Louis,” @SpiritualAdvisr, a.k.a. Tim Lacey told me on Twitter. “Go see him. It’ll be worth it.” So we did. Kilgore presides over an extensive list of libations broken into various categories, typically arranged by style and richness, such as “Rich, Dark, Bold” or “Crisp, Light, Aromatic.”


Gin Rummy from Taste Bar

My gin rummy was absolutely perfect – a finely-balanced cocktail made with North Shore gin, Rhum Barbancourt and velvet valernum, along with orgeat syrup and bitters, topped with a lime and juniper float set aflame (once the sugar caramelized, I was instructed to submerge the lime into the drink, which added another layer of depth). They also whipped up a fantastic virgin Pimm’s Cup for Max, who loved the subtle notes of mint and cucumber. Our server seemed intrigued by the little guy in the Hawks jersey, and relished the challenge of coming up with something interesting for him. I’m so glad we opted for the more casual Taste over the more formal Niche. I led off with some housemade pickled vegetables (carrots, cauliflower, turnips), then we gobbled up the steamed mussels, dunking the grilled bread into the rich, mildy spicy broth; we fought over the garlicky-rich-yet-smooth brandade, slathering it on our thin crostini and finally savored our own dishes – squash risotto for me, a pork burger for Max – yet managed to share a crock of tart, lemony curd with shortbread that left us both completely sated.


We walked the five minutes back to the Central West End station, past the Wash U Medical Center building, and hopped on the train for the speedy trip back to the hockey arena. It was startling how many Chicago fans there were – each time we scored, a raucous roar went up from the crowd, growing louder as the game wore on, reaching its zenith in the final seconds, as they clinched the game on an empty netter.


I had told Max St. Louis was the home of Ted Drewes, one of my favorite frozen custard joints in the country. Problem was, the two locations in town were out in the ‘burbs, and sadly, there was no soft serve/custard/ice cream of any kind at the Scottrade Center (unless you count Dippin’ Dots). In fact, the foodservice overall there was extremely weak.  Be sure to eat before or after a game there. We got back to our hotel and tried to order some dessert, and again, the Millennium came up short; the bartender said all she could do was a slice of chocolate cake. We took a pass.


On Sunday morning, after waiting 45 minutes for a cab (seriously?), we took the five-minute ride in the rain over to Rooster, a massive breakfast joint featuring sweet and savory crepes. We were both famished, so we ordered a couple of things: I chose a savory crepe, containing a Missouri-made German sausage, akin to a kielbasa but not smoked nearly as long, sliced into small rings; there were also a few blobs of melted Vermont cheddar and some slices of spiced apples. A small crock of spiced cider arrived along with it.

sausage, cheese and apple crepe from Rooster (photo: Steve Dolinsky)


Max felt like a B.E.L.T. sandwich (pictured, at top of post), that is, thick pieces of freshly-baked wheat bread, housing smoked bacon, a fried egg, crisp romaine and slices of tomato, upgrading it with a schmear of guacamole for a .75 surcharge.  As good as that sandwich was, the side of thinly-sliced, fried potatoes and onions was equally as impressive.


Nutella and banana crepe from Rooster (photo: Steve Dolinsky)

For a little something sweet, we tried a banana and Nutella crepe, stuffed with a little too much Nutella for my taste (is there such a thing as too much Nutella?) then jumped back in a cab to see the Arch.


There are tourist attractions that are lame (Navy Pier and the town of Niagara Falls come to mind), and then there are attractions that are absolutely worth your time, like the Chicago Architectural Boat Tour and the St. Louis Arch. Honestly, I thought, what’s the big deal? It’s a giant steel monument? But the Visitor’s Center has a tastefully done museum, charting the development of the western frontier, explaining how Thomas Jefferson bought the Louisiana Purchase from a cash-strapped Napolean, and how he sent Lewis and Clark on their historical fact-finding mission. The story of westward exploration and settlement – along with its uncomfortable truths about the land grab from the native American Indians – was told in great detail. We loved hearing about the story of how Eero Saarinen – the architect of the famous TWA terminal at JFK Airport in New York City – was inspired to create something so singular, so elegant and simple, and yet so completely challenging from an engineering perspective, to honor this point in the country where Lewis & Clark had begun their voyage west.


Much of the technology has remained the same inside the Arch, including the small, barrel-shaped pods that are the elevator “cars” which carry you to the top. Using an ingenious system of chains, the cars are attached much like Ferris wheel cars, constantly rotating to maintain a parallel position with the ground. Afterward, we watched a lengthy, albeit fascinating 30-minute documentary about how the Arch was conceived and built.


On the way back to the train station, we stopped at the original Union Station, which has been converted into a mixed-use facility (mall) with a Marriot, some lame stores – most of which sell Cardinals paraphernalia – and a ton of vacant storefronts. I remember having dinner here in the 80s, with my then-girlfriend, on a visit to town. I don’t remember what we ate, and I think the restaurant is long-gone, but the fact that your food options here are now limited to a Landry’s, a Hard Rock and a slew of disgusting fast food options is either a testament to the declining fortunes of a Midwestern river town or just a sheer lack of sophistication by its local residents, who are happy to patronize crap.



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