PRISM Magazine Online - May-June 2000 - Special Conference Issue
A City of Neighborhoods
From lovingly restored 19th century houses to the finest restaurants to funky boutiques, you can find almost anything in this town's eclectic communities

By Susan C. Hegger

  Yes, St. Louis has that shimmering croquet wicket, the Arch, plus the engineering marvel known as the Eads Bridge, and any number of first-class attractions, like the internationally known Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra. But the heart and soul of St. Louis reside in its neighborhoods. It is, as one local wag once put it, the biggest small town in America. If you're going to get to know St. Louis, you have to learn its neighborhoods.

There's no better place to start than Soulard on the Near South Side, one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city. While people lived in Soulard in the late 1700s, it grew rapidly in the early 1800s--a magnet for German immigrants and other working-class people. After a period of being down and out, Soulard became one of the first neighborhoods rediscovered in the 1970s by urban pioneers. Today it remains an attractive blend of lovingly restored 19th-century Federal-style and French Second Empire mansions with mansard roofs and widow's walks; sturdy, red-brick row houses that are almost flush with the street; ornate wrought-iron fences; and brick sidewalks. Menard Street is one of the most picturesque.

The heart of the neighborhood, and its anchor on the north, is the open-air Soulard Market, which first opened in 1779 although the current building dates back only to 1929. Open Wednesday through Saturday, it is the area's largest farmers' market. It is a true urban space, a place where people of all ages, races, classes, and ethnic groups mix and mingle.

The anchor on Soulard's south end is the imposing German medieval-style Anheuser-Busch brewery, which offers free daily tours. (See accompanying box.) Thanks to an extensive network of caves, Soulard and the Near South Side drew a number of breweries, although Anheuser-Busch is the only one remaining.

The Lynch Street Bistro and the Sidney Street Café are two of the neighborhood's finest restaurants. I, though, am partial to Frazer's Traveling Brown Bag on Pestalozzi across from the brewery. It's a casual restaurant with exceptionally good fare. Another local favorite is the Broadway Oyster Bar.

South of Soulard is the colorful, tree-lined Cherokee St. antique row. Fifty stores are spread out over the seven blocks, including some particularly cool shops offering '50s furniture and accessories, which are sure to spark Boomer nostalgia.

Free Concerts

Just west of Soulard is Lafayette Square, another one of the neighborhoods rescued by urban pioneers. The centerpiece of the neighborhood is Lafayette Square Park, built in 1836. During the summer, the music from free concerts wafts in the air. Elegant Victorian mansions ring the park and evoke an era long since past. Soulard, Cherokee Street's antique row, and Lafayette Square represent the success of historic preservation in bringing new life to once declining neighborhoods, while preserving an urban, and urbane, mix of people.

In midtown, Grand South Grand is a wonderful example of the power of immigrants to revive aneighborhood. Over the past two decades, St. Louis has experienced an infusion of Asian immigrants who have put their stamp on the neighborhood.

Grand Avenue south of Arsenal is now home to a variety of Thai and Vietnamese restaurants. The King and I is the area's granddaddy of Thai restaurants, and Pho Grand is one of the area's best Vietnamese restaurants. For more romantic--and more expensive--dining, Once Upon A Vine is a lovely choice.

The stores in this part of town range from Botanicals on the Park, a classy boutique with flowers and upscale and unusual home furnishings accessories, to Jay's Asian foods, an ethnic grocery store with more kinds of rice than you can possibly imagine. (For a real cultural diversity test, try guessing what some of the items in the freezer cases are.)

Created in 1868, Tower Grove Park, a National Historic Landmark, is the jewel at Grand and Arsenal. It's a Victorian walking park, filled with beautiful gazebos. True to the Victorian sensibility, there's a pond with a fake ruin and a moody, poetic array of weather-worn busts of famous composers.

Head a few miles north on Grand and you'll come to the Grand Center Arts and Entertainment District. It's here that you'll find the Fabulous Fox, an extravagantly ornate one-time movie palace that now showcases traveling Broadway shows; the more sedate Powell Hall, home of the renowned Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra; the Sheldon Concert Hall, with its perfect acoustics; and the Black Repertory Theater. Jazz at the Bistro features more intimate performances.

Home of Yogi Berra

The Hill may be St. Louis' most well-known neighborhood, thanks in part to the fame of its onetime residents, Yogi Berra and Joe Garagiola. Originally home to working-class Italians who labored in the brick and terra cotta factories in the late 19th century, it has generally maintained its Italian character.

Were it not for the fire hydrants painted in green, white, and red--the colors of the Italian flag--you might not realize that you've arrived. The homes in this area are quite modest but very well kept. One of the most typical styles is the "shotgun" house--a narrow one-story home where the rooms are in a straight line, one behind the next. Theoretically, you could this area have traditionally been handed down in the family.

The spiritual anchor of the neighborhood is St. Ambrose Church, built in 1926 in a Northern Italian style. In front of the church is a bronze statue of Italian immigrants by Rudolph Torrini. Its touching and accurate details, like the straps around the man's suitcases, have made it the much-beloved symbol of the community. The heart of the neighborhood--its social center--has to be the bocce club where you can catch a game of bocce ball.

St. Louisans go to the Hill, though, for one reason: its food. It seems that most of its 200 businesses have something to do with food: restaurants, bakeries, and markets where you can find domestic and imported olives, Parmesan cheeses, and pastas.

It's hard to single out any one restaurant, but here goes. For casual fare, there is Amighetti's, virtually a St. Louis institution, which is well known for its sandwiches. Less well known is the deli-market Rombolo's, but I know people who swear by their sandwiches. Gian-Tony's is an excellent choice for a dinner that won't break the budget. On the pricier end of the scale is Dominic's, one of St. Louis' finest restaurants.

The most sophisticated neighborhood in St. Louis is the Central West End. Back in the '60s, it was more bohemian than it is now. Homes in this area, once a steal, are now in the stratosphere, at least by St. Louis standards. The CWE, as it's known, is home to a St. Louis peculiarity: private streets lined by breathtaking mansions and closed off by elaborate gates. In a sense, they represent the last stand of the St. Louis elite who moved west to avoid the city's increasing population and pollution. Some of the grandest manses are along Westmoreland Place and Portland Place.

The heart of the area is Euclid and McPherson, St. Louis' "Greenwich Village," which stood in for New York City during the filming of "White Palace." With its sidewalk cafes, interesting architecture, and eccentric potted palms, it is one of the city's prettiest neighborhoods.

The area around Euclid and McPherson hums. On one corner is Left Bank Books, one of the oldest and best independent bookstores remaining in St. Louis--well worth a visit. A storefront down on McPherson is Bissinger's, famous for its rich, chocolate truffles. The area is packed with terrific, albeit ultra trendy restaurants. Among the best are Zoe's Pan-Asian and Bar Italia. Readers of the city's alternative paper regularly vote Balaban's as the best place to be seen.

The most magnificent structure in the Central West End is undoubtedly the Cathedral Basilica on Lindell, where Pope John Paul II said Mass during his January 1999 visit. The cathedral was built between 1907 and 1909. What makes it special are its extraordinary mosaics, which took a father and son 80 years to complete. More than 41 million pieces of tile in 8,000 shades were used to create the stunning artwork, which covers the ceilings. But the overwhelming impression is of glittering gold. It is truly a vision to behold.

Beyond the City

Crossing into St. Louis County is the funky Loop area of University City, home to ethnic restaurants, edgy boutiques, and people of all colors, shapes, and sizes. The ever-expanding Blueberry Hill, a bar with the best hamburgers, best jukebox, and best dartboard in town is the capital of the Loop. But it's more than just a bar. Blueberry Hill was the engine that helped turn the Loop around from a scuzzy, dying neighborhood to the hippest place in town.

There's also the Walk of Fame along Delmar, which honors with bronze stars and quick bios some of St. Louis' most famous residents: Chuck Berry, T.S. Eliot, John Goodman, Josephine Baker, Tennessee Williams and more. I love the stores along Delmar--a million miles away from malls and chain stores: Coyote's Paw, with its ethnic treasures, especially musical instruments and spectacular jewelry, from all over the world; the eclectic mix of gifts at Faru; the unusual handcrafted ceramics at Craft Alliance; fresh fruits and veggies at the Market in the Loop; and the whimsical pieces at Meli-Melo. This may be the best place in St. Louis for window shopping and people watching.

Was it only 10 years ago that Clayton, St. Louis County's mini-downtown, rolled up the streets at 5 p.m.? The boxy, glass skyscrapers disgorged their thousands of workers, and Clayton became a ghost town. Not any more. Now just try to find a parking place at night.

Clayton now has the distinction of being the area's restaurant capital, with some of the finest, and priciest, eateries. Among the best are: Fio's La Forchette, where you can ask for seconds; The Crossing; Café Mira; and Cardwell's. Not quite as expensive but still quite good are: the flamboyant Crazy Fish, with its adventurous menu, and the more sedate Café Napoli, which gives Italian a modern touch.

Clayton has yet to develop a street life. Most people seem to park, eat, and leave. It's worth it to browse at the expansive Library Ltd., now a part of the Borders bookstore chain.

Other Great Eateries

Spread throughout the city are four St. Louis institutions that are among the best the city has to offer. Tony's, downtown, is one of the finest, most elegant Italian restaurants in the country. It will cost a bundle, but it will be a splurge to remember. Not so hard on the budget is Trattoria Marcella on Watson in South St. Louis, which serves exquisite food at moderate prices. Crown Candy, on St. Louis Ave. in North St. Louis, is an old-fashioned soda shop, with Coca-Cola memorabilia that spans the decades. They have fabulous sandwiches, especially the Reuben, but they're best known for their homemade ice cream and chocolate candy. The thick, creamy shakes are served in metal shakers so you don't miss a single drop.

Last but hardly least is where everyone goes on those hot, sticky, humid, St. Louis summer nights: Ted Drewes Frozen Custard stand on Watson in South St. Louis. The lines move amazingly fast, and before you know it, you're ordering a jumbo hot fudge sundae or a blueberry concrete--a shake so thick that it won't drip out if you turn the cup upside down. Then you savor every spoonful as you stand propped up against the car to watch the rest of the world go by.

    Susan C. Hegger, an editorial writer at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch,
    is a frequent contributor to the travel section

Surprise!
It's Not Just Beer Country

Missouri and wine. We'll forgive you if you don't ordinarily think of the two words in the same sentence. Given Anheuser-Busch's international prominence, it would hardly be surprising if beer were the first beverage to pop in your mind.

To be sure, Missouri is no California--or even Washington state. But Missouri wines are gradually winning more attention--and prizes--and Missouri wine country is among the prettiest and most historic areas in the state.

Actually Missouri is no Johnny-come-lately to winemaking. German immigrants, especially those who settled along the Missouri River, brought the art with them to Missouri in the early 1800s. Prohibition, though, sounded the death knell for Missouri's winemaking industry, and it wasn't until the 1960s that it began a slow but steady comeback. Today the state has more than 30 wineries, and it's particularly known for its red Nortons and white Vignoles.

The Missouri River valley, Missouri's popular Weinstrasse, is easily reached from downtown St. Louis. The closest stretch of the Weinstrasse for a day trip is out Highway 40 to Highway 94 and the two towns of Defiance and Augusta.

Defiance has two claims to fame. It was the home of pioneer Daniel Boone, and his 200-year-old homestead, a limestone mansion, is just outside town. The Daniel Boone home is the centerpiece of a reconstructed 19th-century village that aspires to be a living-history village, complete with interpreters in historic dress. The town, which boasts several bicycle-rental shops, is a great starting point for the Katy Trail, a former railroad right-of-way transformed into a bicycle path that now crosses just about the entire state. If you're in excellent shape, you can bike to Augusta.

Augusta has several wineries, but my favorite is the Mount Pleasant Winery, mainly because of its location--high on a hill overlooking the river valley. Buy a bottle of Vignoles, some cheese and salami and plop down on the terrace to enjoy a gorgeous view and the small pleasures of life.

Missouri's most famous--and most productive--winery is the Stone Hill Winery in Hermann, which is well worth a visit. The Amtrak passenger train, which can be boarded downtown or in Kirkwood, is a pleasant way to travel to Hermann.

Hermann itself is one of the most charming historic towns in Missouri. It was settled in 1836 by German immigrants eager to establish a "Second Fatherland." Today the German heritage is alive in the colorful gardens and window boxes, and sturdy, red-brick architecture. The Hermannhof winery has an appealing patio, with trellises entwined with vines, and is a good choice for a casual lunch. But no visit to Hermann is complete without a visit to Stone Hill, which enjoys a panoramic view of the town. The winery's attractive restaurant is the best place in town for dinner--and a comfortable locale for sampling their rich, full-bodied Norton.

--S.H.