Diners are moving in…
Can a restaurant save a neighborhood, spark an urban renaissance, anchor an area? In St. Louis, the answer seems to be “yes.”
Restaurants bring commerce and money into a district. But, more importantly, they bring people. Even if people feel nervous about living in an area, they are likely to venture into the unknown to dine at a hot restaurant. As more people visit the area and spend time there, interest in moving into the area is piqued, and revitalization begins.
“It’s absolutely a key component,” said real estate developer Pete Rothschild, who has bought and renovated properties in the Central West End, Soulard, Hyde Park, Tower Grove Park and Shaw neighborhoods. “Restaurants and restaurant-bars and nightclubs, in no particular order, are usually the first businesses, with maybe an art gallery, in an area that is just beginning a renaissance. The apartments come next.”
Certain areas stand out as examples of just how well a successful restaurant can improve a neighborhood. However, the most important factor for any neighborhood restoration is organization. Areas that have willing aldermen, well-run business associations and forward-thinking city managers do the best. The restaurants, of course, have to be beyond “good” in order to draw a crowd into a questionable strip. Variety of cuisine, people and retail also help attract patrons, who may later become citizens.
The Central West End, The Loop and South Grand are excellent examples of neighborhoods where restaurants have helped anchor, stabilize and renew. Ferguson, Mo., is just beginning to redevelop its downtown and is actively seeking restaurants to spur economic development.
The Central West End
The once-prosperous neighborhood began to decline in the 1950s as residents moved to the suburbs. “People didn’t go out that way. It wasn’t a restaurant town,” Mary Bartley, chairwoman of the Planning and Development Committee of the Central West End Association, said of the Central West End. “There really wasn’t much down here.
“The restaurants certainly have a major role because they bring people down, and [the patrons] see the neighborhood,” Bartley said. “So maybe they would decide to live there.”
Both Bartley and Jeff Fister, president of the Central West End Association, noted that Herb Balaban of Café Balaban and Karen Duffy of Duff’s were key players who saw “the value of the area.” And while it’s certainly true that both Duff’s and Café Balaban are two of the most visible signs of the mid-century renaissance, there are also several fondly remembered restaurants – now long gone – that paved the way for these current anchors. For example, The Pleasant Pheasant, opened by Rosemary O’Brien, was originally located in the space later taken over by Café Balaban. And both Europa and Aumon’s Tea Room were once situated in the space now occupied by Duff’s. Aumon’s Tea Room, which was a place where ladies would come to lunch and play cards, is even known for having served martinis in teacups, since the restaurant didn’t have a liquor license. Also, Potpourri was a bar located in the current Zoë space and Castlewood held forth where Llywellyn’s currently resides.
Fister, who is also the president and owner of West End Word, said, “When I got [to the CWE], the restaurant district was the core of our business community and of our appeal. Duff’s was an anchor. [Duffy] created an environment, cultivated a destination.” The surrounding neighborhood continued to build up slowly.
Although Duffy considered Chicago as the location for her “gathering place,” she chose St. Louis and eventually the CWE. “The Central West End was so beautiful and charming – the architecture and trees and the people,” Duffy said.
Since the only capital she and her husband had to open Duff’s came from selling their Europe-traveling van, the low costs of real estate in the CWE also had an appeal. Duffy described the CWE when she moved in as “very, very affordable; cheap at $125 per month for a storefront and an apartment.”
While Duff’s quickly became a success, Duffy noted that the CWE did not continue to revitalize overnight. “It was a very affluent area once,” Duffy said. “We got there in ’72, then Plaza Frontenac opened and then everyone left. We bought a house and within a month, they started tearing down city homes.” Even so, Duffy remembers thinking, “Something is going to come of this area.”
She explained that the opening of New City School encouraged families to move into the CWE. “A lot of young families moved in, which was very exciting,” Duffy said. “The houses were affordable for young families, and New City School gave their children a place to go to school.”
Duff’s continues to spread the revival because, as Duffy noted, “Many of the people who have worked for me have opened their own restaurants.” As one of the longest-standing restaurant owners in the CWE, Duffy said, with a smile, “I’m proud to be open. Survival!”
Also in 1972, Blueberry Hill, owned by Joe Edwards, was just beginning to make the Delmar Loop what it is today. The deterioration of The Loop began in the 1950s, according to Edwards, when area malls opened and finer shops moved into them, leaving Delmar Boulevard vacant.
“When I opened Blueberry Hill,” Edwards said, “I realized that if I was to succeed, I would have to set a tone for the area. We can create a stronger area if we welcome diversity. ‘White flight’ stopped. Everyone worked together. It is the way America should be – all sorts of cuisine and people,” Edwards said of the current state of The Loop and his continuing vision of the area.
“Restaurants will draw foot traffic more than other types of retail businesses – several times a day.”
As with other such revitalizations, the low rent for the area drew Edwards to The Loop. “We had no money, and the rents were really cheap because the area had gone down so much,” Edwards recalled. He also said that the historic architecture and the close location to Washington University drew him to Delmar Boulevard, believing the strip had “major street potential.”
Spreading the street’s potential, Edwards plans to open seven buildings in the near future. “Another major step,” he said, “is extending the variety of The Loop all the way to the MetroLink station.” In fact, The Loop’s logo has been redesigned to ensure that University City and St. Louis were both included as part of the area. Future plans for The Loop include opening Mirasol, a neuvo-Latino tapas restaurant, with Brendan Marsden, the co-owner of Modesto.
“It took a long time. It’s a gradual process,” Edwards said. “But then once the base is laid, development can happen almost overnight. [The Loop] is getting better every month as expansion continues east.”
“Symbiotic” is perhaps the best word to describe South Grand. Rather than being anchored by one restaurant, it has many ethnic dining spots that together make it a popular destination.
“If you get a good base of restaurants, people will come,” co-owner of Absolutli Goosed Melissa Spear said. “If the restaurants around us weren’t good, and we weren’t good, no one would come down here anyway. People find us by accident because they’re already down here for dinner.”
Joe Thele, neighborhood stabilization officer for Tower Grove East, has worked for 15 years with the South Grand district to improve the area, “anything from pot holes to drug houses,” as he described his job. Thele, who moved to South Grand 10 years ago, said, “I wanted a business area close by. I’m ‘old school city.’ I like to walk to things; I’m not part of the car culture.”
“Certainly, small businesses have given us [South Grand] life. It’s critical to have a good mix of restaurants and retail. We want this to be a pedestrian place,” Michelle Maple, commercial district manager for South Grand, said. “South Grand has several very unique stores like TFA and CheapTrix.” Maple described South Grand as “a really eclectic and exciting place to have either a business lunch or a long, leisurely day of shopping and dining – a unique point of destination.”
Like other areas, South Grand’s residential area grows as people from outside the area visit the district to shop or eat. Once they like what they see and experience, many become interested in living in the area. New restaurants bring new citizens.
“I’ve watched this neighborhood over the past 20 years. Our particular business was something Grand didn’t have,” said Spear, who believes that Absolutli Goosed is casual enough to draw in the locals but trendy enough to bring in people from the county. “We thought we could draw down the post- and pre-dinner crowds. We’ve expanded the demographics of the area. We’ve moved at least 10 families into the area.”
Thele noted, “Housing values are up three times from 10 years ago.” During the 1970s and 1980s, Thele explained, people moved from the city to the suburbs, leaving many storefronts vacant. “It was the efforts from our immigrants” that helped rebuild South Grand.
Beautification projects are scheduled for the area between Highway 44 and South Grand. According to Thele, current and past elected officials have been supportive in the area’s “efforts to make it [Grand Boulevard] seamless.”
Revitalization and redevelopment do not occur only within the borders of a large city like St. Louis. Ferguson, Mo., is also using restaurants as a way to increase traffic and commerce in its area.
“In the last three or four years, hometown people have opened up restaurants. That has helped to anchor our downtown,” Theresa Carper, community relations coordinator for the city of Ferguson, said. Those restaurants are Vincenzo’s, Thyme Table Café, Corner Coffee House and Whistle Stop, the old train station purchased from Norfolk and Southern. “We’re a railroad town, so that’s a part of our history,” Carper said.
Steve Wegert, Ferguson’s mayor for the past eight years, believes that the opening of the Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center at the University of Missouri-St. Louis will help his city. After performances at the center, Wegert said, “the logical destination is a restaurant-bar or restaurant-pub. They are key. They’re destinations for people in the area and outside the area.
“The university has offered us a whole lot of potential,” Wegert said. “The PAC will help us carry that forward.”
When asked if the PAC has so far attributed to the economics of Ferguson, Wegert answered, “Not that I can attribute specifically to the PAC. UMSL has always been a market for us.”
“We’re working with people who want to open businesses, especially restaurants,” Carper said. “Restaurants seem to be the catalysts that spur on other things.”
“We’re looking to add to the choices downtown, to create a restaurant district,” Wegart said. “There aren’t a lot of choices around that I see. It’s an untapped market.”
“I think that as the city of Ferguson approaches downtown redevelopment, an arts and entertainment district needs to be a part of our plan,” A.J. Krieger, city manager, said. “We certainly want to make downtown Ferguson a hub of restaurants and eating establishments, so there is a broader range for residents of Ferguson and our visitors. Activity breeds activity. As we can develop a critical mass of restaurants, I think we are well-positioned to serve all of North County.”
Veronica Creech, downtown development coordinator, believes that the way the citizens have decided to spend a portion of the tax money will draw in more restaurateurs. “When a city is going through revitalization economically, the voters pass a TIF, tax increment financing. A certain percent of revenue for sales taxes is put aside, specifically for developing a location — in our case, downtown,” she said.
“There’s quality here, something we’ve always strived for,” Carper said. “You can see the traffic coming through here. They always have, but now they stop. We’ve seen a lot more activity than we have in the past. The restaurants’ opening was the catalyst for the revitalization of our downtown.”
From a “gathering place” to a pub based on memorabilia, from a martini bar to a drive-thru ice cream train station, restaurants, their owners and their patrons have helped restore the St. Louis area. Beyond that, restaurant districts are blended with residents and retail shops, creating true cosmopolitan spots. The urban flight of mid-20th century St. Louis is fading into history. As more and more St. Louisans are drawn by the energy and excitement of city living, our city’s overall future becomes brighter. Restaurants and revitalization go hand in hand. One spurs the other, and once the momentum of revitalization begins, neighborhoods are brought back to life for all of us to enjoy.