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  • Farewell to Garavelli’s Cafeteria

    Posted on June 27th, 2013 Toby Weiss 6 comments

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    Garavelli’s Cafeteria & Banquet Hall
    6600 Chippewa, South St. Louis, MO

    2013 has not been a good year for restaurant institutions in St. Louis. First Ponticello’s Pizza in Spanish Lake, then Duff’s in the Central West End, and now Garavelli’s.

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    Just short of 100 years in business, the current owners (of 23 years) have to close due to financial strain. Reportedly, their electric bill ran to $6,000 a month during the ultra hot summer of 2012. They simply can’t afford another summer like that. And their customer base is dwindling due to advanced age.

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    We’ll get back to the age factor in just a moment. Let’s look at the drive-thru menu (above) objectively. What other convenient drive-thru is going to offer you vegetables like that? Where else can you quickly grab a pork steak and two sides to go for under $10?  As of June 28, 2013 the answer is “nowhere.”

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    Garavelli’s began in 1914, and eventually had multiple locations throughout St. Louis, including DeBalivere in the Central West End and Manchester Road in Rock Hill. This building in St. Louis Hills, on Route 66, went up in 1946, right before the dawn of mid-century modernism as personified by car culture. But in keeping with the rapid ascension of the Auto Age, they installed the drive-thru because they were in a prime motorcade location.

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    A dear friend (who is under the age of 60), who is beside himself for losing the best fast food ever, aptly describes the place as “very Mildred Pierce.” The 1945 Joan Crawford movie or the recent HBO remake? Take your pick – both apply. But a great description, especially for the pie!

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    Immediately after World War 2, the early-American, faux Colonial aesthetic still prevailed, and that Mildred Pierce-ness begins in the foyer of Garavelli’s.

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    There’s been much remodeling over the years, but its essence remains in tact. And whistle clean. The stairs (above) lead to the basement banquet hall. They added a stair lift to accommodate the disabled, along with an accessible ramp out front. It’s easy to make cracks about the age of their clientele – everyone does – but it also makes the place fully accessible to everyone.

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    And here’s the heart of the Garavelli’s experience – the food, the glorious food, served cafeteria-style!

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    OK, let’s talk about the aging issue.
    Cafeteria-style dining has been fading from favor for the past 30 years, with Garavelli’s being one of the last hold outs. There are still a couple of Miss Sheri’s open, similarly located in parts of town with a large senior population. It’s a 20th century form of dining that has been usurped by car-centric fast food chains.

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    Modern Americans have overwhelmingly voted with their pocketbooks for fast, convenient cheap crap over sit-down, low-priced real food. The cafeteria is much like blacksmiths and phone booths – there’s just not a vast market for them anymore. And even as a child in the 1970s, my mother would make cracks about cafeterias (which we ate at frequently) being for the elderly because they served a wide variety of small portions. Which is another aspect that dooms cafeterias – we are now a Super Size Nation.

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    But Garavelli’s is known for their generous portions – almost too large – at ridiculously low prices. Younger folks who have done Garavelli’s tend to disparage the food; depends what you get. They are known for their fish, pork steaks and meatloaf. The sides are always delicious. With such an astoundingly large and ever-changing selection, you’re bound to have a wide scale of hit and miss.

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    But popular consensus is that they are consistently good. “Good” is an under appreciated quality in a Foodie world. And it’s real food- unfussy, untrendy. Which brings us to a major aspect of Garavelli’s downfall that could have been righted.

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    Restaurants are all about marketing – marketing your style, your vibe, your cuisine. How many times have we bought into crap because it was so expertly presented? But marketing can only take you so far, which is why the restaurant business is notoriously difficult to succeed in for the long haul. To last 99 years means you had to have the food part down pat.

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    But somewhere along the way, Garavelli’s lost the marketing instinct. I hear it’s because the current owners are just too darn busy churning out the meals to their loyal customers. The owner said he hasn’t had a vacation in 6 years – that’s exhausting. And facing financial difficulties with maintaining the expected standards, who has time – or money – to invest in marketing? All understandable.

    The owner also said that it was impossible to make any changes to the menu, as even the slightest change created an uproar with the steady customers. But their fare is not what needed to change, it was simply a need for some marketing.

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    In today’s world, marketing can be next-to-free by investing some time in social media. Garavelli’s did start a Facebook page (it’s where they broke the sad news of their closing), but it was not utilized in a consistent or engaging manner, probably because of the age of their majority demographic. But social media is also an opportunity to create a new customer base.

    With Garavelli’s heritage, history and reputation, they could have traded on the inherent sentimentality of St. Louis. Draw in those Baby Boomers! And with its authentic mid-century pedigree, draw in the young hipsters. Every demographic is into good food at a great price, especially when there’s a drive-thru in a convenient location. But you have to get the word out.

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    A good pal of mine (well under 60 years of age) who is a good arbitrator of great places to eat dines there on a regular basis. He is always the youngest man in the room. But he’s kept this culinary paradise a close secret because he didn’t want others catching on and crowding him out. He simply wanted a wide variety of consistently good food at a cheap price available to him without dealing with the PBR Crowd. I truly understand and respect that mindset, but it’s also part of the downfall of Garavelli’s. It needed younger blood to discover its many charms.

    When the distress signal went up about Garavelli’s difficulties, ModernSTL was hoping to intervene by hosting events there. Let the large and adventurous St. Louis MCM audience be introduced to an authentic Route 66 experience, and they tell 2 friends, and so on and so on. A form of free marketing. But before the social wheels could be set in motion, the owners had to wave the white flag.

    And within days of the news, American Eagle Credit Union bought the place. Reportedly, demolition of the building will happen fairly quick. So not only does St. Louis lose an historic restaurant, we also lose this view:

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    I’m going to miss this sight – a building that looked like a ship from some angles, a man wearing a fedora from other angles, a new vinyl sign each day tempting you with meals you’re too busy to make for yourself, and that wonderfully Googie sign.

    The owners truly intend to carry the recipes to a new location. But let them have a well-deserved rest to recharge their batteries. Thank you for enthusiastically and loyally carrying on the Garavelli’s tradition. And a fond farewell to a St. Louis Hills landmark.

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  • The Fountain at The Vedder

    Posted on June 17th, 2011 Toby Weiss 7 comments

    On Nottingham in St. Louis Hills stands The Vedder apartment building. To some, it’s known as The Eddie Vedder, but to anyone who sees it, it’s magnificent.

    And it just got even better. Take a look!

    For the first time since I’ve known the building, the fountain is on! And with lights!

    There is a For Sale sign in the front yard, which may explain the improvements. And what a seriously smart move – who can resist the Vedder with a working fountain?

    Backstory on The Vedder
    Vedder history via Esley Hamilton

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  • Touring & Talking St. Mark’s Church

    Posted on July 31st, 2010 Toby Weiss 5 comments

    St. Mark’s Church
    4714 Clifton Avenue, St. Louis Hills, MO

    On July 9, 2010, the St. Louis Beacon presented a tour of St. Mark’s Church which began with Eugene J. Mackey, III, FAIA sharing his thoughts on the 1939 church designed by Frederick Dunn and Charles Nagel, and ended with his presentation “St. Louis Modernism in the 1950s.”

    Here is a good history of the church building, wherein they note it is one of the first “uncompromisingly modern churches built anywhere in the world before World War 2.” Another interesting point, for me, is that unlike most churches which are built on corner lots (especially in St. Louis Hills, known for its four corner churches surrounding Francis Park), St. Mark’s rests in the middle of a residential street. Eventually, the entire campus would encompass the northern half of the block, but the affect of a white brick tower rising up from a sea of brick bungalows never fails to surprise and delight.

    Gene Mackey III, of Mackey Mitchell Architects, is the son of  the Eugene Mackey, of Murphy & Mackey, who were among the royalty of St. Louis mid-century modern architecture, giving us The Climatron, the Washington University Olin Library and a host of exceptional modern churches, including Resurrection in South St. Louis.  So, our current Mackey has modernism in his blood, and he grew up absorbing all the work, colleagues and friends of his father. Luckily, he has a great memory, an engaging way of imparting important historical information about our city’s modern architecture and the learned anecdotes to bring it all to life.

    This is why I’ll let him talk about St. Mark’s, as recorded that night:

    “(St. Mark’s co-architect) Frederick Dunn went to Yale, and was in school with Eero Saarinen. People don’t necessarily make that connection. Eero Saarinen was a powerhouse, even as a student, a very dynamic, powerful individual. Frederick Dunn was a counterpoint in school, more of a classicist in his approach to things. Also at the same time at Yale was (St. Mark’s co-architect) Charles Nagel, the man that – as an architect – became the director of the St. Louis Art Museum… and was also on the jury for the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial.”

    “(Dunn) had an amazing whimsy.  … Anyone who’s an architect certainly knows about St. Mark’s, which was done in the late 30s. And think about that – in the late 30s! When you walk around it, think of the elements, the details, the attention, the imagination that he’s bringing to every element.”

    “Bill Bowersox is with us today. As we passed from the sacristy to the rear addition of the church, I think we were all struck by the respect and dignity and proportion of that addition (his firm designed). I think that Fred Dunn would be very pleased. I compliment you for that.”

    William Bowersox, architect of the St. Mark's rear addition, is seen on the right, walking toward the rear entry.

    “Looking at the way Dunn used masonry, I bet you – and I might be wrong – but I bet his original intention was to do this church in stone. Because you don’t see many buildings in white brick, and I don’ know if it can be documented, but it’s an interesting thought about the use of materials.”

    Mackey’s presentation of Modernism in the 1950s was a series of photos of St. Louis structures to which he shared facts and observations. His introduction also summarized why these buildings still captivate:

    “When you think about something being modern, it’s of the moment, it is what is contemporary. It has to do with looking forward and often tied in with technology. In this (1950s) era, to me in terms of design, its reflected in dynamic forms, a new way of thinking, not necessarily relying on tried and true, but exploring new things. Line – the power of line – the power of form, the dynamics of movement of the eye.”

    A highlight reel of what he covered includes:

    • A belief that the loss of Sportsman’s Park was one of the major contributors of the rapid decline of North St. Louis

    • “The loss of the streetcar lines in the 60s also contributed to decline in the neighborhoods. Because of the streetcars, the small businessman on the corner could rely on a certain number of shoppers to get off the streetcar everyday to buy flowers or ice cream. There was a consistency there that was very critical. Of course, we had to get rid of them because they were in the way (of the cars).”

    Levittown: “What they bought here was being totally tied to your automobile. Remember that in St. Louis in the 1950s, you could walk out your door, and walk down the street, or get on a streetcar and get everything you needed. Maybe even walk to work. That was impossible in Levittown.”

    • Harris Armstrong’s former Magic Chef building:  “I consider that it’s in mothballs, and someday someone is going to buy this building and restore it to what it should be.”

    • Revealed that there is a Paul Rudolph-designed home in Warson Woods!

    Rear of the Rectory built in 1950-51 from a design by Frederick Dunn.

    After the slideshow, Mackey took some questions from the audience, and it was fascinating because it was chiefly a conversation among architect peers. Someone asked what the biggest losses have been, building-wise (his answer: losing the buildings around the Wainwright Building detracts from its greatness because it’s isolated), but generally, Mackey sees it differently than those of us lamenting the mid-century modern losses.

    Indicating the presentation he said, “We’re looking back 60 years, and fortunately, so many of these buildings still exist, telling so many different stories, playing so much different kinds of music. If you think of architecture as frozen music, think about the different melodies that are played by the buildings you just saw. It’s fantastic. It was a great era.”

    And it was true that 95% of the structures he had presented ARE still standing, which is amazing! And we need to find ways to insure that these historically and aesthetically important buildings remain standing.

    Gene Mackey, III, FAIA after his talk on St. Louis Modernism in the 1950s, inside the St. Mark's Parish House.

    The last bit before everyone broke for refreshments was the one that riveted me the most. Jamie Cannon asked for Mackey’s statement on new residential architecture, namely the bloated McMansions that spring up after tear downs. His thoughts should be a separate presentation all on its own:

    “A certain amount of modesty is very appropriate. Look at this beautiful church; this is an iconic building, and it’s a modest building. It sits in a modest residential neighborhood. I think modesty is a good thing. Look at the Kraus house – it’s a modest house. Look at the Shank house – it’s a dynamic, powerful piece of sculpture on the side of the hill and that’s always going to be relevant.

    “Every time somebody builds one of those monster houses, it has to do with people’s ambitions. People come into Ladue with (plans for) these monster houses, and we try to talk them out of it. And most of the people who build those monster houses don’t live in them for very long, for whatever reason. And then the community is stuck with them. They tore down Buster May’s house in Ladue and they’re building Versailles, and there’s nothing we can do about it. It wasn’t against the law.”

    It’s hard and foolhardy to mess with personal property rights, which is why I think grassroots appreciation and education, combined with an appeal to trendy hearts (think Mad Men), is what will calm a good portion of the MCM tear down madness in Mid-County.  Or with our Recession (also known as The Great American Reset), maybe shaming folks into “a certain amount of modesty” would be a path to follow?

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  • Dental Holiday: Mother’s Day

    Posted on May 9th, 2009 Toby Weiss 2 comments

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    Skosky Family Dentistry’s display artist went for the flower theme to celebrate Mother’s Day.  Good choice, because -  in the spirit of of doing exactly what your mother desires on her day – my mother wants us to take her to a locally-owned nursery to pick out annuals as her gift.

    She also loves an earth-toned ranch house teaming with blooms, and has done a wonderful job of transforming hers into exactly that.  But she often wishes for just a little more square footage.  In the “I Want To Go To There” world, this is what I’d give her on Mother’s Day…

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    This is my favorite house on the Ranch Side of St. Louis Hills, south of Francis Park.  It faces the park, so when it was for sale a couple of years ago, I’d frequently walk around Francis Park just to gaze longingly at it and day dream.   Happily, the folks who did buy it take immaculate care of it, but I keep hoping it will one day be mine, because dreaming is free.

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