Tom Duggan, the man behind the counter at Lemon Gem Kitchen Goods in St. Louis, Mo., was so talkative that I couldn’t help but stay and chat. He was filling in for his daughter, the shop’s owner, Beth Styles. I asked him what he liked about St. Louis and he said he once had a job that entailed a lot of travel, and that he always liked coming home. “It’s a great place to raise a family, the schools in the county are good, and the real estate is reasonable,” he said. “It’s a big small town.”
This isn’t mere aw-shucks sentiment — as someone who grew up in Illinois, I can attest to the fundamental, if understated, truth of what Mr. Duggan said. St. Louis has all you could want in a city — museums, green spaces, good music and exciting new restaurants — plus that distinct Midwestern sense that if you stop random people on the street, there’s a very good chance they grew up nearby and are excited to share the name of their favorite bar with you. It also happened to be a good fit for my modest budget, making it an ideal place to spend four days this past month.
My Airbnb in the Central West End neighborhood ($65 per night for a private room in a resident’s house), about 4 miles west of downtown, centrally located and close to the Metro, made for a good home base. I also spent a night in downtown proper at the Magnolia Hotel St. Louis, where I landed a AAA rate of $125 per night. It was easy to get out to Central West End from downtown, about a 15 minute ride, on my $7.50 Metro day-pass. I also used the Transit app, which works in over 100 cities, to make my riding as efficient as I could.
I spent a day walking around downtown, and had my first encounter with a helpful local at Star Clipper, a sanctuary for all who love things comics- and fantasy-related. A relative neophyte, I asked one of the managers for help. Celeste, with silver hair peeking out from under a Darth Vader knit cap, was more than happy to assist. I asked her for something a little out there; a little weird. Her face lit up, “So … how weird do we want to get?” she asked before directing me to work by St. Louis-native Jim Mahfood.
Maybe I had comics on the brain this particular trip, because I headed to the Moolah Theater Lounge for a Wednesday evening showing of “Black Panther.” Admission on Wacky Wednesday, as it’s called, is just $5, a great deal for a first-run movie in a beautiful old theater like the Moolah. The building, originally constructed for the Shriners in 1913, has wonderful architectural details like a massive barrel-vaulted ceiling in the middle of the theater, as well as some comfy couches for those quick enough to grab them. The attached bar in the theater, in addition to serving $2 Busch beer, had some themed drink specials: The King T’Challa, for example, got you a draft beer with a shot of Crown Royal for $10.
From the Moolah, I headed up North Grand Boulevard past the shining marquee of the 1920s-era Fox Theater in search of some live music, an area where St. Louis shines. I found it at The Dark Room at the Grandel, where the trumpet player Kasimu Taylor was leading his “Kasimu-tet” through a jazz set (no cover charge). I grabbed a seat at the bar and had a bowl of Italian wedding soup ($7) as well as a blonde ale from local 4 Hands Brewing ($5) and enjoyed the abstract music in the cool, subdued atmosphere.
It was just the first of several fairly distinct musical journeys I’d take in St. Louis: Downtown at the Broadway Oyster Bar, I watched the band Alligator Wine noodle its way through some Grateful Dead covers while I sat with a big plate of cornbread and chicken and sausage gumbo ($5 cover; $5.50 for the gumbo). Just a stone’s throw away up Broadway at the wonderfully named BB’s Jazz, Blues, and Soups, I grooved to soul and RB covers played by Torrey Casey and the South Side Hustle ($5 cover). The vocalist who sat in on many of the songs, Teec’a Easby, positively killed a rendition of Aretha Franklin’s “Baby, I Love You.”
My favorite show, though, was at Thurman’s in the quiet Shaw neighborhood just north of Tower Grove Park. Riding in the back of an Uber in the pelting rain (which punctuated much of my trip), I was positive that we were lost: I couldn’t see any businesses, just quiet residential streets. Thurman’s appeared like a beacon in the darkness, and the whirlwind of jazz that was taking place inside dried my rain-sodden clothes near instantaneously.
Kendrick Smith was playing the alto saxophone like his life depended on it. The other two in his trio could barely keep up with what he was doing — the mode changes, the rhythmic variations, not to mention the technical skill. I spoke to him afterward about his modified saxophone, which I noticed was straight and didn’t curve upward (typically only the soprano is straight). “I did some research on the saxophone and the inventor actually intended for them all to be straight,” he said, saying he enjoyed the darker timbre.
You could easily spend a week in St. Louis seeing music nonstop, but then you’d be missing out on one of the city’s most budget-friendly aspects: its free museums. Hopping off the Metro at the Forest Park-DeBaliviere station just north Forest Park, I spent an afternoon enjoying some of the best publicly-funded institutions in the nation: the Saint Louis Art Museum, the Saint Louis Zoo and the Missouri History Museum. The history museum in particular had some interesting showings, including an exhibit about the 1904 World’s Fair and the Summer Olympics that took place within that same period.
Most affecting was the exhibit “#1 in Civil Rights,” which presents the case for Missouri being on the front lines of the war for black equality since the 1800s. The struggle continues to this day: St. Louis is one of the country’s most segregated cities, according to a 2017 study, and black residents live at a poverty rate over three times higher than whites. Areas in the northern part of St. Louis and St. Louis County, as well as across the Mississippi River in the city of East St. Louis, are plagued with crime.
The exhibit taught me about important figures like John Berry and Mary Meachum, abolitionists who worked with the Underground Railroad, as well as the Negro Bar Association (established in 1922) and the Colored Clerks’ Circle, a group formed in 1932 that initiated economic boycotts of businesses and set precedent for strategies enacted during mid-20th century Civil Rights movement.
But it was elsewhere that I found one of the most odd and engaging art projects and public spaces I’d visited in awhile. Started by the artists Bob and Gail Cassilly, the City Museum is an interactive collection of different installations with no real unifying themes I could ascertain besides maybe “adventure” and “wrought metals.” There’s a hamster wheel big enough to accommodate a full-grown man, an enormous old walk-in bank vault, and dozens of underground caves, narrow passages, and giant slides that take you from one floor of the museum to another. It was a bit like “The Muppet Show”: Geared toward kids on the surface, but with plenty of oddities — sneering gargoyle sculptures, taxidermied animals, an abandoned school bus — random and fascinating enough to keep adults entertained, too.
The museum ($14 admission) is mostly housed within an old shoe factory that’s entirely too big for the contents within, but that’s sort of the point. When I went, there were a bunch of children running around and having the times of their young lives, but it was very easy to find a corner of the museum that had seemingly never been discovered. For parents: This may become your kid’s new favorite place on earth, but not a lot about the museum struck me as particularly childproof. Keep a close eye and consider bringing kneepads. I’m not kidding — I wedged myself into a couple of those passages and wasn’t sure I was going to make it out.
After my visit to the City Museum, I went and tried St. Louis-style pizza at Imo’s Pizza, a decision I simultaneously savored and regretted. The defining features of St. Louis-style pizza are a wafer-thin bottom and the use of Provel cheese, a slick-tasting processed mixture of Cheddar, swiss and provolone. It is, let’s just say, an acquired taste. (Celeste from Star Clipper was not a fan: “it tastes like a cracker with fake cheese,” she said.)
Most of the city’s other food offerings, though, don’t require you to have grown up eating them to appreciate them. I had some killer baby back ribs at Sugarfire Smoke House — four meaty bones with a side of “rack ‘n’ cheese” (macaroni and cheese mixed with pulled pork) cost $10.49, and came with all the thick, molasses-y St. Louis-style barbecue sauce I wanted.
On the other side of the pizza spectrum from Imo’s is Union Loafers, a bakery that puts its own twist on Neapolitan-style pizzas, cooking them in their bread ovens instead of using a traditional wood fire. The result is not disappointing: my 18-inch classic with cheese, tomato and basil pizza was simple elegance and very tasty ($17).
St. Louis has an ambitious culinary scene that is steadily growing, and so I headed for lunch to Vicia, a seasonal, vegetable-forward restaurant on this year’s James Beard Awards’ Best New Restaurant shortlist. The lunch deal happens to be exceptional — choose two or three items on the menu and pay $12 or $15. I had a sandwich with grilled ham and salami on a fluffy focaccia alongside a salad of fresh beets in tangy yogurt with seed and oat granola added for a nice crunchy texture.
Walking around one evening down the Delmar Loop near Washington University, I milled around with young families and college students while stopping into various establishments on the strip: Avalon Exchange for some used clothes; Vintage Vinyl slinging crates of 99-cent records; Blueberry Hill, the huge restaurant and music venue where St. Louis native Chuck Berry performed hundreds of times. There was so much to see and do — as much as a city twice its size — and all of it within easy reach.