Pointless Website Blog
Because I missed it, all right?
Because I missed it, all right?
Sunday, July 11, 2004
riverfronttimes.com | Party Down | 2004-07-07
So, here's what I've been scanning local food/restaurant magazine/website www.saucecafe.com for: an actual reason why, as you may or may not have known, Blake Brokaw's Tangerine, Lo, and Chocolate Bar closed. As a minor, I can't really say anything about Lo, but Blake was, and with good reason, one of the only people in St. Louis who could bring in Food Network to cover a restaurant here (and as far as I'm concerned, an institution like Ted Drewes would get a free pass for airtime anyway for being loved for so long; Blake earned it in a few short years). Tangerine and Chocolate Bar were places that out of towners could get excited about; people don't just do it like that in St. Louis. Although Tangerine's drinks were pricey, I can think of few places in St. Louis with such good food for such low prices, and while Rose Martelli from the RFT may have found the decor hipper-than-thou, I just found it creative. Seriously, is it against the law for someone with quirky tastes to express themselves on their restaurant's walls? Chocolate Bar wasn't just another Bissinger's, it was a place you could go to get chocolate, and get really excited about getting chocolate. The prices were steep, but entirely worth it. If you liked dark chocolate, you could indulge in the darkest of dark chocolates, be it in the form of fugde, truffles, hot chocolate, chocolate bars, or small candies. If you liked milk chocolate, you could get endless variations in all of the same formats and then some. Their formal desserts, such as the coconut cake and the creme brulee, were amazing, and once you'd sat down at one of the tables to the DJ of the night, a ceiling covered in bedsheets, forming the design of a very fluffy sky, and (in the Bar's earlier days) the complimentary Pixy Stix in the middle of each table, you knew that you'd found something truly special.
My first experience with Blake's restaurants came when I'd started seeing all of these glowing reviews for Tangerine. Disheartened by seeing the 21+ designations on their ads (much as I've been with South City's Way Out Club since I was thirteen), I figured that it was gonna be a long time before I'd eat at the place. Then, the summer after 10th grade, I started working downtown. About then, Blake had opened the Hungry Buddha next to Tangerine, also to rave reviews. Since I was much younger than everyone in my department, if not the company (including the interns), I didn't have much of anyone to talk to or hang out with, so I would usually get lunch alone. One of the things that I loved about the job, however, was that I got to wander around downtown St. Louis, which, to me, previously was but a large, intriguing collection of buildings I might pass by to and from a Cardinals game, or on a field trip to the Arch, or in a career-choice-based group of 8th graders (we visited the Regal Riverfront Hotel and Channel 4's TV news studio; I'm still unsure what the two have to do with one another). Since high school started, I'd begun getting more and more bored with St. Louis County, and every once in awhile, friends of mine and I would drive to South Grand, or the Central West End, or Soulard, but I still hadn't seen much of St. Louis' downtown proper, so every day at lunch, I might walk down to the Arch, sit around Kiener Plaza, walk around the slowly-dying St. Louis Centre mall, or, as the case may have been, walked up Washington Avenue, to see all of this culture I've heard so much about. No matter the case, by the end of the summer, I more than knew my way around the area, and I'd tried all of the restaurants that I'd been reading rave reviews about.
Although walking from Broadway and Olive to 15th and Washington was a trek, I'd become a major fan of Hungry Buddha, with its cheap custom noodle, soup, or rice dishes (one would choose their meat or not-meat of choice, take ingredients from an expansive, incredible bar to put in their soup or stir-fry). In the process, I'd also become acutely acquainted with the construction going on on Washington, which, if I remember correctly, may even have been past-deadline then. I'd also become a fan of Sen Thai, a little place at 7th and Olive whose entrance led you downstairs into a well-decorated basement with some of the best Thai food in St. Louis. It was, I remembered, a favorite of Channel 5 newscasters. On my final day of the summer, my bosses took me out for lunch at Sen, a good farewell to a job downtown.
With the summer ending, I didn't see either of the Brokaw establishments for awhile, though I did go to Hungry Buddha for lunch one day with my mom and grandparents before going to the City Museum.
One day, out of curiosity, I called Tangerine to see for sure if they only served food to 21-and-ups. They didn't; the 21+ policy was only for after 10, when the place got all nightclubby. Navigating the craterous landscape of Washington at that point, Becca and I went to Tangerine, ate quite well, and thereafter, had new hope for St. Louis, and a reason to come back to Washington Avenue during the school year. Somewhere around then, the Chocolate Bar had also opened, and, as stated above, rocked our worlds like the Scorpions' 1986 World Tour.
Also around then, I found out that Sen, as well as everything and everyone else in its building, had been forced out, due to the morally and ethically questionable actions of some of Famous-Barr's people, who wanted the space to be turned into extra room for the department store's parking garage, which was part of the same city block. The man who owned the building didn't take well to this, and put up several signs in protest, including the RFT article covering the issue. Sen's owner was quoted as saying that was planning to move back to Thailand, and never work in the restaurant business again. I wound up writing one of my college application essays on Sen being closed, and its part in my discovery of downtown. Thankfully, Sen did eventually reopen in the Shell building almost a year or so later, at what I want to say is 13th & Locust, and is still quite tasty, though every time I go, it's a little emptier than it should be. I'm not sure if they still get the kind of business that they got at their old location or not.
When I worked the next summer, it was essentially much like the first, except that some of the old interns I knew weren't working in my department anymore, and no one remembered my last day this time. I decided to treat myself, take that long walk, take the risk that I might overstep my lunch hour, and go to Hungry Buddha. That might've been the last time that I did.
Since then, I'd obviously gone to Tangerine and the Chocolate Bar any number of times. The next school year, some friends of mine who'd been working for Ladue's school newspaper decided to break off and form a second paper, the Occasional Goat, after getting sick of their inability to engage in political discussion in any depth in Panorama. For the first issue, I signed on to write an article schooling these county kids about what exactly was going on in dining in the city, and why they should be excited about it, and an article about Blake's restaurants seemed natural. I was also taking an advanced black and white photography class, and we were starting our first unit, full-negative prints. One Sunday afternoon, I drove downtown to take some pictures of the side-by-side storefronts of Tangerine and Hungry Buddha for the article (as it turned out, they didn't use any of the pictures), and while I was there, take some of my roll for photo class with my film camera, because, after all, what's more photogenic than a city streetscape with absolutely destroyed streets? Having worked downtown and mainly only seen it during lunch and rush hours, the emptiness of the city seemed really striking to me, though not in any way surprising. Walking around, I at one point saw a dead hummingbird lying on the sidewalk around Locust. I took a few shots of the construction on Washington, both because I found the images interesting, different, and aesthetically pleasing, and because I knew that just taking the pictures would be a testament to the fact that the completion of the construction was already a year overdue, and this was having a very destructive effect on the businesses there. One picture came out particularly well, with many of the buildings and a streetlight lining up pleasingly, a bus stop leading downward, and, as a few people noted, what was essentially a gaping sea of gravel and rock street, with the occasional lonely manhole cover sticking out. It wound up getting into what that year had become the combined local high school art show of both the St. Louis Artists' Guild and Washington University. I titled it "To Be Completed 2001."
The Blake Brokaw article got printed, resulting in some good words from people I knew (of course, looking back at it, the writing looks horribly immature). Around the time of printing, chain restaurant Stir Crazy opened in Creve Coeur, a mere few minutes from the high school, employing essentially the same do-it-yourself stir fry technique as Hungry Buddha (except with a smaller selection, a higher price, and a much longer wait). "Well," I thought, "as far as scared, sheltered county kids care, there goes the Hungry Buddha portion of my article. If it's expensive, close, and (OH NO!) not in the city, people will love it." I just hoped that it wouldn't horn in on any of Hungry Buddha's business, which is possible. In the next issue of Panorama, like a bad comeback, the first focused restaurant review I ever remembered seeing in the newspaper focused on (what else?) Stir Crazy. It was like a high-priced spit in the face of everything my article stood for, be it leaving your element, supporting local businesses, or even just cheering for true creativity. I never ended up writing another article for the Goat, though I did assist in the Ken-penned verbal castration of the Galleria's Cheesecake Factory, which really seemed like a counter-retort to the Stir Crazy review. I wish I still had the not-so-flattering sketch I drew of the entrance of the place while waiting an hour and 45 minutes for our table. Hint: I changed the word "Cheesecake" in the logo to something infinitely less appetizing.
Then Hungry Buddha closed.
And about a year and a half later, Tangerine, the Chocolate Bar, and Lo all closed. That these places can't survive in the City of St. Louis is a sad statement. In spite of the fact the Loop seems to be forever growing, Nelly, Chingy, and J-Kwon reminded the nation that St. Louis exists, and we seem closer than ever to revitalization, those slick new streetlamps on Washington shine down on the old, empty storefront of a restaurant and nightclub that made the neighborhood what it is. As far as I'm concerned, Blake was the neighborhood's Joe Edwards, but his Blueberry Hill is gone now. What is it going to take to bring enough people into the city to jostle it back to life?
To some fantastic restaurants, and to our tentative, but hopeful city:
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