There are very few reasons ever to visit the western suburbs of St Louis. In
fact, I can’t think of any – or at least I couldn’t think of any, until
Wednesday night, when I had the great good fortune to dine at The
I was lucky to have sensible parents: ones who saw little if any point in taking
children to grand restaurants. As a result, I only really started eating out
in Britain long after the cliché of the local French restaurant serving
Steak Diane and Beef Wellington had pretty much died out entirely. And insofar
as it did exist, neither of my parents nor I ever had any interest in eating
in such a place. Nowadays, of course, no one has any interest in revisiting
the height of sophisticated dining in the English suburbs of 1978.
But The Seventh Inn, in a sleepy backwater known as Ballwin, Missouri, is gloriously
immune to any developments in culinary history since its inception in 1972.
Still run by Else and Lee Barth, its menu
is almost aggressively conservative: if you click on "fowl", you’ll
find nothing but chicken, underneath an entire section of various Wellingtons.
That said, if you give them a little notice, they’ll be happy to serve you their
duck special, and indeed I should imagine that you could pretty much order anything
you liked from this place: while it’s extremely formal, it lives up to its Midwestern
location by somehow avoiding stuffiness.
The restaurant is located, weirdly enough, in the middle of an apartment complex,
and is not particularly easy to find. Once you do find it, you find what I can
only describe as Greek-style statuary flanking the front door, which you enter
with a certain amount of trepidation. Inside you experience a degree of sensory
overload which can be quite disconcerting to the uninitiated: an overabundance
of silk flowers, more statues, faux-Impressionist paintings, gilt everywhere,
and a maître d’ who arrives in full evening dress to escort you to your
table. You have a choice: you can opt either for the main dining room, with
full white-gloved service featuring as much tableside preparation of dishes
as you can imagine, or you can walk through the tropical-themed bar, complete
with lounge singer covering Frank Sinatra tunes, to the terrace overlooking
the lake and the fountain.
Once you’ve been seated, settle in for the long haul. First, you’ll be asked
if you want to order cocktails – and this is certainly the kind of restaurant
where you order a martini to begin. Eventually, the menus will arrive, and after
that Elsa Barth will more or less obviate the need for those menus by telling
you about pretty much everything on them in glorious detail. You’ll be asked
if you want to order an appetizer. Our party of three suspected that the portions
at The Seventh Inn would be enormous, so we went for small appetizers: a side
salad, steak tartare, and Oysters Rockefeller. At some point the wine
list will arrive: as you might expect from a 34-year-old restaurant with
five-star ambitions, it offers suitable vintages, rather than the too-young
wines which are often the only bottles younger restuarants can source.
Then, before you’ve been given the opportunity to order your main course (I
was planning on getting the swordfish stuffed with snails), the appetizers will
arrive. And they will be huge. Oysters Rockefeller – oysters! –
are a meal in and of themselves, stuffed to overflowing with spinach and bacon
and hollandaise. The steak tartare was a pile of raw beef roughly the size of
a small loaf of bread; on top, for some reason, was an anchovy. The starters
were very good, but far, far too big: we simply couldn’t order a main course
at that point, since it was clear from the size of the first courses that we
were going to have room for maybe 15% of whatever we ordered. So Elsa Barth’s
mouthwatering descriptions notwithstanding, we moved on to dessert and the bill.
Elsa was disappointed, of course, but then again the restaurant does seem to
be set up in such a way that it’s possible to duck out of the whole meal if
you’re astonished, as we were, at the size of your starters. If and when I go
back, I’ll give them a heads-up so they can get some duck, and then I’ll make
sure not to order anything to begin. But I’m sure I’ll leave the same way I
left after my first visit: grinning like an idiot, just like I was all the way
through the meal. I’m not sure why I loved the place so much, but I think it’s
something about the utter lack of irony. I’m sick to death of ironic kitsch,
but non-ironic kitsch, it turns out, if it’s also of halfways-decent
quality, can actually be a lot of fun. And the food is easily the best I’ve
had in St Louis, although admittedly that isn’t saying very much.
In any case, if you do find yourself in St Louis, I heartily recommend The
Seventh Inn. You’ll enjoy yourself immensely, you’ll have really good food,
and you won’t be eating at a chain restaurant. Tell Elsa I sent you.