Best Restaurant Ever

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

Seventh Inn.

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.

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3 Responses to Best Restaurant Ever

  1. Todd Gibson says:

    Ah, Felix. You can be so generous at times.

    You really should have pressed Elsa to pull one of the ducks from the pond for your entree.

  2. morland says:

    I had the good fortune of attending college in St. Louis (I say that unsarcastically), and I too was astonished by how homogenized and uniformly bland the dining seemed at first. The problem is that good restaurants, and bars, are clustered in what seem to be random areas far from main thoroughfares. It makes sense from a historical perspective – the interstate highways by which most St. Louisians travel nowadays were constructed on cheap, low-density land, apart from the existing popular nightlife neighborhoods. The city was at one point the fourth most populous in the US (circa 1900 or so), resulting in significant dense development over the latter half of the nineteenth and very early twentieth centuries, when public trolleys, horse-and-carriage, and walking were predominant. With the rise of the automobile, and as the city proper experienced an exodus to the suburbs, it lacked a coincident city planning official with Robert Moses-like authority and ambition, and so routes avoided these neighborhoods instead of bisecting them (and debatably destroying them as well, but that’s off-topic).

    The result is that one has to make a specific expedition to eat rather than rely upon happenstance. Apologies if you’ve already heard this, but I’d recommend the Central West End, The Loop, South Grand, The Hill, Soulard, and maybe Clayton (if you’re feeling unadventurous, though it is the closest to you). Oh, and which sits at a random intersection near nothing really notable. I know transportation is an issue – try to visit some of these areas if you can… spending all your time in west county would be a great waste.

  3. Jeff Bales says:

    I worked at this restaurant in 1981/82 as a busser and valet parking attendant. The owners, Lee and Else Barth, were friends with my parents. I have a lot of great memories from there! Unfortunately, it burned down in November of 2006. Nothing but a grass lot remains. I see that Else is on Facebook, posting photos of a trip that she took to Mexico in 2009. Go, Else!

    Jeff Bales
    Tucson, Arizona

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