The rule of thumb in the world of restaurant ownership -- of any retail outlet -- is that location is the single most important factor. No matter how good your grub may be, if it's a struggle for people to find you, you probably won't be in business long. Seems reasonable, right?
Tell that to Grassi's West
While it may seem a stretch to consider a restaurant about half a mile from Highway 40 in Frontenac "off the beaten path," Grassi's most certainly qualifies. It's hidden on a secluded sidestreet near Huey's Honda off Lindbergh Boulevard. Chances are, you've never happened to cruise by the place while out running errands -- unless of course your daily errands include a stop at the Frontenac Racquet Club. Yet despite its unfavorable locale, Grassi's has remained in business for a quarter of a century.
Another rule of thumb: When the words "restaurant" and "Frontenac" meet in the same sentence, we're referring to a place where a casual lunch means Mediterranean seafood, champagne spritzers and a few Andrew Jacksons peeled off as tip money (at least in the jaded mind of this South City resident).
Another preconceived notion that Grassi's shakes. Although it's technically located in one of the wealthiest zip codes in the St. Louis area, when you pull up to the building, you expect to see a "closed for business" sign duct-taped to the window and tumbleweeds blowing by. But open the door on a weekday at noon: Suddenly, you find yourself twenty deep in a line of blue and white collars, all waiting to grab a standard-issue cafeteria tray and fork over $8-$12 on a salad, sandwich or pasta and an endless supply of soft drink over shaved ice.
Before you advance far enough in line to see the main cafeteria area, you can hear the people behind the counter shouting orders to the kitchen.
"Becky Debby with cheese!"
"I need a Terry Special!"
The uninitiated will hear nothing but random names being yelled, but regulars will know that patrons just ordered a perfectly crunchy chicken parm sandwich (Becky Debby) and a breaded veal patty on cheese garlic bread (Terry Special).
Maybe by the time you've made your way to the front, you've been swayed to go with a pasta con broccoli, spaghetti with meatballs, lasagna or even a nine-inch pizza. The chefs at Grassi's won't garner any awards for overly creative dishes, but if it's a well-executed traditional Italian feast you're seeking, chances are high that you'll leave happy.
As with most diners here, the first thing to hit my tray was a generous salad drenched in dressing and dominated by the intense flavor of the brine-soaked green olives sprinkled throughout. It served as a perfect complement to my main course this Wednesday afternoon, the Becky Debby, a crisp-fried chicken parmesan sandwich flanked by its trusty sidekick, a puddle of meaty marinara for dipping.
The whole package may not be pretty, but presentation is an afterthought at a place where the décor consists of beer mirrors and church pews. But the crowd isn't here for the rustic ambiance. We're here to stuff ourselves full of enough old-fashioned Italian cafeteria grub to ensure that the second half of the day is suitably unproductive.
And on my numerous visits, Grassi's West has always managed to deliver that much. You just may need a Street Guide and a Garmin to get there.Josh Bacott reports on his journey through one of the unhealthiest cities in the good ol' USA every other Friday. Because who says calories have to count?