Zoe Robinson never grows tired of the restaurant business.
An uncomfortable situation drove Zoë Robinson's first foray into restaurant ownership.
"I was working at this very popular, high-falutin' restaurant in Lafayette Square in the early 1980s called Empire," the restaurateur explains. "The owners hated each other and were actually in the process of suing each other. I was their manager because they couldn't stand working together, but the place was going under. [Prominent business owner] John Ferring owned the building and told me he'd lend me the money to take it over. I think it was $18,000 but it felt like a million to me."
Some 30-plus years and six restaurants later, Robinson has solidified her reputation as one of St. Louis' most successful restaurateurs, with her now-shuttered Lafayette Square flagship Cafe Zoë succeeded by Clayton's I Fratellini and Bar Les Freres, both among the region's most striking, sexy spots. She recently sold her beloved Bobo Noodle House in University City to focus on opening her third spot on Clayton's Wydown Boulevard, Billie-Jean.
Every time she opens a new concept, she swears she's never going to do it again, but she just can't help herself. "There's the loans and the risks — but it's such a creative outlet for me to be able to spread my wings and do something different with another storefront," Robinson confides. "It's just who I am."
"Restaurants just clicked with me right away," Robinson adds. "I'm a naturally creative person, and just being able to do that every day — write menus, make the place look good, nurture the staff — it's just what I'm supposed to do."
Her eighteen-year-old self would never have dreamed of how far she's made it in the business, though she's still not ready to be called an icon. "Oh, don't call me that," she laughs. "That just means I'm old."
Robinson took a break from brainstorming Billie-Jean (named after her parents, not the Michael Jackson song), to share her thoughts on being shy in the restaurant business, her penchant for design and what she can eat daily, by the pound.
What is one thing people don’t know about you that you wish they did?
I'm pretty shy. My work forces me not to be.
What daily ritual is non-negotiable for you?
If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
Being in two places at one time.
What is the most positive thing in food, wine or cocktails that you’ve noticed in St. Louis over the past year?
St. Louis restaurants are exploding. As a restaurateur, it's very inspiring. It makes me push myself harder and makes me want to improve and move forward. That's a great thing.
Who is your St. Louis food crush?
Who’s the one person to watch right now in the St. Louis dining scene?
I'm watching them all!
Which ingredient is most representative of your personality?
If you weren’t working in the restaurant business, what would you be doing?
Some kind of design would have been cool — interior or fashion.
Name an ingredient never allowed in your kitchen.
Sweet and Low.
What is your after-work hangout?
Home. My husband is a real homebody and I love to cook.
What’s your food or beverage guilty pleasure?
Cheap candy. I can eat a pound a day.
What would be your last meal on earth?
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