If you ask Danny Meyer to share his inspiration for Shake Shack (60 North Euclid Avenue, 314-627-5518), his culinary love song to St. Louis that opens its latest outpost today in the Central West End, the answer is self-evident: Ted Drewes for the frozen custard, Steak 'N Shake for the burgers, Fitz's for the crinkle-cut fries. However, when he discusses what ignited his passion for food in the first place, the story has a more international tint to it.
Meyer was born to a mother and father who spent the first two years of their marriage in the south of France (his father was Army counterintelligence), eating and getting to know the locals. Many of them were innkeepers, and when his parents returned to St. Louis, his father started a travel company with all of the connections he had made. Many of the innkeepers later found themselves in St. Louis, working at his dad's office and living at the Meyer household. That culinary education would prove foundational.
"They would often babysit at night, and the food and conversation at the dinner table was like getting an education that I never otherwise would have gotten," Meyer explains. "We cooked together inside, outside, on the grill. There's not one memory of eating in St. Louis that I've forgotten. Not one."
As Meyer got older, he began to explore the city's food scene on his own — from a simple trip to Schnucks and the old Ladue Market to Soulard Market once he could drive. One of his favorite haunts was the now-shuttered upstairs restaurant at Straub's in Clayton, where his go-to meal would later inform the Shake Shack menu. "They had a great cheeseburger and some of the best coffee milkshakes ever. They'd pour your glass and give you the silver canister for the dividend so you could pour that extra in. It was hugely inspirational — we have a coffee milkshake here."
Meyer is effusive in recalling the experiences of his youth that informed his outlook on food and hospitality. There were Slay's and Giovanni's on the Hill and Kreis' for the chicken and dumplings enjoyed under the cuckoo clock. Only when he was older would he get the massive prime rib. Imo's before Blues home games; Talayna's after. And on extra special occasions — say, every seven years or so — his parents would take him to Tony's.
"What all this added up to was not so much the food, but how they made you feel," Meyer explains. "When I think about what St. Louis gave me, it gave me everything I am in terms of understanding that a restaurant, at its best, can make people feel better than when they came in."
But Meyer's love of his hometown has added a layer of pressure in opening the first-ever St. Louis location of Shake Shack. Though he's wanted to bring the brand here for almost ten years, questions about the supply chain, management team and the ability to maintain what he calls a culture of "enlightened hospitality" held him back. When Shake Shack opened in Chicago three years ago, he and his team realized they had paved the way for a St. Louis location — but if they were going to do it, they had to do it right.
"I get one crack at coming home, and we have to nail this," says Meyer. "I can't imagine if we didn't bring our absolute best to town."
For Meyer, "the best" means the brand's top talent and its signature smashed burgers, thick concretes and crinkly fries, as well as a St. Louis-only menu of items, including the "Mound City Burger," a double burger covered in molten Provel cheese, bacon and a secret sauce based on the "kitchen sauce" at Fitz's.
However, outside of his restaurant, Meyer has his own list of bests — the places he tries to visit whenever he comes to town and where he directs his friends when they ask for his St. Louis recommendations. We asked Meyer to share his hometown guide — the itinerary he'd share if a friend asked him to plan the perfect weekend in St. Louis.
Here are his thoughts.
"If you have a weekend, I'm going to send you to the places that you can only get in St. Louis," says Meyer. "I'll tell you to start your Saturday morning at Winslow's Home
with a coffee and a pastry.
"I'll tell you to head down to Soulard Market
and just walk around. You don't even need to eat anything there. Then, I'll send you to Mama Toscano's
on the Hill. Pick up a little container of toasted ravioli. Eat it in your car on the way to Crown Candy Kitchen
. Make sure to get a BLT and a malt, whatever flavor is your favorite.
"Stop at Bissinger's
and get a molasses lollipop. It's only four bites but it's so good. Then you'll go to either Pappy's
for some ribs. For dinner, I'll send you to Pastaria
for the first night, but I don't know what we are going to do for that second night because that's when I try places I've never been."
As for those places that are still on his wish list?
"I've never eaten at Olio
, but I am dying to. I just went to Union Loafers
today and it was so good. I'm dying to go to Vicia
. They're really nice; I knew them in New York."
Though food is Meyer's way of relating to his native city, a few non-culinary places make his list of must-visits.
"Forest Park is very important. My mom has been involved with the Saint Louis Art Museum pretty much my whole life, and that's really important. And if you have time, you have to go to the St. Louis Zoo. You don't get a zoo like that in too many places."
"I'd absolutely take you to the riverfront, the Arch, the Old Courthouse and Busch Stadium. I'd make a special effort to show you the riverfront where there is a plaque in honor of my late grandfather, Morton Meyer. He worked with the Army Corps of Engineers to raise funds to build the the flood wall, and there is a plaque in his honor for the work he did."
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