Thanksgiving isn't the ideal time to review a restaurant. For most of us, this week is a time to gather around the hearth — or, you know, the flat-screen — and reflect upon family, friends and good food. If restaurants have any role this week, it's as an escape from leftover turkey, in-laws and Black Friday crowds.
Or maybe I'm projecting. You see, curmudgeon that I am 51 weeks of the year, I enjoy Thanksgiving. I love the food, I love the company, I love a holiday that doesn't involve gifts or costumes. The last thing I want to do is put down my second helping of sausage stuffing to celebrate a hip new joint or a hitherto undiscovered taco.
Young's Restaurant & Ice Creamery isn't new. It isn't hip. I'm reasonably certain it doesn't serve tacos. Unless you live in Valley Park or somewhere along the Highway 141 corridor, its location isn't especially convenient. Not only that, you could drive 141 daily and never notice the place, which is tucked into an awkward spot along a dead-end service road that runs parallel to the highway.
Young's has changed locations twice since it was founded by Bud and Marilyn Young in 1954, thanks to eminent-domain claims. The couple's son Grant and his wife, Sibyl, now own the place. Grant Young is also the mayor of Valley Park. Not surprisingly, he ran on an anti-eminent domain platform.
Though it calls itself an ice creamery and doesn't accept credit or debit cards — cash or check only — Young's is more timeless than antiquated. The décor is restrained rather than, in the manner of faux diners and chain restaurants, soaked in nostalgia. Black-and-white photos hang on the pale yellow walls, and church pews are repurposed as dividers between tables and, in a few cases, as seats.
You order at the counter, which runs along the long side of the L-shaped dining room and is also home to the ice-cream dispenser and milkshake and concrete mixers. The menu is written on a chalkboard on the wall behind the counter.
You'll want to start, as the menu does, with fried chicken.
Fried chicken might not inspire as much debate around St. Louis as, say, pizza does, but its many variations have their partisans. I'm fairly ecumenical on the subject. As long as the batter isn't soggy and I can identify which part of the bird I'm eating, I'll happily order any fried chicken and probably love it, from the simple, home-style goodness of Sweetie Pie's to the gnarled batter of Porter's Fried Chicken to my new obsession, peppery "Broasted" pressure-fried chicken at the Pakistani restaurant Café Lazeez.
Young's fried chicken belongs among the area's elite. (In 2007 this paper dubbed it the best.) The individual pieces are given a saltwater rinse, coated with the obligatory secret breading and then cooked in a pressure fryer. (You could call it Broasted if Broasted weren't already trademarked.) The batter is thin and crisp, with just enough residual oil to give the chicken that extra fatty indulgence without toppling over into greasy. The breading's seasoning is restrained, accenting rather than masking the taste of the tender chicken. If you want the fullest flavor experience, I recommend dark meat: The morsels of rich meat nestled against the thigh bone were worth the mess I made getting to them.
The chicken is available in two-, three- or four-piece dinners with a roll and your choice of two sides. I'll risk the wrath of countless red-blooded Americans by saying I've never understood the appeal of eating mashed potatoes and gravy with fried chicken — too much! — but for all you "normal" types out there, Young's mashed potatoes are properly simple, a little starchy, a little creamy. I'll stick with the crisp, salty French fries. The green beans are overcooked to a dull, mushy olive green à la school cafeterias and buffet steam tables.
Though the fried chicken is the star, don't overlook the hamburgers. These are very thin patties with crisp, lacy edges. Though you can order a single burger, two or three patties probably make the most satisfying meal, size-wise. I tried a patty melt, which brings two patties with Swiss cheese and grilled onions on rye bread. This was one of the better patty melts I've had, thanks in large part to the bread, which was cut thick enough and toasted just long enough to bring out the rye flavor. I paired the sandwich with an order of onion rings, which were beautifully browned but more batter than onion.
Seafood? Back into the fryer we go. Young's serves freshly cut and battered cod, the white flesh still moist and yielding beneath its thin jacket of batter. Shrimp are given a heavier batter, and the sweet meat gets a little lost in the salty crunch.
If you can resist the lure of the ice cream and fixings behind the counter, then I admire your discipline and feel deeply sorry for you. The ice cream is a throwback to a time before Ben & Jerry & 31 flavors & artisanal whatever. It's soft-serve and comes in three flavors: vanilla, chocolate and a twist of vanilla and chocolate. An ample array of toppings — from hot fudge to pineapple to various candies — allows you to personalize your cup, cone or concrete. I went for a simple hot-fudge sundae, the vanilla ice cream slowly puddling beneath the warm, cocoa-sweet syrup.
What struck me most about Young's was how artless the whole operation is. Though it serves the most basic and appealing of American foods, it doesn't wrap itself in period detail. The younger employees aren't forced to wear soda-jerk uniforms. In fact, Grant Young himself is as likely to take your order as the young woman in a Mizzou T-shirt. Everyone is authentically friendly. There are clearly regulars here, but an interloper like myself felt totally comfortable.
Kind people selling tasty food prepared well? That's enough of a business plan. With Young's now in its sixth decade, I'll go out on a limb and say that it has worked. Given how dramatically the restaurant business has changed over its 55 years, with the slick new chains forcing out too many family-owned businesses like this one, I'd say that's truly something to be thankful for.