At my first glimpse of the parking lot, I knew we might be in trouble.
Here it was, just 11:20 a.m. We'd left our downtown office jobs early on purpose, because the conventional wisdom suggests that as long as you get to St. Ray's before 11:30, you'll beat the crowds.
The conventional wisdom was wrong, at least on this early-summer day.
I came close to skipping this planned article about the weekly Wednesday lunches at The Cedars banquet hall of St. Raymond's Maronite Church, but I penciled it back on the schedule after one of my potential lunch partners, a local foodie so dedicated to his passion that he's spending his summer vacation in Champagne and the Loire Valley, told me that despite his downtown daytime location, he'd never partaken of this cherished, decades-old St. Louis institution. He ended up spending 25 minutes in line with me, but he left with a smile on his face, and I figured he was evidence St. Ray's may have reached the Yogi Berra paradox of being "so popular that no one goes there anymore."
Plus there's the reinvigorated political connection. St. Ray's has always been a hangout for city politicians of both the frontroom and backroom varieties, but it certainly doesn't hurt your visibility when the brand-new mayor holds his victory party in your facility, then shows up for the weekly buffet with his dad on the day after his victory. (We had no direct mayoral sightings during our visit, although the mayor's cousin and security-detail staffer, St. Louis Police Sgt. Danny Slay -- for those keeping a scorecard, the brother of local über-chef David -- was bouncing from table to table, working the room.)
So maybe it was the elevated celebrity factor, or maybe it was the impending summer hiatus for the lunches. (Note to readers: Do not suddenly get a craving for kibbi or lentils 'n' rice from reading this. There's no buffet this week or next; lunches resume on July 25). Whatever the cause, we found ourselves well behind the second set of double doors into the dining room, the usual demarcation point for a 15-minute wait in the single line that leads to the cafeteria-style selection of Middle Eastern delights.
The time in line can be passed by kibbitzing, by celebrity-sighting in the dining room or by looking at the people-history of the church contained on donor plaques, a papal decree (yes, the Maronite Rite is under the Papal See) and a portrait of Bishop Shaheen, the beloved pastor whom you'll probably see in the flesh a few minutes later, dropping cookbooks off at the sales table or otherwise schmoozing all around the hall.
First-timers should be sure to browse either the signboard menu or one of the printed menus before entering the steam-table area, because every minute spent dithering is holding up the line. A good rule of thumb is two items for a light meal, three for a normal appetite and four if you're really hungry.
The first glimpse of the goodies is usually the stuffed squash and stuffed peppers being ladled out by an unfailingly smiling guy who, like most of the servers, seems to know at least every other patron by name. The staff starts arriving right about 6 a.m., but they're cheerful and chipper all the way through the 2 p.m. closing time.
Although some of the items -- chicken and dumplings, Filet-O-Fish-style sandwich, shellroni -- are standard nonethnic cafeteria food, just about everything else has some sort of tie to Lebanon, the ancestral home of many of those who cook and serve the weekly feast. There's a choice of spinach and cabbage cooked with cracked wheat, which bulks the greens up a little and adds a nubby texture. There are rolls of cabbage and grape leaves stuffed with ground meat and rice, and there's a fine hearty meatless entrée (or side dish) of lentils and rice. Filled triangular pies have either spiced ground beef or spinach inside, the latter tart with lemon.
Then there's what's probably the signature dish of Wednesdays at St. Raymond's, the kibbi, available either raw (kibbi nayeh) or deep-fried (kibbi aras, also appropriately described as "the football"). The two are built on similar foundations -- ground beef mixed with cracked wheat -- but the raw version is a bit more forward in its flavors (the spices not being cooked in), whereas the cooked version is more like a stuffed deep-fried hamburger.
On the cold serving table along with the raw kibbi are found basic cabbage, lettuce, tomato and spinach salads, generally heavily dressed with an oil-and-lemon coating, along with two Lebanese staples, hummus (a dip of mashed garbanzos, sesame paste, garlic and lemon) and tabbouleh (a salad whose primary flavors come from parsley, lemon and mint, again cut with the ubiquitous cracked wheat). There are some standard Americanized desserts, but you might rather hold out for the Lebanese desserts -- among them, baklava and a fabulous pistachio tart -- that must be purchased separately around the corner to the right after checkout from the main line. Of the diners who do hold out for a Lebanese dessert, caffeine fiends will get a kick, in many senses of the word, out of the Lebanese coffee, of the pulverized, highly sedimented variety, served in a paper cup with sweetening left to the drinker.
The mirrored peach room, set with about 60 rounds holding eight to 10 people, is rarely too loud, even at its most packed. Eat light and you'll walk away with change from a fiver; even if your eyes are bigger than your stomach, it's hard to part with a $10 bill at St. Ray's. And be ready to shake hands with somebody.
Read "Side Dish": St. Raymond's kibbi recipe.