Why don't we -- Americans, I'm talking about -- know how to do lunch? Part of the answer lies in the question: We have long regarded the midday repast as something to "do," just another chore to hurry our way through so we can scratch it off the list and then keep going until it's finally five o'clock and time for happy hour.
Once upon a time (at least according to memoirs by Mary Cantwell and movies by Billy Wilder), we reveled in the three-martini lunch, but, much like the three-piece suit, that little relic of postwar boom times has faded into our collective nostalgia. (I would blame it on the Japanese, who forced us to adopt the power-hungry, gung-ho poses of the 1980s when they suddenly became a presence on the global economic scene, except that the Japanese do -- no, not "do," have -- lovely lunches.) Nowadays there is very little beauty or splendor to be found in the American lunch. For children, lunchtime is a dreaded hour of brown-bagged abhorrences (tuna salad always making the bread unappealing and mushy by noon), cafeteria-served crap (the "crispy" pizza just never was, was it?) and relentless social Darwinism. For grown-ups it's either overpriced takeaway scarfed down at desks or at business meetings where you're too nervous about what you're saying or what you are or aren't spilling on your tie to actually enjoy the food and yourself.
Thank God, then, for the 9th Street Abbey, which is nothing if not one small step toward polishing some dignity back onto the luster-lost meal that is lunch. Housed in a former church in Soulard and run as an offshoot to the Patty Long Catering company (which operates out of the same building), the few-months-old Abbey is a weekday, lunch-only operation -- and a welcome, delightful alternative to the typical lunch we've all come to know and loathe.
The 9th Street Abbey quietly, respectfully worships lunch as a holy endeavor -- and I mean that more than figuratively. Although the pews have been removed, virtually all other church accoutrements remain in the space: the choir balcony, the ornate railings, the towering stained-glass windows. Carpet has been put down; a dance floor now stands where an altar once did (for use during receptions and banquets, which are held here on weekends). The lunchroom holds about fifteen round tables laid with yellow, green and purple linens that magnificently play off the kaleidoscope-colored windows. Even though plinky-plinky classical piano is piped in, there's a kind of hush all over the room.
But this is not a stuffy sort of place. It's a place where quartets of businessmen literally loosen their ties as they tuck into impulsively ordered desserts, where the service is so friendly that patrons are greeted with a "How are you?" as if they're not merely customers but long-lost friends, where old ladies wearing gaudy hats hold monthly get-together-and-gab luncheons, where anyone can walk in, wearing whatever, and enjoy a pleasant, leisurely meal.
Mind you, all this need not mean that you'll have to run over your allotted lunch hour. There's an all-you-can-eat buffet at the ready for people with impatient bosses or big projects back at the office. The buffet, called the Chef's Table, changes daily by theme: seafood, a Southern menu and so on. The quality can waver, but the good far outweighs the bad. For starters, put anything on your plate that's got potatoes as a main ingredient. Patty Long Catering knows its way around a potato. Cream-of-potato soup boasts big chunks of spud bathed in a velvety, gravy-thick base and manages to induce bowl-licking without much fuss with flavors or spices. The mashed potatoes (which are available on the buffet most every day) are so creamy that they taste illegal. They're alternately served with white or brown gravy, depending on the day; either way, it can be difficult to talk yourself out of devouring a mashed-only meal.
Although the Abbey features the food of Patty Long Catering (which has been around for well over a dozen years), sometimes the food tastes homemade -- not in a rustic, loving sort of way but in a hurried, supermarket-ingredients kind of way. The buffet's broccoli with cheese, for example, consists of boring thumb-size florets sprinkled with measly shreds of cheddar. Fried chicken, featured on the Southern-style buffet, isn't nearly crisp enough; far better fried chicken can be had in countless other local spots -- even, as one dining partner opined, "at the press-box buffet at Busch Stadium." The salmon fillets on "Under the Sea" day, generously topped with black-olive slices, didn't register any better than "just fine." (Come to think of it, they tasted just like the last-minute salmon dish I make for myself at home, wherein I broil a piece of salmon for nine minutes, then dump a can of artichoke hearts on it and broil for another nine minutes.) Nothing is offensive here and everything is perfectly decent; it's just too bad that some of the offerings don't offer something more.
The à la carte menu gets more adventurous. Though they're mostly salads and sandwiches, they're culinary curios all. I loved the portobello sandwich, a powerful slab of mushroom crowned with greens, tomato slices and melted Swiss that hits the palate with a confident, impressive pungency. Almond chicken salad and curry tuna salad (available on a bed of greens or as a croissant sandwich) unleash both lunchtime staples from their usual ho-hum-ness, and they're delectable.
The number-one tenet in the lunch-revitalizing movement: Always have dessert. Otherwise, where's the fun? Where's the decadence, the proverbial hand in the cookie jar? 9th Street Abbey's desserts are not to be missed, not a one of them. Berry shortcake consists of a barely-there pile of moist and crumbly cake supporting a mess of fresh strawberries and freshly whipped cream, all of it drenched in a fruity sauce so heady it might make you feel drunk. Chocolate pecan pie tastes more accurately like undercooked brownie mix anchored in moist crust and sprinkled with pecans -- heavenly. And Bailey's cheesecake goes down as smooth and lip-smacking as the liqueur itself.
Breakfast may be the most important meal of the day, and dinner is something we've got down pat. But wouldn't it be nice if lunch staged a comeback? In these parts, at least, the trend's tipping point would be located in Soulard, on Ninth Street.