St Louis Part III

18 Jan

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One of the best ways to get a feel for a city is to check out the local farmers market. Located on Carroll St in the Soulard neighborhood, this Farmers Market started in 1779 on what was then a flat piece of meadow land. The current building was built in 1929 in the Renaissance Style. Visit a farmers market on any given Saturday and you are sure to observe locals from every walk of life in the city. We began in the outdoor sheds, piles of fruits and vegetables sat atop tables and counters; citrus from Florida, home-grown apples, and Mississippi Pecans for only $3.80 a pound.  Continuing indoors the building has that historic charm, warm colored brick makes up the walls, double doors and arched windows are behind each stall, rectangular windows are placed high in the walls to let in more light, yellow banners hang above each stand telling you the vendor’s name and stall number. They have everything you’d expect from a farmers market, produce, meats, cheeses and baked goods. In addition you can browse a spice shop, pet puppies in the Soulard Pet Shop, buy Cardinal’s apparel, watch mini doughnuts being made, and try some pasta made of things like fruits, vegetables and even chocolate! While we were in the area we took a drive through Soulard, St Louis’s oldest neighborhood. The homes were originally built by the local brewery workers, many now house live music clubs, restaurants and shops. Steeped in French heritage they celebrate Mardi Gras in Winter and Bastille Day in July.

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Next destination Historic Cherokee Antique Row. Located south of downtown, the seven block area is home to Antique, Collectible, and specialty shops, galleries and independent retail. From vintage clothing and Mid Century Modern to antique china and period lighting, the shops are filled with rescued objects. It’s a beautiful street to stroll, homes are lovely, made of brick they are tall and narrow. On the corner of Cherokee and Illinois is a cafe/coffee shop called The Mud House, we stopped in for a snack and a coffee. At the counter we ordered espresso and a slice of  pecan pie, we found a seat by the window for a little relaxation before hitting the street again. Mud House has a warm and relaxed vibe, it is an obvious favorite to locals for both food and coffee. Rejuvenated, we continued shopping, we weren’t looking for anything in particular, more or less just looking. In and out of shops we saw something from each decade, books and records, automotive memorabilia, glassware and pottery. There was a fascinating shop called Saxquest, carrying both vintage and professional model saxophones, they have a sax museum on the second floor, the instruments are quite elaborate and elegant.  One of the galleries exclusively features St Louis artists, they also have a nice selection of T-shirts and city guidebooks.

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It was lunchtime and we were starving; a drive over to The Hill neighborhood would remedy that. The Hill is home to St Louis’s Italian heritage; Italian immigration began in the late 1800’s and continued for another 50 years. The neighborhood is home to authentic Italian bakeries, grocery stores, restaurants and trattorias, even the fire hydrants are painted red, white and green!  There is a wide selection of places to eat in this 50 block area along with coffee houses, a gelato shop, studios and Milo’s Bocce Garden. The neighborhood takes pride in the fact that Yogi Berra, Joe Garagiola and Jack Buck (Cardinals sportscaster) all grew up in this area. After a drive around we choose Zia’s On The Hill for lunch, we found parking up the street a little ways and wandered in. Named for the owners two aunts (Zia is Italian for Aunt) who were great cooks, Zia’s is a “Hill” staple. Housed in a former grocery store, upon entering you are in the bar area complete with tin ceilings and varnished wood.   Our waitress arrived with a bread basket and drinks, and helped us navigate the selections. The Zia’s salad is a must…crisp lettuce mixed with ham, artichoke hearts, green olives, Italian cheese and house dressing, it was excellent. We split the lunch sized entrée of Tortellini Piselli, they were kind enough to place it in two separate bowls. This stuff is out of this world….meat-filled tortellini in an egg cream sauce with peas and prosciutto ham. The waitress she highly recommended it, I can see why, this is some seriously good pasta. The only sad part was we couldn’t take our left-overs with us.

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We had been meaning to check out an area called Lafayette Square. Centered around the 30 acre Lafayette Park, this urban neighborhood is gorgeous! Amazing homes in the Victorian and Second Empire style grace the streets, the business district is made up of wine shops, nice restaurants, an arts center, brewery and several churches. Oh, there is one other place I should tell you about; Park Avenue Coffee which features St Louis’s own Gooey Butter Cake. Yes, we were full, but we had been hearing about Gooey Butter cake for days now, and here we were face to face with the real thing, there’s only one thing to do…. try it! Made by the Ann & Allen baking company of St Louis, they are up to 73 flavors of “gooey butter goodness”. I wanted to try the original, it was so good I actually started to giggle while eating my first piece; as you would expect it had a chewy crust and a delectable gooey center, the original is a yellow cake at it’s best, melt-in-your-mouth scrumptious, oh so yummy! Now we seriously needed to walk, we couldn’t have chosen a better place than the Lafayette Square historic district. St Louis prospered in the post Civil War years and Lafayette Square became one of the most fashionable neighborhoods. Unfortunately as early as the 20’s the area began to decline; homes were neglected and abandoned, many were destroyed.  At one point there were plans to bulldoze the neighborhood in favor of a highway; but as is often the case locals came together and saved the area from destruction. In 1972 Lafayette Square became the first historic district in St Louis, in 1973 it was placed on the National register of Historic Places. Today this neighborhood is thriving, homes are being restored, lofts are being renovated and condos are being built, Lafayette Square is now being recognized and appreciated for the superb treasure that it is.

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It was time to get back to the hotel, our New Year’s Eve plans consisted of relaxing at the hotel, eating dinner in, and having a drink at the bar to welcome in the new year. If that doesn’t sound very exciting to you, let me tell you where we were staying:  The Marriott at St Louis Union Station, and it’s  no ordinary hotel. Take a moment and click on the link to see the exterior of the building, go ahead, I’ll wait…….Amazing isn’t it?  While the grand Romanesque exterior is made of Bedford Indiana limestone and is quite impressive, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!  Enter the building, climb a few stairs and you are now in the Grand Hall, the 65 foot barrel-vaulted ceiling is magnificent with its gold-leaf detailing. The detail is incredible; Romanesque archways, fresco’s, mosaics and art glass windows. The most significant window can be found above the main entryway; hand cut Tiffany glass features 3 women representing the main US train stations during the 1890’s: New York, St Louis and San Francisco. Union Station was built for $6.5 million in the 1890’s, during the 1980’s the building underwent a $150 million dollar restoration. The place is seriously gorgeous!  This is probably the best experience I have ever had at a hotel; from the minute we arrived until we left, the service was exceptional. Everybody was kind and helpful, friendly and outgoing. The room was beautiful, clean, quiet, everything you hope for on a vacation.

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We had dinner at the hotel restaurant, Station Grille, New Year’s Eve. The food was outstanding, the service top-notch.  The dining room is elegant, all the wood is still original. The menu is well-rounded, one of our favorite items was the Charcuterie Plate; house made salami, pork loin, grainy mustard, pretzel bread, olives and pickled vegetables, excellent! I was also unaware that St Louis is known for its toasted ravioli, Station Grille’s is superb, love the sauce.  After dinner we set out to explore more of Union Station itself. Each evening we would walk around a bit and marvel at the grandeur of the place, tonight we headed out to the Midway and Train Shed areas and to visit the Memories Museum. Opened September 1, 1894 Union Station was owned by Terminal Railroad Associates of St Louis. The building housed a hotel, restaurant, passenger waiting rooms and railroad ticket offices. At the time of its opening it was the largest and busiest railroad station in the world, at its peak the station combined passenger services of 22 railroads. In 1903 the station had to expand to accommodate people arriving for The World’s Fair in 1904.  The Midway at 610 ft long and 70 ft wide once served more than 100,000 passengers a day, today the passageway is a mall with shops and restaurants. At 11.5 acres the train shed was once the largest roof span in the world.  The shed also houses retail shops, restaurants, a portion of the Marriott hotel, and a lake, it is truly a remarkable feat of engineering. The Memories Museum really puts things into perspective as to what train travel was like in the late 1800’s, it was no easy task. Trunks would be loaded onto wagons and taken by horse to the trains to be loaded. People did not have cars back then, so even getting to the station was a feat. The museum has great displays of dishes, period clothing and trunks, menu’s and train schedules… it’s all fascinating stuff. The museum is always open, located in the midway and shed area you can wander through at your leisure.

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Finally we migrated to the lounge in the Great Hall, there isn’t a prettier bar in St Louis. Todd, our bartender, whipped me up an awesome White Chocolate Russian, Kris a VO & Coke, as we watched all of the activity going on around us. People were dressed to the nines, they’d stop in for photos in front of the towering Christmas tree, or drinks on the way to their next stop, it seemed everybody was having a good time. While awaiting the arrival of 2012 we soaked in every bit of ambiance this place offered. Happy New Year !

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Give St Louis a try; a great Midwestern town with way more to offer than meets the eye ! Hmmmmm, sounds familiar, time to head back to Detroit …..

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