The Soulard building has come a long way since its days as a turn-of-the-century shoe factory. Its newest tenants, however, still pay homage to their space’s industrial origins, keeping the original concrete pillars and exposed brick walls in Franco's dining room. That isn't to say the owners scoff at modernity—they've updated the charmingly rustic environs with sleek, undulating light fixtures. This balance between past and future extends to the cuisine, which has been lauded by St. Louis Magazine as a “minor masterpiece.” Chefs spotlight classic French meats and cheeses and infuse them with Midwestern flourishes such as molasses-bourbon gastrique sauce. Additionally, servers happily recommend wine pairings or the best wine bottles for trapping genies, a feat that earned Franco’s staff the Best Service in a Restaurant award from Riverfront Times.
In 1972, Herbie Balaban opened a café in St. Louis’s West End, turning his former beatnik-boutique space into a French-inspired café. He grins from old pictures of the restaurant, a handlebar mustache curling upward toward a jaunty beret in crisp black and white. Though the space has changed hands in the ensuing years, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch said it “would be an excellent restaurant in any era.” Aaron Teitelbaum, now the executive chef, honed his craft in New York City while working with Bobby Flay and Daniel Boulud in their kitchens. Aromas drift from Herbie’s own kitchen, hinting at French, Asian, and American influences. Those culinary traditions swirl together in truffled lobster mac 'n' cheese and shrimp with grits and buttermilk-fried leeks. Goat cheese steeps in smoke before melting with peppered bacon across burgers alongside a trout salad, of which a writer for the St. Louis Post Dispatch said, “I’d normally prefer no adulteration to well-smoked trout, but in this case folding in a gentle horseradish crème fraîche was a perfect foil for a fluffy, slightly sweet corn pancake underneath.” Grilled duck breast pairs with a duck-confit crepe served on an original Duck Hunt game cartridge, and Herbie’s Vintage 72's wine list is carefully curated to incorporate vintages from around the world, prioritizing US and French wines above all. The interior at Herbie’s Vintage 72 was designed by co-owner Jeff Orbin, whose past triumphs include restaurants such as Miso in Clayton and Monarch Restaurant & Wine Bar. Much like the food, the décor blends French and American influences, incorporating some of the antique French posters that decorated the walls of the café in the ‘70s. Inverted teardrop lamps and tableside candles illuminate the restaurant, which is surrounded by exposed-brick walls. Patrons settle in at curved corner booths or opt for open-air dining to enjoy their meal, and chatter drifts up from private parties amid the wine cellar’s barrels and rough stone walls.
Executive chef Ben Guthier at Chez Leon—which St. Louis magazine called "a reminder of what 'dining out' should be"—delights diners with lunch and dinner menus populated by cleanly executed French cuisine. Guests commence consumption within the dining room's darkly hued walls, whimsical still lifes, and a stately chandelier, which make Chez Leon an elegant stage for interpretations of Gérard Depardieu's acclaimed performance in 102 Dalmatians. To complement a lavish meal, patrons can select a luxurious wine and empathize with the caterers of the Tennis Court Oath for their unwavering dedication to French excellence.
At Si Señor Mex Mex Grill, the chefs create Mexican favorites, geared toward an American palate: not too spicy, but seasoned just right. Dinners start off with heaping helpings of nachos or guacamole dip, and move on to hearty main entrees. Mexican specialties include everything from carne asada to fish tacos and chimichanga dinners, served with rice and beans.
A love of their community inspires Laura and Quincy Land, owners of The CoffeeHouse and Salon Systems. At their cozy café, they serve up piping-hot beverages culled from imported, fair-trade beans. Putting her expert barista skills to use, Laura meticulously brews drinks such as chai tea and cappuccino that tastily complement the freshly baked desserts she crafts daily. Adjoined to the coffeehouse is a quaint salon, where guests can enter to get milk mustaches trimmed after their meal.
Lola's chefs bring the aromas and flavors of creole cuisine to their casual brick-walled space in the heart of downtown. Menus scrawled on chalkboards feature dinner plates such as barbecue shrimp and grits, creole-style chicken breast, traditional jambalaya, and spanakopita-stuffed portobello mushroom. On Saturdays, the kitchen opens for a brunch characterized by inventive takes on traditional dishes such as biscuits and crayfish gravy, savory creole bread pudding, and chicken and waffles with maple butter. The eclectic drink menu features cocktails blended from champagne, flavored vodka, and bourbon, as well as refreshing or hearty craft beers and flights of cognac. On some nights, Lola welcomes DJs and bands onto a small stage set in front of framed posters of famous musicians, which start glowing if they approve of the performers.