Wine and Dine in Chesterfield

In 2009, opening a restaurant in the throes of the recession may have seemed foolhardy to many. Yet, after a bottle of wine—OK, maybe three bottles—on the 19th hole, the idea took shape.

Two semi-retired neighbors and, by their own admission “bad golfers,” found themselves in the bar, the 19th  Hole of Norwood Hills Country Club, one day that summer.  The conversation meandered and then lit on reopening Balaban’s.

One of the golfers, Steve McIntyre, boasted a long history with Balaban’s. He started as executive chef under Herb Balaban Carp, the original owner of Café Balaban in the Central West End.  When Carp retired a few years after opening, McIntyre bought the restaurant and operated with panache and acclaim and a series of partners until he closed Balaban’s in late 2007 while facing a difficult lease renewal and dealing with the deaths of a partner and his father in close succession.

Through McIntyre’s ownership, Balaban’s proved to be the place with the buzz, the place where every celebrity visiting St. Louis came to dine.  It well earned its inclusion in the Class of ’72, a select group of restaurants so dubbed by Post-Dispatch restaurant critic Joe Pollack for raising the bar for dining in St. Louis.

Discreet about his early Balaban’s days and the swinging years, McIntyre contends he does not remember many stories but then loosens up and describes a Tibetan cook who prostrated himself in Balaban’s® dining room when the Dalai Lama came to dine.

In the bar after golfing that summer day, McIntyre missed Balaban’s, the ambiance and the kitchen. Wisely, McIntyre had kept ownership and rights to not only the name, logo and recipes but also kept hundreds of bottles of wine, which he meticulously stored, from the original, award-winning Café Balaban wine cellar.

The other golfer, Brian Underwood, is now McIntyre’s business partner. Underwood headed compliance for A. G. Edwards for 30 years, and long harbored the dream of owning a wine store.  So, Underwood believes they drank a bottle of wine and developed the concept to reopen the bistro and pair it with a retail wine store. Somewhat sheepishly, McIntyre admits they did actually drink three bottles that summer day.

While searching for locations, the two partners found a freestanding  building at the southwest corner of Dierberg’s Marketplace in Chesterfield, at the intersection of Baxter and Clarkson and started renovations which cost more than $1.5 million.

McIntyre and Underwood knew they wanted to be in Chesterfield, and they also wanted to create a wine program to give customers great prices within their retail wine store.

“We chose Chesterfield, just as we choose to give customers a break on their wines. Most restaurants mark- up wine with dinner three and four, maybe more, times the retail price.  We sell wines at competitive retail prices whether the customer drinks their wine here with dinner or takes it home. Whatever the bottle, in house the customer pays a mere $8 corkage,” McIntyre says.

For months after opening the weekend before Thanksgiving in 2009, with a bistro dining room on the small side, they had to away 50 to 100 people every night. By 2012 the two expanded into 2,000 square feet of adjacent space vacated by two other businesses which gave them room to create an intimate Wine Room, seating eight, housing the award-winning wines from the original cellar. A Tuscan-inspired party room, seating 80 for dinner and accommodating 100 for cocktails, was also created in that additional space.

By then they had also hired Chef D. Scott Phillips, a 1994 graduate of Johnson and Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island, and a specialist in catering. Originally a restaurant, wine store, bar, gift basket and carry out operation—with the party room expansion, Balaban’s began catering led by Chef D. Scott.

Today, much of their business centers on catering parties, weddings/wedding related events and corporate activities, in house and across the greater metropolitan area.  An event manager and his assistant are ready to find a magician or a harpist, to set up multiple food stations, or to decorate the venue in unique fashions.

Last November Balaban’s celebrated their fifth anniversary in Chesterfield and their 40th anniversary of excellence with a week of retrospective pricing and special events.  Using old menu boards, Balaban’s duplicated their original menu.  The restaurant and catering operation continue to offer new dishes and their signature dishes: fresh Cucumber Bisque, aristocratic Beef Wellington, Pasta Ligurian culled from an earlier chef’s travels, Smoked Trout Pancake and Morel Mushroom Pasta which creates what they call “Morel Mania” during the short spring season.

This month the menu and many special dinners and parties will boast a sampling of Balaban’s morels, but the Beef Wellington won the “Uncork the Memories” anniversary contest last autumn for Michelle Keesal of Chesterfield.  She described in detail her enjoyment of a 1980’s dinner of Beef Wellington on a date with “what’s his name.”