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Neman: An old find leads to a revelation: St. Louis restaurants have more staying power than you may think

Neman: An old find leads to a revelation: St. Louis restaurants have more staying power than you may think

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Vito's is one of a surprising number of restaurants that advertised in a 2005 publication and is still around today.

2013 Photo by Huy Mach,

To be completely honest, I thought the carnage would be worse.

A friend was going through a box of things he had not touched since, apparently, 2005. Among them was a copy of the Riverfront Times from that year. It was the publication’s 17th annual Menu of Menus edition, a 68-page extravaganza showing menus and advertisements from more than 100 local restaurants.

With a tenacity that either shows well-honed research skills or perhaps a clinical level of obsessive-compulsive disorder, I went through the publication and looked up every listed restaurant to see whether it is still in existence now, 14 years later.

The restaurant business is tough. The hours are long, the work is hard and in many cases the staff can be unreliable (in many other cases, the staff is extremely reliable. Few businesses run as smoothly as a restaurant where everyone has been there 10 years).

Tastes change, fads come and go, and a successful restaurant has to keep ahead of the curve. In addition, food prices are volatile, which makes it difficult to settle on what to charge for each dish.

No wonder, then, that about 23 percent of all restaurants go out of business in their first year. Other statistics say the number is as high as 60 percent, but a survey by Restaurant Startup & Growth magazine came up with the 23-percent figure, and that has more of the ring of truth to it.

Even so, 23 percent is a high figure, and the number of closings only escalates over the next few years. One big problem with restaurants is that the quality is exceedingly difficult to maintain, and the crowds go when the quality goes.

So I was pleasantly surprised, more or less, when I did my tally of restaurants from 14 years ago. Sixty-three of the places that advertised in the section are still in business. Forty-four of them had closed.

I thought the carnage would be worse.

Gone are Dierdorf & Hart’s Steak House, the Juniper Grill and Savor. Cicero’s has left a void in music-lovers’ hearts; Momos Greek Tavern has said “antio sas” and Al Hrabosky’s Ballpark Saloon has tossed its last pitch.

Ronnie’s was “still serving the Original Family Recipe” for fried chicken since 1931, but it did not survive the last 14 years. Delmonico Diner had won the RFT’s poll as the best soul food in town for at least 17 years in a row, but it died, too. And like several of the restaurants that did not make it, Arcelia’s closed, tried to reopen for a while, and then closed again for good.

But the places that stayed, the restaurants that bucked the odds and are still popular today, are some of the best-known names in the St. Louis culinary scene.

Hodak’s, Tucker’s Place and Cunetto House of Pasta were all represented in the 2005 publication. So were Bar Italia, Racanelli’s and the Trainwreck Saloon. India Palace has moved but is still going strong, Schneithorst’s is legendary and the Best Steak House has been grilling success since 1964.

The ad for B.B.’s Jazz, Blues & Soups included a list of some of the people who had performed there, many of whom are now dead (Betty Carter, Jimmy Rogers, Son Seals and even Earl “Fatha” Hines), but the restaurant-nightclub still packs ‘em in with new talent.

In a sense, it is comforting to discover that, although some things change, Helen Fitzgerald’s stays the same. We do have a culinary connection to our past. Sometimes, even the restaurants stay the same. Even the menus are the same, with the obvious exception of the prices.

A filet at Citizen Kane’s Steak House cost $29.95 in 2005; today it is $42.95. A burger at Flannery’s has jumped from $7 to $10. A Drunken Fish roll at the Drunken Fish sushi restaurant bumped up modestly from $12.50 to $14.50.

Perhaps the longevity of so many restaurants says something about St. Louis, that we like things the way we like them, and we are happy to support this kind of consistency. Or perhaps it is an underreported trend across the country that while a lot of restaurants close in the first few years, many also stay relevant for decades.

Still, nearly 60 percent of a random selection of more than 100 restaurants that advertised is still in business after 14 years, and nearly all were around for years before that.

Or maybe it wasn’t a random selection after all. Restaurants come and go, but maybe the ones that advertise have a step up on the future. Not that I’m hinting, or anything.

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