ST. LOUIS — Downtown St. Louis was on the upswing this year.
The St. Louis Aquarium had opened in Union Station, as had the St. Louis Wheel. Ballpark Village had just celebrated a grandiose ribbon-cutting at the first office space to be built downtown in 30 years.
“We had a lot of momentum coming into 2020,” said Missy Kelley, president and chief executive officer of Downtown STL, Inc.
Then the coronavirus hit. Downtown streets and restaurants emptied. Baseball and hockey games disappeared along with concerts and conventions that formerly drew tens of thousands. And while hotel doors have stayed open, far more rooms sit empty than full. At least nine downtown restaurants and bars have shuttered.
The pandemic has vacated downtowns nationwide, as events canceled and companies kept employees working from home. Officials estimate some will recover quickly with virus vaccinations ramping up, sports contemplating the returns of fans, and some companies already bringing back workers. But cities like St. Louis, which had labored for years to shed urban decay and where renewal has been more tentative, are bracing for a much more difficult recovery.
“The downtown is the historic center of the region. You can go to Westport, you can go to Clayton. It’s not where St. Louis was established,” said Todd Swanstrom, a University of Missouri-St. Louis professor of political science and public policy administration. “Part of our identity is wrapped up in how downtown does.”
And although he sees downtown rebounding, the current outlook is bleak.
The city issued its most-recent quarterly budget report in October. Payroll tax receipts declined 9%. Earnings tax withholdings dipped 10%. But the killers: Sales tax collections dropped 27%. Restaurant receipts fell 54.5%. And city hotels, largely centered downtown, crashed a staggering 83.5%, even worse than projected.
“These levels of decline are unprecedented and reflect the severity of the economic toll of the coronavirus pandemic,” the report said.
Office workers, tourists, conventiongoers and sports fans are the lifeblood of downtown bars and restaurants — and without them, many are sinking.
The Missouri Bar and Grille closed for good, joining other restaurants and bars to fold since the pandemic began including the downtown Crazy Bowls and Wraps, Mango Peruvian Cuisine, The Eatery food hall, Caruso’s Deli, Hamburger Mary’s, the Tiny Bar and the adjoining concepts the Note Bar and Vaya Con Dillas.
And questions loom about where a post-pandemic workforce will do its work, from home or in an office.
Urban planners say a hybrid model is emerging where people would work remotely two or three days per week but still go to the office for meetings and human contact.
“I believe the workplace will change, but it will not go away,” said Janet Pogue McLaurin, global workplace research leader for Gensler, an architecture and planning firm.
Sarah Coffin, an associate professor of urban planning and development at St. Louis University, compared downtown to the Grove, another neighborhood that has made gains in recent years — if a restaurant closes in the Grove, another restaurant likely will move in there.
Downtown is a different economy, she said, and relies on a different workforce.
She cited the coming move by payment-processing company Square to downtown. The company bought the six-story, 235,000-square-foot former home of the Post-Dispatch in 2018. Last year, it said it intended to employ 1,250 people there. But that number could be substantially smaller. Square said in May that employees can work from home as long as they like, even after the coronavirus no longer is a threat.
She does believe the downtown office market is flexible and resilient, and that companies there want proximity and ways to interact — although she worries about short-term shrinkage.
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“I’m concerned about every business owner down here,” said Aaron Perlut, the founding partner of Elasticity, a digital marketing and public relations firm at 1008 Locust Street.
The coronavirus is a test case in letting employees work from home. As managers see high employee productivity, they ponder the need to pay for so much office space when a smaller footprint might suffice.
And while Perlut’s firm is doing well — it hired four people in the last month — the little bar that was Perlut’s pet project in the building couldn’t withstand the punch of the coronavirus.
The Tiny Bar opened five years ago. At most, 20 people could drink cocktails and local beers inside its snug 250 square feet.
It embraced its size, or lack thereof. One wall is adorned with a mural of Eddie Gaedel, who at 3-foot-7 had a one at-bat major league career as a pinch hitter for the St. Louis Browns in 1951. Shortly after the bar opened, it hosted the self-proclaimed “world’s tiniest parade” that included the world’s smallest horse, Thumbelina, in a ⅛th-block-long procession led by then-Mayor Francis Slay.
Perlut’s firm leases about 12,000 square feet in the building, which had been empty for at least 30 years before Elasticity came. Long ago, a bridal shop occupied the first floor. Grooves in the floor upstairs showed where rows of sewing machines sat decades ago.
The area destined to become the Tiny Bar was too big for a lobby and not big enough for anything else, Perlut said Tuesday, sitting in the closed bar where he’d scoop ice and check inventory before heading to his real job each morning.
The bar’s goal never was to turn a profit, he said, just to cover costs and serve as a gathering place for the area.
“We didn’t open it to make money. We opened it to have another business downtown,” he said.
But its balance sheet had started to slip into the red before the coronavirus. And by May, Perlut shut the bar down with no plans to reopen it, at least as a bar. A couple of people have inquired about renting the space for small get-togethers. He kept the liquor license.
Perlut worries about the perception of downtown among those who visit, whether from neighboring counties or further. He said that before the coronavirus, out-of-town clients commented how quiet it was after 5 p.m.
“Now it’s quiet 24-7,” he said.
The events dried up
The loss of big conventions are one reason for that added silence. Coffin, of St. Louis University, said St. Louis had been a great place to hold a convention.
”Conference facilities are a lot cheaper here than in other places,” she said.
And the first half of next year is expected to be especially rough for downtown businesses as even fewer people travel during an already sluggish time of year for tourism.
”The next three months are going to be very difficult because it’s normally the slowest time for tourism in St. Louis,” said Kitty Ratcliffe, president of the St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission, known locally as Explore St. Louis.
And it’s already tough, including for almost-deserted hotels. From March through October in 2019, the average daily occupancy was 72.4%. This year, it was 18.1%.
Ratcliffe said she and her staff are working with the city on guidelines for hosting events at America’s Center. She said some groups are interested in booking events next year, but she didn’t want to name them because details are not final.
“It’s pretty weak in the first quarter. That’s probably putting it mildly,” she said of bookings there.
It has been a sharp downturn from what hotels had expected.
”January and February were phenomenal. 2020 was going to be our best year ever,” said Steve O’Loughlin, president of Lodging Hospitality Management, which owns Union Station and the St. Louis Hilton at the Ballpark Hotel.
He said they will end the year with just 30% of rooms booked. Concerts bring in thousands of people to hotels each year, and big-name acts set to perform downtown had included Elton John, Justin Bieber, the Rolling Stones and the Zac Brown Band.
“Large urban hotels really got hit the worst. They depend on events, and the events dried up,” he said.
He said industry reports are predicting it could be 2024 until hotels truly come back to post-pandemic levels, but he thinks next year will be better.
”I do feel good on June through the rest of the year,” O’Loughlin said of 2021.
Kelley, of Downtown STL, expects to see more office workers return after the first of the year. And her organization is working on a “first 100 days plan” for how to begin recovery for businesses suffering losses due to the coronavirus.
A major component of that plan will be adding activities at the street level to give a sense of energy and connection, she said. Ideas include pop-up retail spots, or coffee stops and public art, to make it feel like there are less gaps between businesses. No timeline has been set for when that could begin, she said — that rollout will depend on city health department guidelines.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
40+ St. Louis restaurants that said farewell in 2020
50+ St. Louis restaurants that said farewell in 2020
1764 Public House
1764 Public House closed in January, after just over two years in the Central West End. It was the first of three Gamlin Restaurant Group restaurants to close in 2020, with Gamlin Whiskey House and Sub Zero Vodka Bar shuttering due to the pandemic in May.
Baida Moroccan Restaurant
Baida Moroccan Restaurant in Tower Grove South announced its permanent closure in July, ending a run of just shy of seven years.
“Because of this hard time and after serving you for seven years Baida restaurant is now out of business,” the restaurant posted on Facebook.
“Thank you to all our customers and our staff. We will miss you all.”
Bloom Cafe closed in December after not quite three years due to the coronavirus pandemic. Paraquad operated Bloom Cafe as both a public-facing restaurant and a job-training program for individuals with disabilities.
Bobo Noodle House
Cafe 7even closed after six months in Kingsway East. The restaurant was a new venture from the owners of Sameem Afghan Restaurant in the Grove.
Cafe Osage closed in early November after 12 years as the restaurant at the Bowood Farms nursery in the Central West End. (The nursery, the Studio at Bowood and Holliday, Bowood's shop across the street, remain open.)
“We've just never really been a takeout restaurant,” co-owner Lizzy Rickard told the Post-Dispatch. “We tried. But we're a destination where people really enjoyed dining here on site and the experience of being in the space.”
Caruso's Deli closed in August, ending a 10-year run downtown. “The memories we made are some of the most treasured moments in our lives and we want to thank both our customers and the employees we've had over these past 10 years,” the restaurant posted on Facebook.
Charred Crust closed this summer after a year in Clayton. The restaurant featured pizza and sandwiches.
Copia at West County Center in Des Peres closed in January. This was the third and only remaining location of the restaurant. The original Copia on Washington Avenue downtown closed in January 2019, and the second location in Clayton closed later last year after a relatively brief run.
Cork Wine Bar
Cork Wine Bar closed in May after nearly 11 years in Ferguson. "We have been unable to recover after the impact this pandemic has had on our small business," the restaurant said on Facebook. "We have loved the support and open welcome we have received from the awesome people in the Ferguson community."
Cousin Hugo's Bar & Grill
Cousin Hugo's Bar & Grill in Maplewood closed in September, a "victim of the COVID-19 economy," according to the restaurant's announcement of Facebook. Cousin Hugo's history stretches back more than 80 years.
Lemay mainstay Cusanelli's Restaurant closed at the end of August, "due to covid and unforeseen circumstances," the restaurant said on social media.
"We thank all our customers for supporting Cusanelli's throughout the years," the post said. "It has been our pleasure to serve you all."
The Dubliner closed in April after a year in Maplewood. “The COVID-19 virus has caused The Dubliner to close for good,” the restaurant announced on Facebook. “It was a great run."
This was the second iteration of the Dubliner. The original downtown location on Washington Avenue closed in 2015 after a nine-year run.
The Eatery, the food hall inside the One Metropolitan Square building downtown, closed this summer after 2½ years. (The St. Louis Business Journal reported the U.S. Department of Agriculture will take over the space.)
The Eatery's tenants included Hiro Poke Co., featuring poke bowls and ramen from acclaimed chef Bernie Lee.
Eat-Rite Diner, the tiny, iconic Route 66 restaurant just south of downtown, closed in December. Owner Joel Holtman said he had no business left due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Holtman and his wife, Shawna, reopened Eat-Rite on Opening Day 2018. Longtime owner L.B. Powers had closed the restaurant in October 2017.
The Feasting Fox
Dutchtown institution the Feasting Fox announced its closure at the beginning of September.
“COVID-19 has impacted every aspect of life and taught us the important lesson of slowing down to enjoy each moment," owners Marty and Sue Luepker wrote on Facebook. "With the support of family and friends, we’ve decided it’s time to close the Feasting Fox and begin the next chapter of our lives.”
The Feasting Fox's building dates back to 1913; it was designated a City Landmark in 2001.
Filomena's Italian Kitchen
Filomena's Italian Kitchen closed after roughly a decade in Glendale. Its small, standalone building already has a new tenant, a location of Pi Pizzeria with an additional menu from the ¡Rico! Mexican concept.
A Fine Swine BBQ
The New Baden barbecue restaurant A Fine Swine BBQ and its Mount Vernon spinoff closed in November, ending a four-year run. Owner and pitmaster David Stidham, a former Culver's executive, opened A Fine Swine after success on the competition-barbecue circuit.
Gamlin Whiskey House and Sub Zero Vodka Bar
Gamlin Whiskey House and Sub Zero Vodka Bar closed in May. Both Central West End restaurants were owned by brothers Derek and Luke Gamlin.
"The weight of the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic were simply too much to bear," the announcement on Facebook stated.
The Gamlins had already closed another Central West End restaurant, 1764 Public House, before the pandemic in January.
Giovanni's Kitchen in Ladue closed in November after a six-year run. "We met some wonderful people and made some beautiful memories," the restaurant posted on Facebook.
However, per the Giovanni's Kitchen website, renovations on the original Giovanni's on the Hill, which was damaged in a 2017 fire, are currently underway.
The Great Grizzly Bear
Soulard mainstay the Great Grizzly Bear closed in late October. “You guys know we’re pretty tough, but it was a crazy uphill battle and with all of the current issues and winter coming, it was just time," the owners posted on Facebook.
The downtown restaurant and drag cabaret Hamburger Mary's closed in September, ending a run of not quite three years. This was the second time Hamburger Mary's has closed in St. Louis. A previous iteration of the chain, with different owners, operated last decade in midtown.
Joanie's Pizzeria in Soulard closed in February after 25 years. However, Joanie's to Go at 804 Russell Boulevard in Soulard remains open.
Local Chef Kitchen
Local Chef Kitchen in Ballwin closed in June. Chef Rob Uyemura, who founded the restaurant and market focused on local produce in 2016, died of cancer in February.
"I am so glad that Rob got to have LCK for as long as he did, because he truly loved what he did," Uyemura's wife, Mitzi, wrote on the restaurant's Facebook page. "Thank you for everything.”
Mangia Italiano announced it will close after service Dec. 20. “While we have fought hard to weather this storm that is affecting us all, unfortunately we are unable to go on,” the restaurant posted on Facebook. “We greatly appreciate the years of loyalty that everyone has shown us and we wish we could do more for you."
Over nearly 40 years, Mangia became known as a beloved neighborhood restaurant and bar, a late-night (and early-morning) hangout and the home of late local artist Wayne St. Wayne's mural.
Mango Peruvian Cuisine
Mango Peruvian Cuisine will close Dec. 19, ending a 16-year run for chef Jorge Calvo and his family. The Calvos opened the original Mango in 2004 in Shrewsbury. The downtown outpost followed in 2009 and moved to its current home in 2015. (The Shrewsbury location closed in 2011.)
Marley's Bar & Grill
Marley's Bar & Grill in Ferguson closed in November, shortly after St. Louis County shut down dine-in service for at least four weeks. “We know we can do carryout, but the overhead is just too much," the owners posted on Facebook.
Masala Indian & Pakistani Cuisine
Masala Indian & Pakistani Cuisine in the eastern half of the Delmar Loop appears to have closed at some point in the spring or summer of this year. Off the Menu has been receiving a “not a working number” message at its number since July, and its windows are papered over.
Zahid and Shaheena Khan opened Masala in 2019. The couple previously operated Spice-n-Grill and, before that, Indian Food, both in University City.
Update: A Delmar Loop official tells Off the Menu that Masala closed in February.
Mayana Mexican Kitchen
Mayana Mexican Kitchen, the fast-casual concept in Clayton from the owners of Rock Hill institution Hacienda Mexican Restaurant, closed its storefront. However, the Mayana Mexican brand continues as a food truck.
Mike's Hot Dogs, Soups & Sandwiches
Mike's Hot Dogs, Soups & Sandwiches closed after not quite two years in University City. Among its dishes was (in this critic's opinion) the best buffalo-chicken sandwich in town.
Missouri Bar & Grille
Missouri Bar & Grille, beloved by journalists local and visiting, ballplayers and umpires and all manner of downtown dwellers, ended its nearly 40-year run under the ownership of the Panopoulos family in late December. Founder Trifon Panopoulos, pictured here, died in 2013.
New Day Gluten Free Bakery and Cafe
New Day Gluten Free Bakery and Cafe closed at the beginning of December after four years in Clayton. "We have loved being a part of your lives the last four years!!” the restaurant posted on Facebook.
Nora's closed after about a decade in Dogtown. The restaurant was known for its sandwiches and soups.
The Note Bar and Vaya Con Dillas
The adjoining concepts the Note Bar and Vaya Con Dillas closed in May after about a year and a half in downtown west.
"Thank you all for your loyal support and sharing our love for #TacoTuesdays and Blues hockey," the restaurants posted on Facebook. "We’ll see you around, St. Louis."
Olive Street Cafe
Olive Street Cafe in Creve Coeur announced its permanent closure in late October. “Due to current restrictions and the uncertainty of the future, we had to close our doors,” the restaurant posted on Facebook. “We hope you continue to support Small Business any way you can during these times.”
Paul Mineo's Trattoria
Paul Mineo's Trattoria closed in Westport Plaza after 13 years. Owner Brigitte Mineo announced the closure in July, but the restaurant never reopened after the initial pandemic shutdown in March.
“It's a shame because I had wonderful employees, and most of my employees were 50 years old or older,” Mineo told the Post-Dispatch.
Pueblo Nuevo Mexican Restaurant & Cantina
Pueblo Nuevo Mexican Restaurant & Cantina in Hazelwood closed in late October after 37 years. "We have laughed, cried, ate, drank, danced, cooked, loved, prayed and partied together and we are grateful for it all!” the restaurant posted on Facebook.
Roux Royale Bar & Bistro
Roux Royale Bar & Bistro in St. Charles' New Town development closed in early October. “With the events of 2020 we don’t believe the odds are in our favor to make it through the winter months," the restaurant posted on Facebook.
Ryder's Tavern closed in May after five years in Tower Grove South. The bar was a local gathering place for Cubs fans during the team's 2016 World Series run.
Gerard Craft's upscale Clayton Italian restaurant Sardella replaced his flagship Niche in 2016. It never reopened after the initial pandemic shutdown. Craft has since reopened the space as Pastaria Deli & Wine, featuring sandwiches, take-and-bake meals, wine and provisions.
Shiquan Wonton appears to have closed after about a year in the eastern half of the Delmar Loop. The restaurant’s signage is gone, and the phone number is no longer in operation.
Shiquan Wonton opened in spring 2019 in what had previously been the home of east Loop mainstay Chinese Noodle Café.
Stir Crazy Fresh Asian Grill
Stir Crazy Fresh Asian Grill in Creve Coeur closed at the end of March, unable to recover from the initial dining-room shutdown during the pandemic.
“It's just too big a mountain to climb,” co-owner Jeff Daniels told the Post-Dispatch. He and co-owner Andy Spann had taken over the restaurant in November 2019.
SymBowl in Kirkwood closed in early December, ending a nine-year run. The restaurant was originally known as the Hot Pot Smoothie Shop.
“SymBowl adapted, innovated, pivoted, and all the other verbs one might need to get through the year 2020,” the announcement stated. “Ultimately it needed to make peace with what is, and make room for what’s next. It will be missed.”
Tani Sushi Bistro
Tani Sushi Bistro closed in early March (before the initial pandemic shutdown), ending a 12-year run in Clayton. The restaurant was originally located on South Bemiston Avenue before moving to Forsyth Boulevard.
Tasti-Tea closed after about a year in the Delmar Loop. Tasti-Tea took over the space previously occupied by another relatively short-lived Chinese restaurant, Bing Bing, on Melville Avenue just off Delmar Boulevard in University City.
Tavolo V, part of Mike Del Pietro's family of restaurants, closed in May after eight years in the Delmar Loop. At the time, Del Pietro noted the pandemic-related closure of the Washington University campus and the postponement and cancellation of events at the Pageant and Delmar Hall.
“That's a big portion of our business and with those not being there, economically it doesn't seem really fitting” to reopen, he told the Post-Dispatch.
Tower Grove South staple Three Monkeys closed this summer, though owners Zach and Mary Rice promised a new concept in the space and have been selling frozen pizzas in the meantime.
As for Three Monkeys, Zach Rice told the Post-Dispatch, "with COVID going on, such a big part of Three Monkeys was the buffet-style brunch, and that's something that we don't see coming back, and Three Monkeys as a concept probably needs that to really thrive."
Tom's Bar & Grill
Central West End mainstay Tom's Bar & Grill closed in September. The St. Louis Business Journal reported that a medical-marijuana firm has purchased the building.
Trailhead Brewing Co.
'ZZA Pizza + Salad
'ZZA Pizza + Salad closed its original Skinker-DeBaliviere location in February, ending a three-year run. The second location of the fast-casual concept from Pi Pizzeria owner Chris Sommers closed in late 2019, but 'ZZA continues to operate in the Austin, Texas, area.
The restaurant beat changed forever: Ian Froeb's top stories of 2020
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