Play Ball!

While you're downtown to see the Cards this summer, try something besides a ballpark dog

OK, so here it is baseball season again. Starting Monday and continuing for 80-some dates over the subsequent six months, thousands of you will descend on downtown to root, root, root for the home team.

Here's my humble request, especially to those of you who are more in the habit of driving in, parking, walking over to the stadium, cheering, walking back to the garage and driving directly home again: Come down a little earlier and stay a little later. Have a meal downtown, preferably including a brisk two- to six-block walk from your parking destination of choice. While you're walking, look around and look up.

Although I view the stunning architecture at downtown's core through rose-colored glasses, I'm not so Pollyannaish as to try to convince you that it's an altogether wonderful place. Right now, it isn't. A too-large proportion of the lovely buildings (and even of the butt-ugly ones, such as St. Louis Centre) are vacant, and some of the highly touted "redevelopment" is little more than a Potemkin village.

Clockwise from top left: Curry in a Hurry, Dooley's Ltd., Tequila's and Sen
Jennifer Silverberg
Clockwise from top left: Curry in a Hurry, Dooley's Ltd., Tequila's and Sen
Clockwise from top left: Curry in a Hurry, Dooley's Ltd., Tequila's and Sen
Jennifer Silverberg
Clockwise from top left: Curry in a Hurry, Dooley's Ltd., Tequila's and Sen

On the other hand, there are many pockets of vibrancy to be found. What's more, a few dozen people walking up and down any given block can make a world of difference. The fenced and boarded-up buildings are still there, but they look much less postapocalyptic with human beings walking the streets, as illustrated by recent pedestrian activity resulting from conventions and early bursts of spring weather.

There's not enough room in this column for a definitive listing of downtown opportunities, so I've picked out a half-dozen places within an easy walk of the stadium (and, if you're taking advantage of the new Illinois MetroLink line, also close to the Eighth and Pine station). Unfortunately, as a result of the chicken-and-egg quandary of getting more residents and conventioneers downtown to provide stable, ongoing demand, some are only open for lunch. But if just, say, one in 10 of you in-and-outers hangs around just a little while longer, maybe we can improve that situation.

One of my favorite downtown spots is Sen (lunch and dinner, 314-436-3456), in the storied basement space that was the longtime home of the Pit of the Seventh Olive at (where else?) Seventh and Olive streets. The food here is Thai -- lots of noodle dishes with beef, chicken, shrimp or mixed seafood, or pure vegetarian, plus a number of curries over jasmine rice -- generally served mild to medium-hot unless you specifically request the eye-popping variety. A complimentary tray of toast and peanut sauce starts you off, and a potent Singha beer is the perfect accompanying beverage. Lunches range from $4-$8, with dinners a couple of bucks higher.

On your way in or out of Sen, look across to the northwest corner of Seventh and Olive and up about eight floors to the striking carved animals. Like the more famous Wainwright Building (which was also originally U-shaped), two blocks to the south, this striking building was designed by Louis Sullivan. Over to the left, as you walk out of Sen's front door, at the corner of Seventh and Pine, is a '50s-diner-style place called Swifty's (314-241-4990), which recently expanded its evening hours to accommodate pregame crowds. Nothin' fancy here -- just made-to-order sandwiches plus a short list of pastas, soups and salads. A good, old-fashioned root-beer float is a fine treat, and the diner décor is enhanced by caricature-style St. Louis skyline artwork. Out the front door here, as you look left, is a nice perspective of the Wainwright.

Back around the corner, on Olive between Sixth and Seventh streets, at the street level of Famous-Barr's parking garage, you can literally follow your nose to the aromatic Curry in a Hurry (lunch only, 314-241-7900), the cafeteria-style incarnation of Harinder Singh's Rasoi empire. Two choices from among such stuff as tandoori chicken, aloo gobi (spiced potatoes and cauliflower), curries and masalas (plus basmati rice and the soft, flat bread called naan) are $5.95, and you can add a third choice for just a dollar more, although you should do this only if you have a really hearty appetite. Don't be spooked by what looks to be a long line -- even when it stretches almost to the front door, the wait is usually less than 10 minutes.

Across Olive from Curry in the Hurry is the Railway Exchange Building, with the downtown location of Famous-Barr on the first several floors and the executive offices of its parent, the May Co., above. Check out the amazing ornamentation, which comprises close to 200,000 individual pieces of terracotta.

A block the other way, out Olive and to the right, on Eighth Street, past the intricate geometry of the redbrick-and-terracotta Chemical Building on the northeast corner, is the faux-Tudor (Pseudor?) façade of Dooley's Ltd. (lunch and pregame dinner, 314-231-4200), a downtown fixture for more than 30 years. The best bets here are the burgers, finished to order with various toppings and cheeses. If you're lucky, as you're waiting to pay you can chat with owner Alex Dooley about his pointed observations on the chase-their-tails development efforts in Old Post Office Square and elsewhere downtown, as seen from the very front lines.

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