Best Of 2000

Best Underground (Figuratively) Restaurant: Beffa's

It's a regular tagline in the writings of Jerry Berger: "Overheard at Beffa's."

Look in the phone book, though, and there's no Beffa's listed. Even if you're clever enough to divine that the place is located at 2700 Olive St., you won't see any signs from the street, unless you can read the faded lettering on the one facing Beaumont Avenue, behind the building, that indicates the free parking lot for Beffa Brothers. The only indications that the place is even a restaurant are the health-department ratings stickers on the front and side doors.

Once inside, the staff's embroidered polo shirts, a family crest in the dining room and assorted other signage tell you that you have, in fact, penetrated the not-so-secret society. Even then, however, you need to keep your cool if you don't want to stand out immediately as an auslander. There's a cafeteria line, but no price list and no cash register. Drinks, even sodas, are delivered to your table from the bar. There may be a no-smoking area, but it sure looks as if there are ashtrays on every table.

Although on the one hand it's annoying that anonymous insider places like this still exist at the turn of the 21st century, the egalitarian nature of Beffa's makes it sweet, even endearing. Yes, that guy in line in front of you is a former U.S. senator. But the guy in front of him is wearing incredibly dirty overalls and apparently is such a regular that his order ends up on the tray without any words being exchanged.

In a way, Beffa's is an analog for many of St. Louis' quaint social- interaction customs. Sure, corporate executives and hotshot politicos and leaders of the clergy gather here regularly. But, unlike the probable result if you tried to join Civic Progress for its monthly nosh at the Bogey Club, you and other everyday folk can mingle quite freely with the high-and-mighty at Beffa's.

Aside from frequent Berger bits, the only major reference to Beffa's we could find in the Post-Dispatch online archives was a story by the fine writer John McGuire that, much like this one, revealed Beffa's existence to those outside of the know. The occasion was the cafeteria's 100th anniversary in 1998, and the referenced cast of characters was remarkably similar to the one we encountered -- the senator (Tom Eagleton), folks from the U.S. Attorney's Office, folks from the senior ranks of the police department, executives from the adjoining campus of A.G. Edwards.

In fact, many of these same people have probably been coming here since well before 1998. Save for the big-screen TV, you'd be hard-pressed to differentiate a snapshot of Beffa's current interior from one taken in 1985, or 1972, or 1966. There's a vaguely late-'60s tone to the décor, but everything is scrubby clean, as if the place had just been built within the last year. More than likely, the clock in the back of the room that's running 10 minutes fast was set like that 30 years ago, too.

And even if your conversation isn't likely to be of interest to Jerry Berger, the staff -- especially the nice man who fills you in on the roasts, stews and soups of the day -- is unfailingly polite. The barbecue today is pork. Would you like that with a side of the au gratin potatoes or the Brussels sprouts? Maybe a nice deviled egg -- a whole one, or will a half do? When it comes right down to it, this is straightforward, working-class food -- good roast beef (with real horseradish in tiny plastic containers on the side) and pork and ham, cold cuts sliced fresh to order, tapioca pudding. But nothing fancy. Prices, though, are slightly above working-class wages, with our meals running between 7 and 9 bucks.

We also observed something else over the course of our visits -- more a not-so-subtle social commentary on life in St. Louis than anything. If, as McGuire wrote, the place should be called the Who's Who Café, then the local who's-who list is decidedly monochromatic and predominantly male. During three lengthy visits spread out over a couple of weeks, we didn't see a single black face among the guests. That would be statistically improbable even in popular restaurants in Chesterfield or Clayton, but it's a downright anomaly in the city. Moreover, the boy/girl ratio we observed at Beffa's was at least 5-to-1, sometimes even higher. The average age was pretty far north of 40.

Come to think of it, though, that's even more diverse than Civic Progress, the default civic "leadership" group in town, which until just last week had no black people among its permanent members, one woman and an average age pretty far north of 40. And it's not like you'll ever be able to sit next to them at lunch.

So now you know that Beffa's exists, and you know how to get there. If you feel not part of the crowd when you see any number of people waving and shaking hands, be sure to look for Eagleton, who still retains his politician persona and will greet and shake hands with just about anybody -- quite the talker. Just introduce yourself and act like you're somebody. Then say something that Jerry Berger can overhear, and if you're really lucky, you really will be somebody when the next day's paper comes out. Welcome to the club.

-- Joe Bonwich

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