For the past 39 years, Hamishe Bahrami has been taking care of St. Louis diners, first through the Little Kitchen and next, though the wildly popular Persian mainstay, Cafe Natasha's (3200 South Grand Boulevard, 314-771-3411). Now, the beloved matriarch is ready for the next chapter in her life, and by extension, the restaurant is too: Cafe Natasha's will close for good after service on April 30th.
Natasha Bahrami, daughter of Bahrami and owner of the adjacent Gin Room, explains that the decision, though incredibly emotional, is the best one for their family, as ending Cafe Natasha's is the only way her mom will retire — something that has been a long time coming and is necessary for her mom's well-being.
"This idea is not new; we have been trying to thoughtfully retire mom for the last handful of years," Natasha says. "She has dedicated her life to this industry and taking care of others, and she loves it. She loves her guests and the St. Louis community, but now it's time for her to be able to live her life. We cannot continue it without her, and she cannot let it continue without her."
Bahrami never intended to become one of the most respected and cherished members of the St. Louis food and beverage community; in fact, she did not picture herself getting into the restaurant industry at all until she had to do it in order to survive. A native of Iran, Bahrami was a nurse who traveled around her home country and the world for her job before moving to New York City in the 1970s. A vivacious woman-about-town who loved to dance at Studio 54, Bahrami had no plans on settling down until she was wooed by the man who would become her husband, the late Behshid Bahrami.
Behshid had moved to St. Louis from Iran a few years earlier and had a successful career as a foundational geologist. Ready to settle down and start a family, he'd heard of Bahrami through mutual friends and family and was determined to make her his partner in life. The two started a courtship — initially somewhat one-sided, Natasha laughs — and eventually Bahrami agreed to move to St. Louis. The two wed not long after the move and welcomed Natasha shortly after that.
The Bahramis had no intention of getting into the restaurant business, but they were forced to when Behshid was downsized from his geology job in the early 1980s. As Natasha explains, the economic downturn during that time was the reason for the layoff and why he could not find additional work, though the Iran hostage crisis made his situation more difficult.
"There was a backlash because of that," Natasha says. "No one wanted to hire a Persian during that time. They had just found out they were pregnant with me, so he sold a little land he had in California and used that to open a tiny restaurant downtown in the Paul Brown Building."
That restaurant, the Little Kitchen, was the Bahramis first foray into the food business. However, what they lacked in experience they made up for in their knack for flavor — Behshid's palate and ability recreate flavors was unrivaled — and their willingness to do whatever it took to care for their infant daughter. Still, it was difficult; the restaurant was so tiny that it did not have a hood or an oven, and the hours were grueling. The husband and wife would get up at 3 a.m., swaddle their little girl, head out to pick up their meat, seafood and other provisions for the day's service, and get to work before dawn. Business started out slowly at first, but eventually built by word of mouth to the point that there was regularly a line wrapped around the building for lunch service.
It didn't take long for Behshid to realize that he had a deep passion for food, and he was eager to show off what he and Bahrami could do with a full-service, Persian focused restaurant. That vision, Cafe Natasha's, opened in the University City Loop in 1993; for two years, the Bahramis ran the two concepts simultaneously, getting up before dawn to run breakfast and lunch service at the Little Kitchen, then heading to Cafe Natasha's, where they would work until late at night.
Cafe Natasha's did fairly well right off the bat, but its big break would come when Joe Pollack, then the dining critic for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, gave the restaurant a rave review. The Bahramis did not know who he was at the time; in fact, they didn't even know what a restaurant review meant until one of their regular customers from the Little Kitchen tipped them off after reading the review the day it came out in the paper.
"Mom was at the Little Kitchen, and this woman said to her, 'What are you doing?'" Natasha recounts. "Mom told her she was working, and the woman said that she needed to close up and head over to Cafe Natasha's because the review was going to make an impact. Dad didn't believe her, but thankfully mom went in to help him because there was a line down the street all night. We were out of food, but people refused to leave until they got fed."
More than just a review, Pollack's words solidified Cafe Natasha's reputation in the minds of St. Louis diners. As Natasha explains, the article was validation for the family, something that continued after they closed the Little Kitchen in 1995 and opened a second concept, Kabob International, in the building where Cafe Natasha's and the Gin Room is today.
The Bahramis closed Cafe Natasha's Delmar location and relocated it to its current spot on South Grand in 2003, morphing it with Kabob International as a way to expand its offerings and allow Behshid to exercise his culinary creativity. With the family now only responsible for one restaurant, Natasha was able to exercise creativity of her own, though not in the restaurant industry. She got a graduate degree in international studies, moved to Washington, D.C. to take a job in that field and established a successful career for herself before being pulled back in the industry via her passion for gin. She threw herself into learning everything she could about the spirit, then returned to St. Louis in 2014 determined to create a world class gin bar.
That bar, the Gin Room, has achieved immense success, thrusting Natasha into the international spotlight as an ambassador and expert of the category and serving as the foundation of her brand, Gin World. For the past eight years, the bar has operated adjacent to Cafe Natasha's and breathed new life into it. As Natasha notes, the restaurant is more successful than it has ever been, but the change is still necessary.
"We are so excited for this new restaurant concept," Natasha says. "The Gin Room will be front and center, and the restaurant will have synergy with it and work off of what we are doing."
The Bahramis promise that details for the forthcoming restaurant will be released in the coming weeks. They also note that there will be a brief window after Cafe Natasha's April 30th closure where the Gin Room will temporarily go dark in order for the team to prepare the space for the new concept. Even more importantly, though, Natasha promises that this is not the end of the Bahrami family's time in the St. Louis restaurant community, or even the last time diners will see her mom's face at the South Grand address; it's simply a transition — one that frees up her mom to get what she wants out of the business and of life.
"We are so excited to continue serving St. Louis; we love the city and love this community, and we are so excited for this next chapter," Natasha says. "Just like we went from the Little Kitchen to Café Natasha's, and they embraced us there, we hope they will embrace us in our new endeavor. We are the same people with the same energy and same passion. Hopefully, our 'forevers' will embrace us the same way they have for 39 years. Mom is still going to be there but in a way that gives her the space to be a part of it in the way she wants to be. And there may even be a Cafe Natasha's pop-up once or twice a year in the new restaurant. We want to do that for the St. Louis community because we wouldn't be here without their support and love."
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