Our destination: the Red Cedar Inn, once upon a time an outpost at the far edge of St. Louis County, probably about a two-hour drive from the central city out the original two-lane Route 66 but now just a short drive from the suburban population concentration around Highway 141 and a stone's throw from Six Flags.
Although technically in Pacific, the Red Cedar is easier to get to if you head west on Interstate 44, then get off at the Six Flags exit, go south under the highway and head west on Business Loop 44 (a.k.a. Historic Route 66). You'll pass the slammer (the Missouri Eastern Correctional Center) on the right, with a often-used set of railroad tracks giving way to further winding of the Meramec River and views of the river valley on your left. Just a bit farther on the right appears a log-cabin-style structure that at once looks in fine repair but also as if it's stood there for many years -- which it has, having been put up in 1934, at almost the same time as the construction out its front door of the fabled Route 66.
Ginger Smith Gallagher has also stood there for many years, although not quite all the way back to opening day. (Despite the obvious geographical inaccuracy, we'll describe Ginger as "somewhere north of 40.") Ginger is the granddaughter of James Smith, who, along with brother Bill, founded the restaurant. Ginger's father, James II, and his wife, Katherine (who still owns the restaurant and makes the brownies), officially bought out James I in 1944 and ran it until James II retired in 1972 (by which time Ginger and her brother James III had joined the team), then subcontracted it out until Katherine, Ginger, James III and current cook/general manager Wes Karna resumed operational control in 1987.
The short version of this story is that Red Cedar Inn is one of the very few Route 66 landmarks that has been in continuous operation since the original construction of the road. Ginger says several of the available items -- most notably the barbecue sauce and the batter for the fried chicken -- come from recipes as old as the restaurant itself.
That fried chicken, by the way, is probably worth the trip in and of itself if you're a fan of the style that leans toward ultracrispy crust, light on the seasonings, with hot, juicy meat underneath. An order consists of half-a-chicken, with potato and vegetable and a salad tossed tableside.
The bulk of the menu at Red Cedar Inn fits the country-roadhouse theme, with such stuff as whole fried catfish (another signature dish), roast beef, chopped sirloin and even pan-fried liver with bacon and onions. Appetizers lean toward bar food (wings, potato skins, cheese sticks, etc.); desserts are primarily homemade and include Ginger's own cheesecake, her mom's aforementioned brownie and some high-topped meringue pies, among others.
All the entrees are around 10 or 11 bucks, tops, with the one exception in style and price coming in the steak selections. The raw product is supplied by Middendorf Meat, and most of the time Wes Karna is behind the grill. Judging from a prime rib we sampled -- served just beyond rare, tender but still firm enough to retain a hearty texture, served with a mild horseradish sauce and natural juices -- it's worth the splurge.
The under-10 members of our party did just fine with items from the junior menu (except one, all under $4), but one 11-year-old found the "12-and-under" description on the junior selections not quite matching her appetite. Other of the preteens plowed through a half-dozen fried shrimp and an order of spaghetti with a densely tomatoey sauce and several meatballs, and one of the other adults had flashbacks to meals at his own grandparents' table with the pork loin, two boneless loin chops lightly pounded and breaded, sautéed and served with their own gravy. Even the side vegetables -- most notably lima beans with bits of ham hock -- reinforced the timeless feel.
We ended the meal by ordering four desserts to share among the seven of us, which was just about right, given the portion sizes. There's a short, under-$25 wine list that includes four Missouri wines from OakGlenn in Hermann; sodas, however, are served in bottomless carafes, much to the joy of the younger set, and in classic roadhouse style, when I stuck with a good ol' American Budweiser, the first question was, "You want a glass with that?"
My only knock, given proper expectations for the place, is on the service, which was attentive enough but got sluggish when it came to bringing out the entrees. I wouldn't even mention this, save for the 20 percent gratuity that was automatically tacked onto our bill -- I assume because of the size of our party -- even though this little trick wasn't cited on the menu.
Ginger notes that some of the furnishings date all the way back to the '30s. The log-cabin feel continues in the semirustic interior, with paneling that looks as if it's from what lots of St. Louisans used to call their "rathskellars" and an eclectic mixture of memorabilia and junk that establishes the historical motif without going into overkill. In addition to a Post-Dispatch from the day after Pearl Harbor and issues of the Star-Times headlining V-E Day and V-J Day, local history buffs will also probably enjoy an old enlargement of the view up Grand Boulevard north of Lindell, with the old Melbourne Hotel (now Jesuit Hall at St. Louis University) in the foreground and dense traffic and six or seven theater marquees going up the street.
The relentless incursion of new residential development farther and farther west has complemented Red Cedar Inn's "destination restaurant" appeal with a natural constituency of far-West County homeowners, but Ginger also notes that tourists, Germans especially, still show up with regularity. The strong Deutschland connection comes in part because of an unusual fascination in that country with Route 66 and in part also because the restaurant was pictured in the 1996 Volkswagen catalog.
These and hundreds of other stories grand and small -- for example, if Herb Eberle is providing the entertainment when you visit, be sure to ask him about his ties to I Love Lucy -- are all part of the allure of the Red Cedar Inn. It's still a great place to get some kicks.