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.

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.

Speaking of the Old Post Office, you can't miss its impressive elegance as you enter or exit Dooley's. The building to the left on Olive is the Arcade, which recently received a probable new lease on life under a new owner; behind the Old Post Office is the flaking terracotta pastry known as the Syndicate Trust Building, fronted on Ninth Street by the Century Building. The owner of these buildings wants to blow them up; curiously, no one has suggested a similar solution for the Serra sculpture or Gateway One. Go figure.

Out Olive, between 11th Street and Tucker Boulevard -- a walk that would more appropriately be termed a bit more of a schlepp, given the destination -- is a classic New York-style (except for the prices) deli called Two Cents Plain (lunch, 314-436-1070), run by another of downtown's true characters, Jack Carl. Pastrami, corned beef, Reubens, roast beef and even the decidedly unkosher option of ham are included among the sandwiches (figure about $6-$9 with a side and a drink), and there are also knishes, slaw, matzo-ball soup and many other deli staples, plus gourmet sodas and even a wide selection of beer.

The ageless Jack cracks wise with a soft edge, alternately serving up such chestnuts as "Is that your daughter?" to a 50-ish man with his wife and Rickles lines such as "You want chips with that? No? Then to hell with you, cheapskate ... you're holding up the line." The jibes are all delivered with a distinct twinkle in his eye. The walls are lined with memorabilia ranging from a Jackie Mason shrine to St. Louis soft-soft porn from a less politically correct era, and Jack knows probably three-quarters of his customers by name. If the front plate glass is still boarded up, as it was a week ago, don't let that dissuade you -- it's not a vandalism-prone area. In fact, the damage was done by some lady who fell asleep at the wheel on her way to work early one morning.

The streamlined building right across the street at 1111 Olive St. was once a focal point for St. Louis broadcasting, housing both KSD radio and its sister TV station, KSD-TV, now KSDK (Channel 5).

If you're in the mood for Mexican, the relatively new Tequila's (lunch only, 314-621-1214) -- in the space popularized by the late, lamented Flaco's Taco's at Sixth Street and Pine Boulevard -- takes the unusual approach of an all-you-can-eat buffet, with selected individual items also available. A steam-table approach to Mexican is a little risky, but Tequila's (I can't get the Pee-wee theme out of my head, and now you can't, either) does a good job of refreshing the trays, which include a couple dozen items, ranging from standards such as fajitas, enchiladas, tamales and tacos to more interesting stuff such as pork mole, pozole, Mexican eggs and chilequiles.

And, finally, for fast food in the midst of the quintessential St. Louis postcard, don't forget Charlie Santangelo, the man who reintroduced the hotdog cart to downtown. Charlie or one of his staff will sell you a brat, hotdog or sausage for 2 or 3 bucks, right in the middle of Kiener Plaza.

A Cardinal pennant this year? The new pitching rotation gives me a good feeling. Incremental improvement downtown? Well, it's the time of the year for hope again to spring eternal. And you can actually play along on this particular team.

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