Tara Gallina and Zoë Robinson Talk Bar Les Frères' Bright Future

Apr 21, 2022 at 1:53 pm

click to enlarge The Bar Les Frères torch is being passed from one innovator to another. - Courtesy of Bar Les Frères
Courtesy of Bar Les Frères
The Bar Les Frères torch is being passed from one innovator to another.

Last month, St. Louis area diners breathed a collective sigh or relief when they heard the news: Bar Les Frères (7637 Wydown Boulevard, Clayton; 314-725-8880), the sultry Clayton bar and restaurant founded by restaurateur Zoë Robinson in 2012, would reopen under new ownership after its two-year hiatus — and even better, that new ownership was none other than the highly-regarded restaurateurs Michael and Tara Gallina.

Perhaps no one was as thrilled as Robinson.

"The timing was impeccable; the other deal I had been working on for it fell apart the day Tara contacted me," Robinson says. "The neighborhood is important to me, so leaving those places [Bar Les Frères, Billie-Jean, I Frattelini] in good hands is massive. People might be mad at me for not reopening, but I had to make a life decision for myself. I couldn't have asked for anybody better to take it over. I wish they'd take all three!"

Zoë Robinson is happy to be leaving her beloved restaurants in capable hands. - Jennifer Silverberg
Jennifer Silverberg
Zoë Robinson is happy to be leaving her beloved restaurants in capable hands.
For Robinson, the decision to indefinitely close Bar Les Frères, Billie-Jean and I Frattelini, the three restaurants she had previously owned in Clayton's Wydown neighborhood business district, was not an easy one but something she felt she had to do as the pandemic dragged on from weeks, to months to years. An icon of the St. Louis restaurant scene, Robinson had been in the industry since the early 1980s, owning a series of restaurants that began with her first place, Empire, and went on to include such properties as Cafe Zoë and Boba Noodle House. Though she was at the peak of her success with her three Clayton restaurants in March of 2020, the pandemic made her reassess where she was in her career, ultimately leading her to leave the industry she'd dedicated nearly forty years of her life to.

While Robinson was stepping back from her mini restaurant empire, Gallina was building one of her own. Together with her husband, Michael, she had successfully brought to life the acclaimed Vicia, breathed new energy into Winslow's Table (formerly Winslow's Home) and was preparing to launch a new concept, Taqueria Morita, this May. Still, she was always open to new ideas and found herself coming back to the notion of a wine bar while talking with her restaurant group's beverage director, Kara Flaherty. One day, their conversation turned to Robinson's properties on Wydown, and, on a whim, she decided to pick up the phone.

"It was very random and out of the blue," Gallina says. "We'd been talking internally for weeks about how we'd love to open a wine bar, and we wondered what was going on with Wydown because we hadn't heard about anything happening since we found out Zoë had found a buyer. I figured the worst thing she could do is say no, so I called her, and she called me back within minutes saying that she was in town and we should talk. Timing was really everything."

For Robinson, the idea of having two of St. Louis' most well-regarded restaurant owners take over Bar Le Frères was a dream scenario. As she explains, she'd been previously approached by brokers who offered to sell her restaurants for her, but she feared that would result in something that would be the wrong fit for the neighborhood she's worked and lived in for years. Having people she trusts to carry out their own vision for the spaces she created was her best case scenario — and one she is excited to watch unfold.

"They will put their own spin on things, and that's important, because businesses should grow," Robinson says. "It will go in a new direction — their direction — and that's how things should be anyway. Businesses should evolve."

Tara Gallina is both excited and humbled to be taking over such an iconic property. - Sara Bannoura
Sara Bannoura
Tara Gallina is both excited and humbled to be taking over such an iconic property.
As Robinson explains, Bar Les Frères would have looked different from its original incarnation even if she decided to reopen it herself. Considering the changes that have occurred in the industry over the past two-plus years, such as labor shortages, food cost increases and the remaining uncertainty surrounding indoor dining, Robinson notes that she would not have gone back to the original formula but would have launched a smaller menu and made other service tweaks.

Still, Gallina understands the responsibility that comes with taking over such a beloved institution and is mindful of the place the restaurant and bar holds in people's hearts. She and Michael plan on doing everything they can to pay homage to that.

"Bar Les Frères is such a special place; I loved it and so many people in St. Louis have a warm spot for it," Gallina says. "We feel like we are taking the torch and moving it forward by bringing it back to life. It's a little exciting and hugely intimidating, and it's definitely a delicate balance."

Gallina insists that she and Michael have every intention of honoring the spirit of Bar Les Frères and plan on keeping it a "sexy" spot where guests can come in for a cocktail or glass of wine either after work, pre-dinner or for a nightcap. She teases a great happy hour and notes that the drink menu will be wine-focused. Food will consist of small plates that people can either casually nosh on or make into a meal by ordering multiple rounds. Though the menu is not finalized, she says their ideas so far have included pates, salads, cheeses and oysters. 

As for the spot's unique aesthetic, Gallina says that the space will "look a little different" but will still capture its essence as a special place.

"We're trying to incorporate some warm, cozy fabrics and materials that make you feel like you are someplace special and not just at a corner bar," Gallina says. "It's a place that you are going to go to feel good about yourself."

Gallina notes that one of the main drivers of this latest move — and one that has animated much of what she and Michael have been doing over the last few years — is to create new opportunities for their staff. She explains that the growth their company, Take Root Hospitality, is experiencing is not the result of some master plan but has much to do with the people they have working for them. She and Michael are committed to finding new ways for their staff to use their talents and skills so that they can retain their them while giving them new opportunities to grow.

Aside from their obvious talent, this commitment to their employees is what struck Robinson most about the Gallinas and is how she knew her restaurant was going to be in good hands. Gallina does not take this trust — nor the trust of her future diners — lightly.

"Thinking back five years ago, I didn't know what I was doing, at least from a business aspect, but we got there," Gallina says. "I'm still learning every single day, but I am hopeful that people will give us an opportunity to grow back into their hearts. It may take a visit or two to get re-acclimated, but our goals at the end of the day are the same. It might look and taste a little different, but hopefully people will feel the same way about it."

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