Eat In, Carry Out

Even as the new Courtesy Diner welcomes its very first customers, Irv's Grill slings its last hash after a 50-year run

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Irv's Grill
By Wm. Stage

The strange thing about Irv's Grill -- one of them, anyway -- is how it is not situated east-west or north-south at the busy intersection of Vandeventer and Shaw but, rather, sits at a diagonal, the big plate-glass windows facing southeast so that the morning sun warms the place up all nice and toasty. They're taking it off in there as daylight burns, so that in winter the coat rack fairly blooms with jackets and scarves and caps. Besides the coat rack, the grill has few amenities -- a pay phone, a stack of daily papers for sale, a cigarette machine and a jukebox that'll get you "Honky Tonk Attitude" by Joe Diffie or some Conway Twitty for two measly bits. The jukebox picks are Ernest's. Ernest Pruett. Call him Ernie. Ernie hails from Arkansas, and he likes his music country. He'd like you to like it too, at least while you're in his place sopping up the egg yolk with your toast.

Ernie must be one of the good guys, because he's dressed all in white -- white pants, white shirt, the white paper fountain cap with a blue stripe in it. That's the getup each and every day with Ernie, chief cook and bottle-washer of this old diner -- some would call it a greasy spoon -- coming in around 5, cooking for the breakfast crowd, chatting with the regulars, going home around 3, having filled the grumbling bellies of the hungry, the lonely, the busy, the bored.

There are 17 counter stools and six tables at Irv's. The surfaces of all available eating spots are polished by a million elbows. A sign up over the counter says, "Ice Water to Go -- 35 and 40 Cents." You wonder about the nickel difference. People have carved their initials in the wooden pie case, at this moment holding four slices of peach pie on plates wrapped in cellophane. A middle-aged, well-fed-looking couple walk in, sit themselves down. Roberta goes over to take their order. "Two over with toast," she calls to Ernie at the grill. "And two up with hash browns." Roberta Limbocker -- call her Bert -- has been a mainstay at Irv's for 28 years, a good long spell, true, though if you want to talk longevity, time spent behind the counter, Ernie's got 11 years on her. Bert and Ernie are a team, an egg-frying, coffee-pouring, hash-slinging, register-ringing team, and though they may not be as cute and lovable as the Sesame Street Muppets of the same names, they are indeed characters, as seasoned in their own way as the grill at Irv's.

A storm last year blew off the faded panel sign above the door that read, "Irv's Good Food," and now it's gone, giving the place an incomplete look, like a missing front tooth. Because of that sign, people still call the place Irv's Good Food, but in the phone book it's Irv's Grill. Irv was Irv Marchbanks, who opened the diner in 1949. Back then all these little food stands -- A&W, Steak 'n Shake, Courtesy Drive-In -- had curb service, and Irv's was no exception. Irv kept a gaggle of teenage girls employed until 1958, when he decided to cut his losses. Ernie came on in 1960 -- too late, to his regret, to partake in the curb-service era. "Irv," says Ernie, "told me he paid them a dollar a day, but he always said it was too much trouble taking care of them little girls. Look out the window and half of them'd be gone, he said. Got in a car and drove off with the customers."

Ernie started as a dishwasher at Irv's and gradually took on more responsibility until Irv, readying to retire, sold the place to Ernie in 1977. The business, not the property -- that's right, Irv's has leased its location all these years, and now the shoe is about to drop.

The lease is up at the end of February, never to be renewed. It's not a punitive thing -- Ernie's been a responsible tenant -- it's just the way life goes. See, the Missouri Botanical Garden just up the street plans to turn it into a parking lot. That's their prerogative; they bought the property in 1996. As many are aware, the Garden has been expanding its operations for several years now. Last year saw the Monsanto Center, a capacious state-of-the-art research facility, open its doors across the street from Irv's. And though the Garden is seen by some as a creeper vine, spreading its tendrils all over this portion of the Shaw neighborhood, sapping the life out of small businesses like Irv's, others try to see sunshine in the forecast. Willie James has a shoe-shine-and-repair shop on Castleman Avenue, catty-corner from Irv's Grill. "The Garden expansion kind of helped the neighborhood in a way," he says, buffing a black wingtip to a high shine. "They got these security guys riding around now."

Maybe it's for the better. After all, business had fallen off in the last decade or so. Back when Irv opened the place, the area was solidly working-class. Within three or four blocks you had R-F Spaghetti, Banner Iron, Carondelet Foundry, Westinghouse and Foster Bros., a maker of hospital beds. They've all since gone out of business or moved to other locations, taking Irv's customer base with them. All those appetites that once spent themselves at Irv's had to find another place to get their bacon and eggs, their hash browns and joe. But the place has always had the benefit of being near the interstate, I-44, and now there's that new exit ramp at Vandeventer -- why, you'd think business'd pick up a bit. Maybe it has, but what does it matter now?

It's startling to imagine that a place that has been open around the clock, closing just one day a year -- Christmas Day -- could be shuttered forever. Ernie himself is not bitter over the looming finality of it all. Resigned, maybe, but not bitter. "I tried to buy the property years ago," he says with a shrug, "but I couldn't borrow the money. But as far as the lease not being renewed? That's progress; what can I say? Except that Shaw's Garden ain't mistreated me. They ain't done nothing to me either way. I wouldn't know 'em if they walked in here."

What will he do when the place closes? "I'm getting too old to do anything," he replies, flipping a pancake. Is he kidding? Hard to know, but at age 76 Ernie still puts in 10 hours a day, seven days a week. Probably what he means is it's too late in life to switch horses, work somewhere else, take orders from some kid just out of college. That sort of thing.

Eggs -- up, easy, scrambled, runny -- are the most popular thing on the menu, and 60 dozen of them are delivered fresh weekly by a driver from the Germantown Egg Co. in Germantown, Ill. But at night the most popular item, hands down, is the Nightmare: two fried eggs with potatoes covered with chili for $3.35. The Nightmare is more than a menu item. It is a legend, an antacid-defying entity, a fortification against colds, croup, ague and menstrual cramps.

Former neighborhood resident and filmmaker Michael Steinberg (Amateur Hour) recalls a pivotal incident involving this zesty dish: "One night, in the middle of writing a script, I was completely blocked, so I went to Irv's. You know they lock the doors at night? Always the sign of a good restaurant. So, with Patsy Cline on the jukebox, I sat at the counter and ordered a Nightmare. The counter lady, very motherly, told me there were salmon in the Mississippi. Her last husband, who fished the river, said the salmon weren't safe to eat, but she disagreed: 'Those fish're safer than a chicken you'd pick up off a shelf.' Inspired, I went home, finished my script and salted it with parts of the dialogue at Irv's."

It's true -- they do lock the doors at night, but they always know to open them when the college crowd shows up, like clockwork, soon after the bars empty out. At least two generations of former collegians can reminisce about late-night drunken sojourns to Irv's for real food. A short stack would never do. Biscuits and gravy? A close second, maybe, but the Nightmare was the thing. Hot and quick with just the right amount of greezy -- the perfect end to an evening of reckless drinking. "I heard that was the initiation at one of the fraternities," says Julie, a five-year employee at the grill. "They had to get a Nightmare at Irv's. Bet you St. Louis U. got more of our stuff than we got here," she adds. "Plates, salt and pepper shakers, whatever they can get their hands on, to show they've been to Irv's."

Hank is on the jukebox singing "Your Cheatin' Heart" when a semi driver walks in with a city street guide and asks for directions to 500 S. Spring St. -- some factory, he says -- and three customers get into a heated discussion on the best way to get him there. What are these lost truck drivers going to do when they bulldoze Irv's to the pavement and turn it into a parking lot? Approach the attendant in his island-booth, ask "Hey, how do I get to Villa Lighting?" And he'll reply, "Heck if I know -- I'm not from around here." n

By Thomas Crone

In its first week of business, the Courtesy Diner had already become a beacon for the hungry and the curious, its location on Hampton Avenue a prime draw for a quick-to-grow clientele.

The Sunday after its Tuesday-morning debut, owner Larry Rugg was drifting up and down the line, pausing to refill water glasses and taking time to pull out a broom and ash pail for a walk-through of his newest business. Despite his temperament, which you could safely call even, Rugg displays signs of having weathered a busy first week.

"We were pretty well buried the first few days," Rugg says. "That's not too atypical for a new place. We're getting used to things, but we were swamped the first couple. I've been here practically since we opened. I guess it'll be that way for a few weeks."

In fact, the action at the new, 46-seat Courtesy started long before the doors were first unlocked at 6 a.m. Feb. 2. Workers were constantly shooing folks away from the big windows lining the brand-new structure. Cook Peter Neukirch says, with perhaps a hint of exaggeration, "Close to 1,000 people came by to see if it was open. There was a definite anticipation."

Rugg says that the building looked pretty good early on but that the electricity wasn't even turned on until 10 days before the diner's opening. "We had 'em fooled with the outside," he says.

And that shiny new exterior is found in a pretty sweet spot for this kind of operation.

From the sidewalk out front, you can easily see interstates 64 and 44. Really, they're within walking distance. Several service organizations have headquarters nearby. Add in the Deaconess Hospital population, and students and staff from the nearby Forest Park campus of St. Louis Community College, and the demographics look mighty good.

"Everything," Rugg says, when asked what drew him to the spot, which was last home to a gas station. "There's a good traffic count -- just the activity of having the college, the zoo, the hospital. There's so much going on around here."

Rugg knows restaurants: He owns not only the new Courtesy but the Courtesy Drive-In on Kingshighway; the O.T. Hodge Chile Parlor at Union Station; Country Fixins in Wentzville; and five Hen House sites in Illinois. The opening of the new Courtesy, though, may have been the fastest start-up he's had.

The reasons for the speed include not only the diner's nice location but a sense of nostalgia. If a diner-building boom starts, the new Courtesy is the precursor. "There's really been nobody doing small diners anymore," Rugg says. "The Courtesy chain had up to 30 locations, from what I've heard. Kingshighway is the last one. O.T. Hodge had about 30, and now it's down to four. To my knowledge, no one's built a new one in about 20 years. And I don't know why."

Surely each of the diners that remain scattered around the region has its own following. People from the neighborhood. Local merchants and workers. Drunks out for one last stop before heading home in the dead of night.

Yes, it's true. Diners do draw a certain kind of person after the midnight hour. But to this point, the Courtesy hasn't been able to satisfy that basic diner need. Soon, though, soon. Asked when the overnight kitchen staff will be in place, Rugg says, "About eight weeks."

Is it harder to find people who can deal with demanding customers at that late hour? "There's nothing different about the people," he says. "The third shift is just the hardest to staff. It's hard to find people who want to work all night."

But the business will be there. Even nearby restaurants give the Courtesy a nice niche. On the block, Schmiezing's closes at 3 a.m.; Denny's has stopped its all-night hours, with a 2 a.m. kitchen close; and Steak 'n Shake stops seating before 2, with a 4 o'clock drive-thru stoppage.

Neukirch says the kitchen line stayed on the clock till 1:15 a.m. last Saturday "and even then we turned 40 people away." Saturday night, the doors were locked at 10 p.m. but a half-dozen people tried to get in through the side door or through simple coercion, their hands turned up in that "I need food now" way.

Early on, Rugg figured that the diner's hamburgers, breakfasts and slingers were the top items, with a healthy carryout business at lunch in addition to sit-down dining. Those slingers, though, now that's late-night fare. Even for folks who eat a variety of meats, the combination can intimidate.

Neukirch can explain the difference in each diner's approach to the slinger, with his own going something like this: "Hash browns, eggs, hamburger, chili, cheese. Some people want sausage or bacon, too." Priced at a mere $4.95.

The rest of the menu features just what you'd expect. Cereals like Froot Loops. Pancakes. Grilled cheese sandwiches. Slices of pie. Chili, straight from O.T. Hodge. Ordering every item on the menu (and it's only a matter of time before a rich kid pulls this stunt after prom) would set you back about $146.

The jukebox has a populist feel, too. Three visits over the first week yielded Will Smith's "Gettin' Jiggy Wit It" three times. On Saturday night, two 10-year-old boys worked the room, flitting around to 'N Sync, the Backstreet Boys and the Spice Girls. And on Sunday, Rugg played the national anthem of diners, Patsy Cline's "Crazy." (For the record, Neukirch has already tired of the Backstreet Boys. That fatigue might only get worse.)

Rugg was hoping to capture a mood that would welcome those scared by the slightly-too-down-home feel of some older diners while keeping the touches that make them unique. "The one on Kingshighway still does well, despite the age," he says. "I wanted to bring this one up to the year 2000, with the look of the classic diners."

That he achieved, quickly. Nice look, clean as a whistle.
In the city there are plenty of measuring sticks on how things have changed for the worse, how great old spots have disappeared. Hell, the Arena's right out the new diner's front window. But on opening day, the mood at lunch suggested that the Courtesy's debut was one of the best things to hit Midtown in a long time.

The counter was full. The tables were packed. Carryouts were flying out the door. Parking was spilling onto local side streets. And the patrons were a delightfully diverse bunch.

Just past noon, in strode Dan Potthast, a 26-year-old musician in orange polyester slacks and a lovely brown-shirt-and-spotted-tie ensemble. He quickly greeted a bunch of folks in the room and cracked, "It's like the place has been here 30 years. There's already regulars."

And it took less than seven hours.
A good omen for a great new addition to town.

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