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Some restaurants have character. Others have characters. Off the Eaten Path has both.

On the first count, you have to admire any sit-down restaurant that can offer chili mac and actually pull it off. On the second, although servers should generally be seen and not heard, we couldn't help but giggle when, on seeing our crestfallen faces at the lack of decaf cappuccino, our waitress replied with an earnest "I feel your pain."

Off the Eaten Path recently took over the old Black Tie Gourmet space at the corner of Jackson and Pershing, and its name is appropriate, given that it's located at the only commercial intersection for blocks in what is primarily an upscale, vintage-'20s-and-'30s residential neighborhood. The place is run by Paul Bandera, the longtime local restaurateur who has specialized in slightly quirky but definitively affordable spots like the eponymous Bandera's, now gone for more than a decade from the Rock Hill strip mall that also housed the original location of the Cheese Place; and the Breakaway Cafe, which revitalized the UM-St. Louis-neighborhood restaurant space that was the genesis of Riddle's.

I'd guess Off the Eaten Path seats 50 or 60, and it filled up quickly on the evening we visited, hosting everything from a couple of middle-aged women discussing a novel, to a big table of two or three families with five or six young kids, to the two of us. It's a comfortable, eclectic, funky little space, with mirrored columns, hanging bare-bulb lighting and an oddly angled wine rack behind the bar, and the menu reinforces this feel with ultimate comfort foods like the chili mac, a '70s-throwback selection of stir-fries, and several mainstream choices -- with everything under 10 bucks.

Because pizza is one of the restaurant's specialties, we started out by splitting a 9-inch appetizer-sized garlic pizza ($6.85), which arrived on a cracker crust with mellowed, finely chopped garlic balanced wonderfully by the herby sweetness of basil and a tangible but not overwhelming coating of sun-dried tomato.

One of our entrees was, of course, the chili mac ($7.15), a large serving of thin spaghetti sauced with a lightly spiced beanless chili sprinkled with chopped fresh scallions. It was filling and fun, providing the same kind of satisfaction that macaroni-and-cheese did when it first started reappearing on menus during the mid-'80s.

For our other entree, we chose the shrimp stir-fry ($7.95), which brought back strong and pleasant memories of the old Webster Grill, both for the general atmosphere of the restaurant and thestir-fry itself. A dozen-or-so bay- andmedium-sized shrimp were mixed in with cooked fresh green beans, zucchini, carrot, broccoli, mushroom and red bell pepper over a not-too-large portion of very plump rice, all flavored gently with a slightly sweet teriyaki sauce and a sprinkling of sunflower seeds.

Our waitress told us that desserts are made on the premises, and we were impressed by both of our selections: the tartufo, a chocolate-and-lime ice-cream concoction coated in hard chocolate that was in turn sprinkled with cocoa and surrounded by whipped cream; and the "angel wing," which turned out to be something of a cheesecake Fudgesicle, Popsicle stick and all.

There are about 18 red and white wines each and five sparkling selections, mainly in the under-$25 range, along with 20 beers. Service was lightning-quick, with every course coming out within a few minutes of the order, and the entrees were served with almost military precision by three coordinated servers.

Diverse and a little off-center, like U. City itself, this new restaurant is certain to divert many diners Off the Eaten Path.

TIDBITS: Now open in the old Dierdorf & Hart's space in Union Station is Bacchus Brewing, a soon-to-be-working microbrewery (it takes a few weeks to brew good beer) run by the folks behind European Caffe in U. City. The malt and hops are still fermenting, but the restaurant part is already open. Also downtown, the venerable old Pit of the 7th Olive space (in the basement of the building at 7th and Olive) has a sign out heralding the arrival of Sen, a new Thai restaurant.

7401 Pershing

Hours: 11 a.m. - 3 p.m. Mon., 11 a.m. - 9:30 p.m. Tues.-Thurs., 11 a.m.- 10:30 p.m. Fri., 4-10:30 p.m. Sat.

Pastas, $6.95-$9.50; pizza, $5.50-$9.95; sandwiches, $5.05-$6.95

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More by Joe Bonwich

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