Brian Walsh stands in the middle of Circa STL's dining room like a curator surveying his prized acquisitions. "I'm a preservationist, not a hoarder," he insists as his gaze lands upon a reclaimed bar that's been turned into a display case. Inside are several hundred beer glasses that blend together to the untrained eye. To Walsh, however, each piece of barware represents a unique window into St. Louis — a Falstaff mug here, a Lemp pint glass there — that, given the chance, is waiting to tell the city's history.
Walsh's interest in collecting began when he was a kid, bumming around with his mother in antique shops. The antithesis of famed de-clutterer Marie Kondo, the St. Ann native was always one to hang on to things. From his First Communion program to his second-grade report card, his interest in retaining his personal effects morphed into an obsession with all things St. Louis when he acquired an old Cardinals "angry bird" scorecard from the year of his birth. From there, he began adding a little bit here and there to his stockpile until one day he looked at his loot and realized he was onto something.
A pipe coverer and insulator by trade, Walsh dabbled in the antique business with a storefront in Florissant, but his real dream has always been to open a small, St. Louis-themed bar and grill. Originally, he envisioned the concept as the centerpiece of an antique mall, but later abandoned that in favor of a standalone restaurant. He searched all over town for the right place before settling on Circa STL's location in Des Peres, a space that was formerly Rib City, Rick's Café American and Zydeco Blues.
Walsh had wanted a historic spot with exposed brick and tin ceilings, but when he laid his eyes upon the former tenant's handsome mahogany bar, which used to belong to the Lemp Brewing Company and dated back to the 1880s, he knew he'd found Circa STL's home. With that component as his anchor, he got to work turning the large strip mall space into a virtual museum of St. Louis culture.
If his is not the largest collection of STL-centric memorabilia in town, it's certainly a contender. Every inch of the restaurant drips with St. Louis history, from Walsh's unparalleled vintage beer glass collection to posters to St. Louis-made Koken barber chairs to seats from sports stadiums past. Though structurally the room looks like any other basic bar and grill in town, his artifacts give an otherwise generic room in a west county strip mall the air of one of the city's classic old-fashioned dive bars.
Walsh admits he is an inexperienced restaurateur, but he was able to draw upon his knowledge of local history to come up with the outline of a menu and tasked executive chef Melissa Molden with filling in the details. The result is an at times shockingly affordable (we're talking $13 steaks) menu that reads like a "greatest hits" roundup of St. Louis cuisine.
Not every piece of the city's culinary history deserves resuscitation, of course. (I'd argue we're in our golden age right now — and that much of what we ate decades ago was in desperate need of fresh ingredients.) But some of the offerings here provide the sort of approachable comfort that has the power to charm.
The nostalgic, straightforward fare is most successful as appetizers. Large, hollowed-out mushrooms caps are stuffed with house-ground sausage, jalapeños, spinach and cheese reminiscent of the sort of starter you'd find at a family Italian restaurant on the Hill. It's not revolutionary, but the mushroom was well-cooked and the filling appropriately oozy.
Spinach-artichoke dip is another solid starter. Akin to creamed spinach, the delicate concoction has a lighter consistency than other examples of the form, allowing the vegetables to take center stage. It's presented inside two towers of onion rings, which seems odd at first but turns out to be a pleasant pairing for this bar staple. You'd think the dip would seep between the layers of rings, yet it doesn't, and when you've had enough of accompanying tri-colored tortilla chips, the rings provide a nice alternative.
Toasted ravioli is Circa STL's culinary claim to fame. If there's a larger version in town, I haven't seen it, with mammoth squares that measure roughly four inches across. But size is not all that matters. Made from wonton skins instead of the classic dough, the raviolis crisp up like a thin potato chip. Unlike the pasty meat goo that is passed off in most versions, Circa STL's raviolis are stuffed with a blend of house-ground sausage and beef that (gasp) retains a juicy, crumbly texture. Rustic spiced marinara is more tapenade than dipping sauce, making it so each bite contains a generous hunk of tomato. Forget the décor; these alone are worth a visit.
There are other successes as well. For anyone who has not experienced the glory of a Gerber sandwich, Circa's "Loaded Garlic Bread" is a must-try. Garlic butter-soaked French bread blanketed in shaved ham and molten Provel is open-faced perfection. The salty jus from the ham mingles with the butter and cheese to form a layer that makes it hard to tell where the bread ends and the goo begins.
The burger, a no-frills yet solid pub offering, shows that the kitchen can hit a temperature, while St. Louis-style pizza, inspired by the old Luigi's restaurants, ticks the right boxes — cheese that sticks to the roof of the mouth, sweet sauce, cracker crust. If you're a native St. Louisan whose experience with the city's contribution to the national pizza conversation comes from the rectangular pans served in north county, you'll be satisfied.
Circa STL misses on several occasions, however. The "Famous Barr French onion soup" is thin and lacks flavor. Walsh admits he and his team have tweaked the recipe in response to customer feedback, but it's still not there. Meanwhile, the pan-seared cod is tasteless and overcooked to the point of shredding apart. Lemon-spiked aioli, though enjoyable, wasn't enough to enhance the lackluster fish.
"Chicken Modiga" features a breadcrumb-dusted plum chicken breast that would have been a decent enough dish, were it not covered in a sticky and bland mushroom cream sauce. The "St. Louis Pork Steak Dinner" might evoke thoughts of a backyard barbecue, but instead of a tender, Maull's-covered hunk of meat, it's shredded and sparsely drizzled with generic barbecue sauce. As a pulled pork sandwich, it would be fine, but it is a far cry from the staple of St. Louis grilling culture.
A St. Louis-themed meal cannot be complete without a slice of gooey butter cake, and Circa STL's does not disappoint. The inch-thick square slice is equal parts buttery yellow cake and gooey topping. I ordered mine to go and was happy that they did not include the vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce that were supposed to garnish it. The cake was good enough to stand on its own.
Likewise, Walsh's collection of artifacts is good enough to stand as a small museum, independent of any food concept. However, talking to him, his earnest passion for every aspect of St. Louis, including its food, is infectious.
And judging from the many diners I witnessed giddily reveling in the chance to be a tourist in their own town, well, they seemed more than happy to nosh on gooey butter cake after taking pictures with a life-sized Tommy Herr cutout. We're a proud group, we St. Louisans, and Brian Walsh has given us a place to celebrate our shared culinary history — good, bad, deep-fried or toasted.
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