“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.” – T.S. Eliot
The restaurant business, with thin margins and a host of challenges, is known for notoriously high rates of failure. For a restaurant to establish itself both as a pillar of the neighborhood and esteemed foodie favorite, it defies all but the longest of odds. Herbie’s Vintage ‘72 managed to do just that in the Central West End from 2008 through 2016.
Restaurants have life spans. Success in the restaurant business doesn’t last forever, but Herbie’s Vintage ’72 was still in the prime of its life in 2016. The relatively easy path for owner Aaron Tietelbaum would have been to ride the wave of success in the Central West End for another decade or two. Instead, he chose to move Herbie’s west to Clayton, step into the footsteps of a local favorite (Cardwell’s) and place everything built over the last eight years on the line. It appears Tietelbaum made the right call.
To be sure, Herbie’s reputation preceded its move from the City to the County. The new restaurant, with one of the hottest bars in town, didn’t materialize from scratch. Speaking to the remodeling phase, General Manager Shae Behymer says, “We would have people coming by two or three times a week just to see when we were going to be open.”
More than mere curiosity, though, the booming start is attributable to the same elements that made Herbie’s Vintage ’72 great. “I think the most important thing in the restaurant business,” says Tietelbaum, “is to present something that is understandable to the guest.” Once the novelty of the new wears off, consistency in vision and execution are the building blocks of continued success.
Tietelbaum also believes strongly in the importance of integrating into the community. Many of the organizations supported by the Herbie’s team provide education, services and care to children including the Feast for a Knight event, which supports Loyola Academy. “We bring four chefs together from around the city and prepare a four course dinner that is served in the gymnasium at Loyola,” says Tietelbaum. “It is 300 guests each year and we raise about $150,000 for the school.”
Within the broader vision of the Herbie’s dining experience that includes service, customer experience and community involvement, Executive Chef Chris Vomund equates the drive to have a healthy, productive life with his work in the kitchen. “I want to make something better every day,” Vomund says of his personal life, “and you carry that into the restaurant world.”
We may see Herbie’s fully realize its new vision this spring. “Making the transition, we wanted to ease into some of the changes and really get the vibe from Clayton before we decided what new things we wanted to do,” continues Vomund. “I think the spring menu will be the opportunity to strut our stuff, so to speak, with some new dishes, new flavors and really starting to have a lot of fun now that we have an idea of what our clientele wants.”
Expect some changes, but the menu isn’t going to be turned upside down. The duck confit tacos with cashew satay and pepper jam make the weekday lunch more of an event than quick bite between meetings. Dinner options include familiar favorites such as the grilled pork chop with bourbon demi-glace and seared Dover Sole topped with the timeless combination of brown butter and lemon. The brunch offering of French Toast honors the French tradition of pain perdu (literally “lost bread”).
From the creation of new businesses to marriage proposals, few momentous things happen in life without risk. As Mark Zuckerberg says, “The biggest risk is not taking any risk…In a world that’s changing really quickly, the only strategy that is guaranteed to fail is not taking risks.” Vision, risk taking and entrepreneurship helped make St. Louis prosperous, and hungry patrons of Clayton can be glad Tietelbaum wasn’t willing to settle for good. He pushed to create something great and he’s done that with the new Herbie’s.
Written by Johnny Fugitt, author of The 100 Best Barbecue Restaurants in America.
Photography by Carmen Troesser