Souvenir of Zoe Café – Jewish Light of Saint-Louis

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Have you ever wondered what happened to that restaurant you once loved and where you have memories of dining with your family and friends? We were doing! There is an amazing site called Lost tables, dedicated to celebrating the restaurants of our past. We partner with site creator Harley Hammerman and celebrate these wonderful stories. Hammerman and his wife Marlene are members of Shaare Emeth, and she is the past president of the National Council of Jewish Women of St. Louis. Visit Lost Tables on Facebook


Zoe Houk grew up in Crestwood with two older sisters – Belinda, who would become an artist, and Carrie, who would become a producer and casting agent. Her mother, Billie, credited her husband, Jean, with the talents inherent in their daughters.

Houk’s father died of cancer when she was a young girl.

Houk’s mother urged her daughters to “keep up” and not rely on marriage for a living. After graduating from Lindbergh High School, Houk attended community colleges in Meramec and Forest Park. When asked what she was studying at school, she replied, “Nothing. I will make my mother happy.

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Houk’s first job as a waitress at the age of 18 was at The Loft in West County. From The Loft, she went to H. Brown’s, a bar in the Central West End, as a waitress and underage bartender, with her sister, Belinda. Caleco’s and The Ladle followed, and at each restaurant she learned a little more about the business. In 1981, Houk moved again to the Empire Café on Lafayette Square.

From the end of the 1960s, a restoration movement took root in the Lafayette Square district. Many young couples have settled in the neighborhood, buying old houses and renovating them. In 1972, Place Lafayette was declared a historic district by the city.

In May 1980, Jill Mead and Susan Vaughn opened the Empire Cafe and Charcuterie at 1923 Park Avenue. Mead was in charge of the kitchen and Vaughn ran the business.

The Empire menu included soups, salads and sandwiches. The most popular item was the chicken salad. “We are gaining 550 pounds a week and we’re running out of it,” Mead said.

The creamy white meat chicken salad was so popular that it was available to take out at Ladue and Wydown markets.

Zoe Houk had been serving tables at the Empire Cafe for about a year when she was assigned to manage Empire’s new business, the Shell Empire Cafe, which opened in August 1982 in the renovated Shell building in 13th and Locust.

However, not everything was going well at the Empire, as Mead and Vaughn clashed over how to run the business. Vaughn was forced to retire from the company in January 1982, filing a lawsuit against Mead a year later. The turmoil led to the closure of the Lafayette Square restaurant in December 1982, shocking the Empire’s enthusiastic clientele.

Zoe Houk, who still ran the Empire restaurant in the Shell building, was in the right place at the right time.

It was a fluke. I worked for these two women and they were very successful. They hated each other and ended up chasing each other. And the restaurant closed.

It was just when Lafayette Square was just starting out and they really needed that restaurant there. It helped build their community. John Ferring owned the building and told me he would lend me the money to take it back. I think it was $ 18,000, but I felt like it was a million.

So it just worked. I was 23 years old.

In February 1983, Houk and his partner Steve Robinson took over the Lafayette Square space. Houk had met Robinson a few years earlier when the two were working at Caleco.

“We had to quit our jobs to work there,” Houk said, “so we practically had to live there. “

Café Zoé opened its doors on June 1, 1983, four months later.
While the cafe was essentially the place Jill Mead and Susan Vaughn had built, Houk and Robinson managed to make the restaurant their own. An exciting and attractive dining space from Empire times, the cafe has become more stylish and less cute, losing its picture window.

They kept the walls pristine white and invited local artists to hang their works in the lighted display case. The light from the large storefront windows played on the grays, coals and off-whites of the interior. Seating was available in two large rooms.

While the cafe was essentially the place Jill Mead and Susan Vaughn had built, Houk and Robinson managed to make the restaurant their own. An exciting and attractive dining space from Empire times, the cafe has become more stylish and less cute, losing its picture window.

They kept the walls pristine white and invited local artists to hang their works in the lighted display cabinet. The light from the large storefront windows played on the grays, coals and off-whites of the interior. Seating was available in two large rooms.

However, not everything was perfect at the start. Within a week of opening, Houk fired both his chef and his catering consultant.

“We were too scared to make all the decisions ourselves, and probably scared to trust our instincts, but we realized right away that was not going to work. The menu was not correct and the chef liked dishes prepared with sauces. We wanted to keep things simple.

And I’m going to tell you that if the chef and the consultant had stayed, we wouldn’t have made it. Our concepts were totally different.

Houk hired new cooks and redesigned the menu. One of these cooks was Ny Vongsaly who had worked with her at the Empire Café.

“He swam across the Mekong with people shooting him to escape to Thailand,” Houk said of Vongsaly’s heartbreaking 1979 trip out of war-torn Laos.

Although he never had any professional training as a chef, Vongsaly learned about food by observing his mother and sisters. He assimilated their traditional Laotian techniques and recipes well enough to impress Houk and his other colleagues when they worked together at the Empire Cafe.

“Zoe would say, ‘Hey, this is what I want – great salty and spicy flavors,'” Vongsaly said, recalling how he would bring traditional Laotian dishes for his colleagues. “They would all say they wanted more for lunch.”

After a few months at Café Zoe, Vongsaly became the restaurant’s executive chef, creating a menu of dishes influenced by the food he grew up in Laos, as well as what he concocted while experimenting at home.

Vongsaly will eventually leave Café Zoe for Modesto, California, but will reconnect with Houk in 1998 as part of a lasting partnership that will lead him to James Beard’s semi-finalist status.

“Ny Vongsaly and I are like brother and sister,” Houk said, “except we’re not fighting. We can complete each other’s sentences. We work together on the menus, but he takes care of all the execution. We both have a pretty good sense of humor so it’s great fun and we can eat! He is a wonderful leader and person. I couldn’t be luckier to work with him.

Café Zoe’s menu has grown, including Houk’s longtime dream, Oriental Chicken Salad, and the dishes have become more filling. Most of the changes were aimed at attracting new customers, men in general and business people in particular. Like the Empire Café, the restaurant had a reputation for being the kingdom of chicken salad and the mecca for lunching ladies. Houk began to attract a larger clientele.

Lunch was served Monday through Saturday. The lunch menu included a soup of the day, two or three starters, five salads, and seven starters, some of which were sandwiches.

The Chicken salad, which made the reputation of the Empire Café, remained on the menu. Whether it’s ordered as a sandwich with homemade white bread or on its own over lettuce, it has set the standard for chicken salad in town.

Dinner was served only on Friday and Saturday evenings. Starters included grilled chicken sprinkled with rosemary and lemon juice, baked Cornish chicken with apricot brandy sauce, chilled grilled beef tenderloin with mustard sauce, shrimp sautéed in a pesto sauce and a fillet of grilled salmon in citrus butter. Salads, sandwiches and appetizers were taken from the lunch menu.

Special dishes came and went and then came back, if they were favorites. One that popped up periodically was asparagus wrapped in prosciutto and served with a dressing.

Click here to read the whole story of Cafe Zoe’s story on LostTable.com

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