ST. LOUIS — No matter where you went to high school (even if it was east of the Mississippi), after one visit to Eric Brenner's latest restaurant, "You're an alumni."
The 44-year-old chef and entrepreneur grins as he says this. But he means it. The restaurant is called Alumni Saint Louis, implying nostalgia for the city. And the menu includes longtime local favorites, such as Famous-Barr French Onion Soup, the Mayfair Salad and toasted ravs.
"At first, we were trying to find every St. Louis (recipe) and put it on the menu," Eric said. Instead, he and his staff chose a handful of time-honored dishes, putting them alongside "what's happening today. So the new is healthier, lighter, with seafood, vegetables." Plus, gulten-free, dairy-free and "allergy-friendly" dishes are offered.
Eric, who grew up in Dutchtown (the south part of the city), says he didn't want to overdo the coming-home theme, so he mixed subtle -- the menus are held in diploma folders and there's St. Louis trivia cards on the tables -- with more obvious decorations: photo collages of famous St. Louisans lining the upper walls.
Patrons can't help looking up and trying to figure out who's who.
"We've got a list at the bar if you can't figure out who everyone is," says Eric.
Alumni, North 13th and Pine, has Market Street, lots of green space and Central Library in sight from the tall corner windows. The restaurant is on the ground floor of the Art-Deco Park Pacific building, both owned by the Lawrence Group. The upper floors are now an apartment complex and home to KMOX Radio.
The restaurant opened last April, said Eric, executive chef and general manager. Pizza dough is St. Louis-style "super thin." Desserts such as Blueberry Gooey Butter Cake and 7-Up Cake ($5) are made in-house, and local food purveyors get priority.
The lunch and dinner menu is not huge, so Eric can offer change-ups as seasons come and go, or as the urge strikes him.
Famous-Barr's famous soup is $3.75 for a cup, $5.25 a bowl. Alumni Toasted Ravioli appetizer is filled with salsiccia sausage, veal, beef and cheese and served with tomato sauce for $8.95. The Mayfair Salad is mixed greens with fresh corn relish, bacon, avocado and the classic anchovy-based dressing ($7.25). Make it a large salad for lunch or dinner for $2; add a chicken breast for $2.95 or salmon for $5.95. Four other salads are on the menu, including "The Hill" house side salad ($5.75), which Eric says he eats almost every day.
Build your own pizza, starting at $11.95. Burgers (with side for $9.50) are made "Steak N Shake-style," said Eric, so they're "smashed, seared and double patties."
Fish tacos -- chipotle and maple-glazed salmon -- ($12.95 with a side) are a big seller, as is the Cauliflower Mac & Cheese ($10.95), made with fresh pasta, pancetta, roasted cauliflower, Cheddar cheese and bread crumbs, in a four-cheese sauce.
Seven dinner entrees include sauteed grouper ($19.95) and Steak "Spediga" ($18.95), a mash-up of the Italian steak specials Spedini and Steak Mudiga, the menu says.
Seated at a sleek, dark wood table, Ellen and Fran Dreisler, of St. Louis, ate a late lunch of french onion soup and shared a large Harvest Salad of romaine, spinach, butternut squash, almonds, dried cranberries, pumpkin seeds and feta with poppyseed dressing ($8.75). The sisters admired the decor.
"It feels very streamlined but very comfortable, too," said Ellen, 47.
Alumni mixes sleek, mid-century furniture from Niche in St. Louis with museum-quality (Charles) Eames chairs and other pieces. The walls are a rich chocolate with umber-colored support columns and tweedy carpet.
"The 'A' in Alumni comes off an Eames chair," Eric noted, pointing to the triangular-shaped metal legs. Besides the bar area and two dining areas, the restaurant offers a private party room and a more intimate cocktail room.
Eric says he sees a fair number of "618" area codes on his reservations list, so he knows diners are coming from Illinois. Not to worry about city parking, he said. There is free off-street parking (up to two hours) when you drink and/or dine at the restaurant. Plus, it's $1 an hour after that and the meters out front are free after 7 p.m.
Plans include a shuttle to and from Busch Stadium this summer, plus it's a short walk to the Peabody Opera House and the Scottrade Center.
Alumni Saint Louis
What: Serves lunch and dinner with full bar, as well as private dining area and cocktail space
Where: 200 N. 13th St. (at Pine), St. Louis. On the ground floor of the Park Pacific Building.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays to Thursdays; to 11 p.m. Fridays; 5 to 11 p.m. Saturdays. Closed Sundays.
Information: 314-241-5888 and www.alumnistl.com