As soon as I walked through the door, Saint Lou's Assembly felt familiar. I'd never been to a meat-and-three cafeteria, a once-beloved, now mostly extinct institution that offers a choice of entree and three sides for one low price. But there was something about the vinyl booths, Formica tables, and wood paneling, not to mention the candy counter and the bowling trophies, that made me feel like I'd seen them before. It looked like the kind of meat-and-potatoes joint my grandfather would've liked, right down to the toothpicks on the tables. Only at Pops's places, the booths were cracked and ripped and there was dust on the bowling trophies and maybe the candy counter too.
Saint Lou's is, in fact, intended as a tribute to managing partner Bruce Finkelman's own grandfather, a wholesaler who provided meat to many of the city's restaurants back in the 1940s and '50s and frequented the meat-and-three cafeterias that abounded in the meatpacking district in those days. The restaurant's matchboxes bear his story, in tough-guy prose poetry and minuscule print: "Lou smoked cigarettes, drove a Cadillac, had a foul mouth, loved Elvis, hated people from New York . . . He lived his life the way he pleased, was always fair with others, and to many close to him, Lou was a damn saint."
Originally, Saint Lou's Assembly was a cafeteria too, but less than a week before my first visit, Finkelman and chef Jared Wentworth had switched to more conventional table service. This is maybe not surprising. Even a saint like Lou would probably have balked at paying $18 for meat loaf that's been sitting out under a heat lamp. Could you blame him?
Unfortunately, the staff hadn't quite gotten the hang of the program by the time I visited. One night when the place was full, only one (very polite and competent) server was taking orders. Another night, when the place was empty, the staff seemed bewildered that anyone was there at all, and the server (a different server) slurred out the daily special, returned to the table on two separate occasions to inform us that the kitchen was out of the things we had ordered, and lackadaisically filled drink orders. (Though to his credit, when he got to around to it, he poured Diet Coke from a can with the care and precision of a bartender pulling a Guinness.) Both times, the dishes emerged from the kitchen sometimes slowly and sometimes all at once. An ordinary working man would be shit out of luck getting back to his place on the line before the whistle blew.
It's probably best, if you go to Saint Lou's Assembly, to think of it not as a true meat-and-three but rather as another member of Finkelman and Wentworth's 16" on Center family, which also includes Dusek's and Longman & Eagle: a modern restaurant in a nostalgic setting, attached to a very good cocktail bar, in this case, Moneygun. If Saint Lou's were a country, the meat loaf Wellington, enrobed in duxelles, pastry, and bordelaise sauce, would be its flag: a tribute to the Greatest Generation repackaged to appeal to the current crop of diners who are sentimental about their grandparents' strong work ethic and common sense but not their stringy meat and overcooked vegetables. (When there's a Depression to survive and a world war to win, who has time for duxelles?)
While I did enjoy most of my meat and some of my threes—especially the fried catfish that managed to be both crisp and flaky and the tender sweet-and-sour pork belly that melted in my mouth like pig candy—the very best things I ate at Saint Lou's came from the salads and appetizer menus, which didn't hold to the meat-and-three concept at all and instead skewed more southern. This may have had something to do with the fact that both times I visited, the temperature was above 90 degrees, better weather for eating watermelon salad than meat loaf Wellington. (I truly intended to order the meat loaf, but just the thought of it sat heavy in my stomach.)
That watermelon salad, though, with its sweet and juicy cubes of fruit and zingy jalapeño-soy dressing, tasted like summer in the best possible way, the part when, after walking many blocks, you finally get to the lakefront and feel that first gust of a breeze. It has a natural companion in the elotes, nicely charred with just enough mayo and queso to make it salty and enough lime and paprika to keep it interesting, and the tangy lemonade and just-sweet-enough iced tea.
I was dubious about the burrata, which comes with pickled fried green tomatoes and house-made hot sauce. As described on the menu, it seemed like a desperate attempt to be trendy and down-home all at once. Once it hit the table, though, it turned out to be exactly what I hadn't realized I wanted. The tomatoes were breaded and fried with the same light touch as the catfish, and the cool burrata and vinegary hot sauce played off one another delightfully. It comes with a baguette, but I preferred to eat it with a light and fluffy biscuit. (Warning for those with strong opinions about biscuits: these are fried.)
The kitchen made a few missteps. In giving the roast chicken an extracrispy skin, it sacrificed some juiciness in the meat. The pie and cheesecake offered as dessert tasted as though they'd been sitting under a plastic dome for a few days. Worst of all, the gyro seemed as if it had been pulled out of the freezer, hastily reheated in a pan filled with too much oil, and slapped onto a stale pita with the tiniest squirt of tzatziki sauce. It gave the impression that it had come from another restaurant entirely. The ghost of Grandpa Lou whispered in my ear, "Never trust a gyro joint where you can't see the spit."
Saint Lou's Assembly is very much a work in progress. Wentworth and chefs de cuisine Carlos Cruz and Gabino Ottoman continue to tinker. As I've been writing this review, the website has been updated several times, and patty melts have been added to the menu. Given some more time, it could grow into the sort of place where your grandpa would've been a regular. After all, even Lou himself was young once. v