‘The Country Club for Everybody’—Talking Next-Level Hospitality With Restaurant Owner Aaron Teitelbaum
Ask Aaron Teitelbaum what it’s like to be the owner of two of the hottest restaurants/catering businesses in St. Louis, and he’d probably tell you that you’re asking the wrong question. That’s because Teitelbaum doesn’t want to talk about himself at all. He wants to talk about you.
“It’s not about our ego,” Teitelbaum says. “It’s not about the big name in the kitchen. It’s about the customer. I think that in the restaurant world, we’ve screwed ourselves up a little bit with the celebrity aspect of what we do. We forget that the core of our job is to serve.”
It’s a fascinating thing to hear from someone who, not too long ago, was something of a local celebrity chef himself. After launching his first venture, Monarch, chef/owner Teitelbaum really made a name for himself when he took over the former home of legendary Central West End bistro Balaban’s and launched Herbie’s Vintage 72 (which has since relocated to Clayton). He had big shoes to fill, but Teitelbaum’s take on American fusion in a French bistro atmosphere took off. And soon he was looking down the block—in 2015, he opened the quickly beloved Kingside Diner on a cozy corner of Maryland Avenue next to the St. Louis Chess Club, where you can hear players calling “mate” as you sip coffee on the sidewalk patio.
Teitelbaum didn’t start his career in the kitchen—and even in the years he spent reducing demi-glace and searing scallops, he never forgot his humble beginnings in the front of house. Only for Teitelbaum, the waiter’s apron wasn’t really a more humble garment than the chef’s coat. And moving into a management role that would allow him to interact more directly with his diners felt like a kind of homecoming.
“That’s what I got into the business for—because I love watching the smile on people’s faces as they leave my restaurant,” Teitelbaum says. “They don’t always come in that way. But because we’ve given them a tour of our kitchen, or taken the kids over to see the lobster tank, we’ve turned their day around. … We get to create memories for people. And you can’t do that with an ego.”
In 2016, Teitelbaum officially let his mentee chefs at both restaurants take the reins.
He’s been stunned by how they and his staff have infused his theory of hospitality into every element of service, sometimes exceeding even his own instincts about what his diners were hungry for. He was skeptical, at first, when Kingside chef Eric Prophete said suggested a peanut butter-pumpkin-avocado toast (pictured above) for the menu—“It sounded horrible,” Teitelbaum laughs—that is, until they started selling it like crazy. And he was just as delighted when Herbie’s chef Jeramie Mitchell created the single dish that perhaps best encompasses Herbie’s philosophy of elegant yet comfortable service: a soy caramel salmon in a citrus miso beurre blanc (featured image). “It’s got all these pieces that work so well together, the sweet and salty and savory umami feel to it,” Teitelbaum says. “It just makes people feel good.”
Of course, it’s not just the food that makes you feel good when you step into one of Teitelbaum’s restaurants. It’s his particular breed of hospitality that, at once, makes you feel as comfortable as you would at home and as catered to as if you were the most important person in the dining room—because to his staff, you are. “We like to say our restaurant is the country club for everybody,” Teitelbaum says. “I don’t care if you’re a homeless person or a senator. You both are welcome to sit and have a drink at my bar, and you will be cared for.”
Images courtesy of Gregg Goldman.
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