Inside St. Louis
An original watercolor of Hendel's Market by local artist Marilynne Bradley.
For those in the Greater Metro area who aren’t familiar with Florissant, discovering Hendel’s is truly like finding a hidden treasure trove. It’s a building easily missed as it’s tucked away in the heart of the “grid” of the quaint Old Florissant neighborhood blocks off the beaten path of busy thoroughfares. In this the third oldest city in Missouri the 137 year old 2- story brick structure that houses most of Hendel’s is deeply steeped in history. In 1873, decades before the automobile, the place was built as a grocery and general store with upstairs living quarters. Back then there were still a few folks who recalled the days of fur trappers and hunters, the founding French farmers as well as the time of both fighting and trading with the Indians in that then far from St. Louis tiny town known as Fleurissant. That name means flowering and flourishing, and the community under its enlightened leaders has not only flowered and flourished into a sizeable modern city, but thankfully they’ve not only not turned their back on the past but rather they have lovingly embraced its history.
There were a significant number of bloody Indian attacks on the French farmers as the village was getting started as an outpost protected in part by a log stockade along the fertile banks of Coldwater Creek. That’s at the time the adventurous and dedicated Father Peter DeSmet, S.J., had his base here as he worked to bring Christianity to the “savages.” Eventually, in 1804, the American flag would fly at Florissant and more families would gradually make this their home. In the mid-1800s a considerable number of German immigrants would come to the area, moving mostly to the hilly section of the small but active township overlooking the 12 mile long valley long populated primarily by the French.
Florissant has existed under four flags – the Fleur dis Lis of the Monarchy of France, the Golden Lion of the Monarchy of Spain, the Tri-Color of the Republic of France and the Stars and Stripes of the United States of America. When the Louisiana Territory was controlled by Spain, the “havitaciones del establicimento de Florizan” became St. Ferdinand; so named for a Spanish King. This was the small city’s official name all the way to 1939.
To put more perspective on its past, much of the place now named Hendel’s at rue St. Denis and Jefferson came into being a scant 8 years following the civil war and some 29 years before the Louisiana Purchase Exposition when the store was built by Henry Herman and Mary Elizabeth (Lott) Bockrath on a portion of a 76 acre tract of land he had purchased in 1870. Bockrath ran the store until he moved to Jefferson City in 1885. In 1886 a new owner added the sections of the building that today house the kitchen, main dining room and second floor. For the next 30 years various owners would operate the store, then in 1915 it was purchased by Nick Hendel who obviously decided to stay a spell as between he, and later his son Henry, would keep the grocery and butcher shop going an incredible 78 years.
When Hendel’s took over the store there were no radio stations, no TV and the movies wouldn’t talk for a dozen more years, but they did have a phone and that number was Florissant 69-R. At the time they offered items such as sugar at 16 pounds for a dollar, fancy Bourbon coffee 20 cents the pound, 3 cakes of Sweetheart toilet soap for a dime and “beef casings for your hog killing” for 25 cents a set. During their decades of doing business Hendel’s would thrive through four wars, prohibition, the Roaring Twenties, The Great Depression, the Cold War, the advent of chain stores, supermarkets, shopping centers and deep discount retailers as well as countless cultural changes ranging from flappers and hippies - beatniks and baby boomers. Plus it’s of interest to note one thing that hasn’t changed is that Henry Hendel, at 93 years of age, is still around in 2010 and regularly drops in at his old place.
Henry and Marge Hendel would call it quits in August of 1993 and a little over a year later the place would reopen as a dining establishment called Hendel’s Market Café under the ownership of the Bennett family. Principal founder Edward Bennett, who at the time was coordinator of the Small Business and Management Program for the St. Louis Community Colleges, saw that the historic building was empty and since he was teaching a class titled “How To Start A Restaurant” – well you get the idea. And as a long-time warm-up to Hendel’s, Ed and wife Paula, starting in 1978, operated The Barn Deli in the barn at the circa 1867 John B. Meyers house at 180 W. Dunn Rd. They had built up quite a culinary reputation there with their business being touted in a Post-Dispatch article as a North County treasure.
Today, some 16 years later, it remains under the careful and caring supervision of Nathan and his wife Christina Bennett. Nate’s dad Edward passed away less than a year ago but he did get to see his dream fulfilled of adding a new dining room with a massive bar and see-through fireplace to the covered patio. This spacious room was carefully crafted to closely resemble the rest of the building which is no easy task when you’re talking about a place that’s over a century and a third old. The bricks came from an old downtown building that was being demolished and the wooden floor had been in the gymnasium of the St. Stanislaus Seminary which had been a Florissant landmark. If you didn’t know, you’d think this room was part of the original building.
Many old photos of the place are displayed in the restaurant including one from the late 1880s when the building and business was owned by one William Mreen who offered both groceries and dry goods. He had taken over the business from a gentleman named Meddler. Mreen’s son-in law Jack Weidinger had a saloon in the rear and his brother-in-law had a meat shop in part of the front. A sign painted on the building at the time advertised Dr. J. H McLean’s Cough and Lung Healing Globules. By 1890 the building was sold to Henry Albers and the store was operated by Wortman and Herman Timme. In 1900 Herman Luebber took over the business and in 1904 Henry Hendel’s grandfather Henry Albers bought the building. Then around 1910 the business was taken over by Herman Keeven. It was empty for a time before Nick Hendel and his wife Bertha (whose maiden name was Albers) moved in, and moved in to stay, leasing the building in 1915 and buying it in 1919. Nick would pass away in ’36 and Bertha, who was the mother of 11, would run the place.
By 1938 there was a sign above the front porch that promoted Hendel’s as being part of the Nation-Wide grocery group and the Dr. Mclean sign had faded into oblivion as had their horse trough. When America went to war, ration stamps, food shortages and having to raise all those kids was tough, but Bertha didn’t call it quits for the duration until 1943 when four of her sons; Nick, Al, Henry and Lawrence were inducted into the Armed Forces. At that point she closed up shop and the store wouldn’t reopen until May, 1946 when Henry, who married Margaret Ebbesmeyer, was discharged from the service. That’s when the oak floor you can still see today was installed and the place went from a “service” operation to a self-service store. They were so up to date they even had a stoker coal furnace that had been installed in ’41. The market would close permanently on August 14, 1993.
Even though we live in St. Louis Hills, “a far piece” as they used to say from Old Town Florissant; Hendel’s has become one of our absolutely favorite dining spots. Our introduction came by way of noted watercolorist Marilynne Bradley who creates the “portraits” of restaurants that grace each edition of “Inside St. Louis” here at antiquewhs.com. My first Hendel’s venture was made with Antique Warehouse curator Greg Rhomberg as we were doing an interview and snapping digital pix for this article. We foolishly didn’t stay for lunch. Little did we know how good it would have been. I know Greg’s been back multiple times as have I and when people ask me, as they often do, about good places in which to dine, it’s on my current Johnny Rabbitt Top 10 list along with Cunetto’s, Kemoll’s, Giuseppe’s, Beffa Bother’s Buffet, Crown Candy, Tony’s, Meglio’s, The Fountain on Locust and Duff’s. Keep in mind all these places are unique and they certainly are not uniform in prices or type of fare. I’d classify the prices at Hendel’s to be quite reasonable and an exceptionally good value considering the quantity and quality of the food, the presentation and the wonderful (and I mean wonderful) service plus the truly charming atmosphere both inside and out.
I am particularly fond of their seemingly always cool and breezy covered section of their expansive patio where a nearby small waterfall softly gurgles and birds are making good use of it as a birdbath or they’re using the actual birdbath at the other end of this section of the patio which is lined with well tended greenery and flowers. Inside Hendel’s, the dining rooms, if busy, can be a bit challenging from an auditory standpoint which is a typical trait of many restaurants in which the aural atmosphere is not subdued by carpeting, drapes or acoustical ceilings. And it’s a fact that if a place tends to be on the “loud” side, people will start talking louder so it exacerbates the situation.
The very pretty and nostalgically inviting softly lit dining rooms are exceptionally well decorated with items such as many framed photos of Hendel’s and Florissant’s past as well as original art such as the oil painting above the fireplace of Hendel’s in the days of yore. The high ceilinged rooms with silently swirling ceiling fans provide a cool oasis on a hot summer’s day or eve with mossy green walls trimmed in white, polished wood floors, high windows and in the newer room, arched doorways leading directly to the side and rear patios. Fresh flowers are at every table inside and out and additional flowers are placed around the rooms along with decorative items that are strategically positioned so as not to become clutter. Chairs have comfy cushions and the table settings from cloth napkins to spotless silverware, dishes and etc. all add to the quickly obvious fact that this is a place that really cares for their…I almost said customers, but guests would be a better description.
Of the many embellishments to your Hendel’s experience is the absolutely perfect background music that’s at just the right sound level, a significantly sized reception area, lots of seating at the adjoining bar, a shimmering Kohler grand piano, a round butcher block table that holds menus, sincerely pleasant and smiling employees, service personified, and a feeling that the pleased spirits of past owners are happily watching over everything. Since we’ve only made excursions there for lunch, we’ll need to soon visit dinner. I’ll give you a follow-up report.
You’ll find Nathan plying his trade as chef in the roomy kitchen, where he learned his craft by working there since his dad opened 16 years ago when young Mr. Bennett was in his mid-teens. His twin brother Josh originally learned the front-of-the-house operation but these managerial duties are now handled by Nathan’s vibrant and charming wife Christina as Josh and Nate’s sister Julia are behind the scenes partners. Other cooks working with Nathan are Alex McGowan, Jimmy Rusher and Clarence Dyson plus more than half the Hendel’s staff have been there for over 8 years which is quite rare in the dining biz. Then there’s Miss Kitty who concocts some of the delightful dessert delicacies…especially the must-have bread pudding with a butter-rum sauce. Miss Kitty once had a nearby tea-room that shuttered, but she decided her desserts needed to live on, so they’re now at Hendel’s, which is a good thing. Other end if the meal treats include Miss Kitty’s cupcakes such as carrot cake, German chocolate and Turtle…plus they serve a variety of cheesecakes. Desserts are always about $5. On a recent visit Miss Kitty herself came over to apologize that all her dessert creations had sold out, but we selected a cheesecake and it was simply super. The cake was not hard like the New York style but fluffier and akin to the Kolb cheesecake that used to be made down on Delor and sold at places such as Garavelli’s in the 3600 block of Olive St..
Nathan and Christina were childhood sweethearts and attended the Sacred Heart elementary school directly across the street. It’s where their children Kyle (12) and Kaylie (6) are enrolled and they even have some of the same teachers who taught their parents. The school was originally named the Herz Jesu Schule and the building dates to 1899. Nathan and Christina would graduate from Rosary High and they still live in the neighborhood. And what a peaceful and tranquil neighborhood it is. You have the feeling that you’ve gone back to a simpler time of the latter part of the nineteenth century or the early decades of the twentieth century even to a period when horses were tethered at a rail and they drank from a watering trough at Hendel’s. Hendel’s has changed little, the grade school looks the same as 111 years ago and so does the 117 year old Sacred Heart German Catholic church next to the school; the convent is a newcomer having been constructed in 1904. At the end of this article we’ll pass on some information about a walking tour of the area which we heartily suggest.
The story of Hendel’s and the area are without a doubt unique and important factors in your dining experience at Hendel’s…but the real reason for going there is the food. And believe you me; it’ll have you coming back and binging friends and families. First off the prices. At lunch appetizers range from $6.25 to $7.50. The salads which are humongous are $7.95 to $8.95, sandwiches, of which there are 14 from which to choose, are all priced at $7.95. The half dozen entrees are $9.95 each and for $7.95 they offer pick two selections of soup, salad, sandwich and quiche. At dinner appetizers range from $7.25 to $7.95 and pastas which are all served with a house salad run $15 to $17 while the feature meal-unto- itself salads are priced at $9.95. The seafood, specialties and choice aged beef entrees which are priced from $17 to $21 come with the house salad, seasonal vegetable (some from their own garden) and the starch of the day. Specifically seafood dishes and specialties are listed at $17 or $18, with beef entrees running $17 to $21. At lunch and dinner there are a variety of soups such as broccoli-cheddar, Italian Wedding, potato and French onion at $2.95 a cup, and day and night they always have off-the-menu specials.
Since my journeys to Hendel’s have thus far been for lunch, that’s what I’ve covered in this review and after I’ve had dinner there I’ll give you an update. If I were pressed to get just one thing at Hendel’s it’d have to be the sumptuous and unique slightly spicy Cajun inspired Louisiana styled crab cakes. This signature dish which is their best-seller comes perfectly prepared on a generous bed of thin and crispy tobacco onions with a mild-mannered salsa. Just to note, the salsa does contain cilantro, so if that’s a taste you haven’t acquired I suggest skipping the salsa and going for the delicate Cajun mayonnaise. The cakes are lightly crisped on the outside and moist, tender and really rich on the inside and they’re not downed in salsa. For the salad gourmet you can’t go wrong with Hendel’s Southwest Grilled Chicken Caesar. It’s the real thing and it’s a full meal with the freshest Romaine lettuce tossed with a perfect dressing plus roasted red peppers, red onions, sundried tomatoes, freshly ground parmesan and herbed croutons.
Being a fish fan I’d suggest either the Atlantic Cod sandwich or the Grilled Salmon burger with my nod going to the cod. The sweet tartar sauce served with the cod is a perfect accompaniment - and it also goes nicely with the salmon burger which normally comes with the fore-mentioned Cajun mayo, though the tartar sauce is also a good companion with it as well. I’d ask for extra sauce for either sandwich. Cod is beer-battered and presented on a sourdough Hoagie while the salmon burger is nicely presented with lettuce, tomato and onion on toasted ciabatta bread. On my next daytime visit I’ll likely go for the Sante Fe baked medallion of pork tenderloin stuffed with jalapeno pork cream and rolled in seasoned bread crumbs.
When I can answer the Hendel’s dinner bell I’ve already made up my mind to get the hand cut beef tenderloin filet topped with Hollandaise sauce as their beef is USDA Choice and aged for at least 21 days. A filet with this pedigree that also comes with salad, vegetable and potato for $21 is a good value. Oh, as at lunch, I’ll more than likely go for Miss Kitty’s home-made (and it really is) bread pudding…but I can be tempted with their other sweet offerings. Incidentally gourmet coffee, tea or lemonade are $1.89 which is an OK price even to someone who can remember when a cup of coffee was a nickel and it was almost unthinkable when it jumped to a dime.
Hendel’s is that increasingly hard to find type of place where everything blends together to give you a memorably wonderful dining experience. History galore, atmosphere, fine food, decent prices, creative menu with items you really like and the kind of servers and service that’s become harder and harder to find. Hendel’s is a sparkling jewel. In the original dining room a Model T Ford truck bed dating from the twenties bears the 1915 slogan “Nick Hendel - Your Money’s Worth Grocer” Today you can well substitute the word grocer with “restaurant.” Maybe they’ll bring back the penny candy for which Hendel’s was noted.
If you have a little time
before or after your Hendel’s repast you can give yourself a walking
tour of the neighborhood that might include the Sacred Heart church,
school and convent just across rue St. Denis on Jefferson, the 1832
Archambault House across the street to the east at 603 rue St.
Denis, the 1857 Montaigne House at 306 rue St. Louis or the
Bellisime House at 359 rue St. Jean which dates to 1836. There are
many more choices and you might consider getting an historic
highlights map or two from Gretchen Krank or Rosemary Davison at
Historic Florissant Inc. which is located at 1067 Dunn Rd at S.
Florissant and I-270. It’s in the 1859 Franz and Gertrude Gittemeier
house located behind the Shell station. You can also contact them at
(314) 921.7055 or at HistoricFlorissant.com.
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- Reservations and all major credit cards accepted.