Chez Leon opened at 4580 Laclede Avenue in the Central West End on November 4, 1999 in a space that had housed Martin’s Variety Store for decades. Two men gave birth to the restaurant – Eddie Neill, who owned Café Provencal, and Leon G. Bierbaum. But Chez Leon was indeed "Leon's House" – Bierbaum bought out Neill in 2002.
Leon Bierbaum was born on a chicken farm in
Marthasville, Missouri. After a move to the Phoenix area in his
early teens, where Steven Spielberg was a classmate at Scottsdale
middle school, Bierbaum attended Washington University. As most Wash
U students gravitated toward jeans in the mid-1960s, Bierbaum showed
up for class in a camel hair sport coat, neatly pressed slacks,
shirt and tie.
Bierbaum was a veteran in the restaurant, hotel and wine business. He was a well-known waiter at the Cheshire Inn and the concierge at the Hotel Majestic. He was the manager and wine expert at Cheshire Cellars and at the last 9-0-5 liquor store on North Euclid. He worked at the original Tony’s on North Broadway, at Anthony’s, at Café de France and at Café Napoli. Bierbaum traveled extensively throughout Europe, particularly in France. Leon Bierbaum was a true Francophile.
Chez Leon was very much a true French bistro,
starting with the brightly painted red-orange façade and the outdoor
seating. On summer evenings, the big French doors were flung open
and the sidewalk tables multiplied.
Inside, the dining room’s butter-colored walls
displayed French prints and paintings, while high ceilings and the
large French doors lent an airy feel to the room. The dark wood of
the floors, Brentwood chairs and mirrored banquettes contrasted with
the crisp, white table linens. The handsome bar was in an adjacent
room. The décor had the air of understated elegance, right down to
the hat racks above the seats.
Bierbaum, with his silver hair and always impeccable style, was a fixture at the front of the restaurant, taking care to personally greet every newcomer and regular who strolled through the door. It was like walking into his home.
On Sundays, a Washington University medical student could sometimes be heard playing the piano at the front of the restaurant. On other nights, "The Poor People of Paris" were heard singing French songs from overhead speakers.
Chez Leon’s menu
emphasized foods from the northern part of France, and changed from
night to night, depending on availability, season and desire. The
menu covered five areas – appetizers, soups and salads, entrees, a
cheese course and dessert. All offerings were individually priced.
However, a dinner of three courses could be composed, initially for
$28. And there were more than 100 French wines to choose from.
Popular dishes included the escargot, which
arrived bubbling in pools of garlic butter, lightly flavored with
fennel, the salade Lyonnaise, a green salad tossed with a mild
vinaigrette and fat pieces of bacon, topped by a poached egg, its
interior still runny, and the steak frites, a six ounce strip steak,
perfectly cooked to order, with house-made fries that were
crispy-chewy and full of flavor. A favorite dessert was the tarte
tatin, an upside-down apple tart with caramelized apples on the
bottom and the pastry top properly brown and crisp, all under a scoop of
high-quality vanilla ice cream.
While he may have been a Francophile, Bierbaum was firmly rooted in his hometown of Marthasville. He would proudly bring in tomatoes and peaches from his aunt's Marthasville garden. Marthasville white asparagus and strawberries also found their way onto the Chez Leon menu.
When Chez Leon opened in 1999, Claude Courtoisier, a native of Grenoble, was the chef de cuisine. But after Bierbaum bought out his partner in early 2002, he hired a talented new chef de cuisine, Eric Brenner, who made his mark on Chez Leon’s frequently changing menu of classic French dishes and provincial specialties.
In early 2004, Brenner opened his own
restaurant, Moxy, next door to Chez Leon. With the help of his sous
chef, Joe Herbert, Brenner did the prep work for Chez
Leon in the morning, then moved to Moxy for lunch and dinner.
In the fall of 2009, Bierbaum closed his Central West End restaurant; he sold it to Gerard Craft, who reopened it as Brasserie by Niche. (Soon after, Moxy became the new home of Craft's Taste.) And at the end of 2009, Bierbaum reopened Chez Leon in Clayton at 7927 Forsyth Boulevard.
The relocated Chez Leon lacked the whimsy and
charm of the original, replacing it with a sleek dining room. Its
dark walls were decorated with oil paintings and beveled mirrors.
Tasseled drapes, a chandelier and an elaborate china cabinet added
The menu, under the direction of executive chef Colby Erhart, was much the same as it had been in the Central West End, complete with frog’s legs, escargot and steak frites. But Eric Brenner no longer managed the kitchen and longtime headwaiter Haris Zukanović hadn't made the trip west. Service was not the same. There were long waits to be seated and long waits between courses. Two-hour leisurely dinners turned into four-hour nightmares.
in veterans Marcel and Monique Keraval as chef de cuisine and
maître d', but they were no more successful in reviving the new Chez
Leon than they had been with their own Café de France when it moved to
In May of 2012, Bierbaum suddenly closed Chez Leon for good. He explained, "This last year was particularly tough. Customer counts were down and what they ate and drank was down. Trying to stimulate business with Groupon-type offers did not help . . . customers seemed to come all at once, filling the place up, straining the level of service and the pacing of the meals. It was especially unfair to our full paying customers who got caught up in the middle of it." He added, "Business here was just never at the level that we thought it would be . . . I probably should have never left the Central West End."
Bierbaum continued to work in the hospitality
industry. He was the concierge at the Gatesworth and worked the
front of the house at Tony’s on weekends. But he was slowly
succumbing to cancer.
Leon Bierbaum died on May 2, 2016, the day before his 68th birthday. Gaunt with cancer, Bierbaum entertained a host of visitors at a South County hospice care facility during the last weeks of his life. The hospice played beloved big band music and opera for Bierbaum as he gradually slipped away.
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