Duff's

Karen Duffy graduated Nerinx Hall high school in 1963 as Mary Karen Theresa Moran. After obtaining a degree in classics at Rosary College near Chicago, she married, had two children and then took a detour back to St. Louis.

My first husband, Dan Duffy, and I sold everything we owned one year – our house, our car, most of our stuff. We flew Icelandic Airlines to Reykjavik, because that was the cheapest way to get to Europe in the '70s. We said, "Let's get off the plane and see what's going on here." We didn't have an agenda, and we certainly didn't have much money. We had a couple weeks in Reykjavik (before touring the rest of Europe).

We bought a Peugeot touring bus and turned it into a little van to live in. We lived in it for almost a year. The kids, Patrick and Katie, were 5 and 3. That's why we could do it, because they weren't in school yet. After that, we thought, what are we going to do when we go home?

I realized how much I loved having my husband cooking sometimes and sharing child care. So I said, "We need to do something together, where you work sometimes and I work sometimes, instead of me just being the housewife." We didn't go out to eat a lot when we traveled, but when we did, it was to those little neighborhood restaurants where you'd have some food with your family and meet the neighbors. That appealed to us, and coming home on the plane, we met someone from St. Louis who told us about an empty storefront in the Central West End. We checked it out. It was pretty cheap back then – $125 a month for the space, and $125 for an apartment upstairs. We paid $250, and opened the restaurant.

Karen and Dan Duffy opened Duff's at 392 North Euclid, near McPherson, on July 7, 1972.

We had nothing. We went to Goodwill and bought tables and chairs and silverware – everything. Neighbors and friends stopped in and helped us get the place ready. I remember knocking plaster off the bricks, and people just came in and helped. Someone would give us a refrigerator, and someone else would say, "Hey, there's a table at my grandma's house you can have."

Duff's, prior to opening, 1972 November, 1972

It was such a friendly place. As we worked on building the restaurant, people would stop in and ask us what we were doing. One man told us he was a chef, and we were like, "Oh yeah, we need a chef!" So he became our chef. Neighbors stopped in and helped us with the construction, and some of them stuck around and became waiters.

Duff's staff, 1973

Duff's main dining room, just wide enough for two rows of mismatched wooden chairs and tables, was all there was to the restaurant in the beginning. Next door to the south was an even narrower establishment, Europa 390, a restaurant/bar opened by Frank Mormino in 1961. To the north was a witchcraft store run by a woman named Debbie. Motorcyclists used to hang out at Debbie's store, which may have helped keep Duff's rent down.

We had a liquor license but no bar. People would bring their own bottles. But we used to keep brandy on a little table to flame shish kabob. One day, some of Debbie's motorcycle buddies rode in the front door, drank the brandy, and rode out again.

By early 1973, the space Debbie had occupied was vacant. Duff's expanded in that direction, adding a bar and additional seating.

Beautiful beveled wooden-carved mirrors adorned the wall in the main dining area. In this same room was a one-of-a-kind leaded glass picture window with Duff’s name incorporated in the art glass.
 

A towering archway led into the bar, with its dimly lit wooden booths. The high pressed-tin ceilings, wide wooden floors and exposed brick walls felt more like a home than a place of business.
 

In 1990, Duff's expanded again. Europa 390 had closed in 1987, and Duff's took over the space, creating a large second dining room, dominated by Bill Kohn's vast painting of the Grand Canyon.
 

Bill Kohn's painting "Sunset at Hopi Point"

In August of 1973, Tim Kirby was hired as a bartender. He had graduated from St. Louis University high school in 1965. He was drafted at the height of the Vietnam War and spent time in Germany. After he returned, he landed at Duff's. A few years later, after Karen and Dan Duffy divorced and Karen ended up with the restaurant, Tim Kirby became her co-owner.
 

Karen Duffy and Tim Kirby

When they opened their restaurant in 1972, Karen and Dan Duffy started with a barebones menu.

It was a pretty simple menu. We had one dinner entree special each night. I said I wanted that salad you always get at Marshall Field's. We did a version of that, called the Duff's salad. We also did a "surprise burger." We'd put inside the burger chopped-up onions, green peppers, tomatoes and cheese. I had that recipe from when I was a housewife.

The nightly dinner specials included lamb pie, paella, fried chicken with cream gravy, pork with mushrooms, coquille St. Jacques and beef carbonnade. In addition to the specials, a standard beef shish kebob was available every night. In 1973, dinner for four, including a drink, wine, dessert, tax and tip, totaled $23.
 

Early Duff's Menus
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By 1980, Duff's was changing its dinner specials every two months, and distributing their menu by mail. By popular demand, four of the entrees were almost permanent – the beef kebobs, which were on the restaurant’s first menu, chicken Marsala, steak au poivre and a grilled sirloin steak.

In 1974, Jim Voss started at Duff's as a dishwasher. Within a year, he was head chef and remained in that position until he left in 2013, shortly before the restaurant closed.

In his youth, Voss spent his vacations following the Grateful Dead as they toured the country. Jon McIntyre, a Grateful Dead manager, lived in Belleville and was a frequent patron of Duff's. In the summer of 1986, when the Dead's chef quit in the middle of a tour, McIntyre called Voss and asked him to finish the tour. Voss took a plane to Akron, Ohio, and cooked for the Dead, Bob Dylan and Tom Petty. He did the job so well that he was asked to be the Dead's regular traveling chef, in addition to his duties at Duff's.
 

Jim Voss, Tim Kirby and Karen Duffy, 1992 Jim Voss, 2011

In the mid-1980s, Duffy and Kirby added brunch to Duff’s busy schedule. In the spring of 1993, they added a sidewalk café, in collaboration with neighboring Kopperman’s Deli and Pete Rothschild, who owned the building. A wrought-iron fence and gas lamps added character to the lively streetside café.

Over the years, Duff's developed a reputation for reasonably priced, approachable menus and a particularly good selection of wines. Eating at Duff’s was like going home for dinner.
 

1998 Dinner Menu
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1998 Brunch Menu
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Onion Soup Gratinée Creole Eggs Benedict

For many St. Louisans, what made Duff's invaluable were the readings of poetry and fiction, often accompanied by music, which took place on Monday evenings. Poetry readings were in the mix almost from the beginning, but they became an official part of the schedule in 1974, when a new literary organization called River Styx took over the programming.

At the readings, patrons drank beer or coffee and cheered the reader, if they wished. The musical offerings ranged from folk to jazz. The atmosphere was relaxed, nonacademic and appealing to all ages. The series gained a national reputation and became a meeting place for every author and poet who lived in or visited St. Louis.
 

Poet Armand Forster at Duff's, 2008

In the summer of 2013, Karen Duffy and Tim Kirby decided it was time to retire. They sold their restaurant to a group that would open an Italian restaurant in the space.

Duff's served its final meal on Sunday, June 23. The next evening, the restaurant hosted one last Monday evening literary gathering. And then the Central West End institution closed for good.
 


 

 
Tim Kirby and Karen Duffy, 2013

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