Watercolor by Marilynne Bradley


Lee Redel grew up in Vinita Park and graduated from Normandy High School. He worked his way through an undergraduate degree and a masterís degree in communications at Southern Illinois University by waiting tables. Then he taught for a time before realizing that food was his true love.

Redel worked as a part-time bartender at Herbieís, where he met Herb and Adalaide Balaban, who gave him a job as front house-manager at Balabanís. He did the hiring and set up the parties for Balabanís from 1979 to June of 1985. When Redel left Balabanís, he traveled extensively, with an eye toward opening a moderately priced restaurant of his own.

John Rice got his start in the restaurant business in the early 1980s at Balabanís; he was a maÓtre dí in the front of the house. That's where he met Lee Redel. While at Balaban's, Rice was approached by Kim Tucci, who asked Rice to run his Pasta House restaurant at DeBaliviere and Pershing. After working there for a couple of years, Rice bought the location from Tucci, with an eye toward opening his own restaurant there.

Lee Redel, 1981 John Rice at Balaban's, early 1980s

During Lee Redel's travels, he came upon a hole-in-the-wall restaurant in San Francisco with fat crayons on paper covered tables. He watched business people coloring during their lunches and saw their drawings hanging on the wall.

Redel was intrigued by the concept. He liked the idea of paper on tables because it was very European. He wanted a restaurant that would appeal to little people as well as senior citizens, and thought drawing would give children something to do while their parents enjoyed a drink.

So, Lee Redel transported fat crayons and paper covered tables to John Rice's newly purchased building at DeBaliviere and Pershing. In December of 1985, Redel and Rice opened Redel's restaurant in the former Pasta House space.

John Rice in front of Redel's - November, 1985

Redel's was busy from the moment it opened its doors; most nights customers had to wait to be seated. It was a fun place, with personality, character and very good food.

Rice had studied architecture and selected a look that utilized elements of post-modern and art deco for the new restaurant, including lots of chrome and glass. Rice and Redel contacted local galleries and asked them to hang art on the restaurant's walls on a rotating basis. Eventually, the work of eight artists was displayed at any given time. Rice also began collecting antique radios, which filled Redel's every nook.

Redel's Interior

And, of course, there were white paper table coverings with boxes of crayons at each table for doodling or for creating masterpieces to hang on "The Great Wall of Redelís." The wall, the east end of the L-shaped restaurant, was literally layered with crayon art, which had been created by neighborhood professional artists and other well-fed customers.

Lee Redel, John Rice and "The Great Wall of Redelís"

Redel and Rice decided to offer both little meals and fine meals. The food was simply prepared, with an unusual seasoning or two that kept customers coming back.

The menu was 1980s eclectic, with something for everyone. Appetizers included p‚tť, ceviche, fresh vegetables, crab Rangoon, carpaccio, mussels, oysters and a soup of the day.

Salads were ŗ la carte, with a choice of chopped vegetable, Greek, spinach, Caesar or pasta. The chopped vegetable salad was a signature dish; it was a bit like coleslaw, with the addition of cheese for flavor and texture.

Entrťes ranged from pizza to lobster, with stops at fried chicken and prime rib in between. There were fresh seafood items every day, along with barbecued ribs, shrimp or chicken teriyaki, pasta and sirloin steak, either plain or au poivre. There was even a peanut butter and banana sandwich on whole wheat bread, with a bit of honey.

Pizza was made with a very thin crust, with a choice of over two dozen toppings, including pineapple, spinach and artichoke; all of the ingredients were fresh. The fried chicken was tender and juicy, with a crisp, medium crust; the addition of crisp French fried potatoes made for an all-American meal.

One line on the menu: "We donít care if itís your birthday."

You could walk into Redel's in a dinner jacket or evening gown and no one batted an eye. Blue jeans were just as acceptable. The restaurant projected an aura of home to the neighborhood residents, where one need not pay an arm and a leg for dinner. It was chic but not snobbish.

Lee Redel at Redel's, 1987

On January 5, 1993, Redel's was damaged by an early morning fire. Redel and Rice lost 75% of their employees while they rebuilt. They pushed themselves to open within three months, but weren't capable of handling all the customers that arrived when they reopened. The crush continued for weeks. There were 35 new employees and it was difficult to handle the onslaught. It was a great tribute to the restaurant, but customers could not be served as they had in the past.

In early 1997, Mike Faille paid $800,000 to Lee Redel and John Rice for their restaurant; Faille would convert Redel's into another Talaynaís. On the two days after Redel's official May closing, Redel and Rice raised money for AIDS organizations and Food Outreach at the restaurant. Some of the famous crayon drawings were sold for $1000.

There were spinoffs Ė Colorado on the St. Louis University campus, Space on the Hill, and Red-L Pizza on Clayton Road in Ladue. But Lee Redel and John Rice had captured magic in a bottle with Redel's, and that magic could not be recaptured.

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