Zoe Houk grew up in Crestwood with two older sisters — Belinda, who would become an artist, and Carrie, who would become a producer and casting agent. Her mother, Billie, credited her husband, Jean, with their daughters' inherent talents.
Houk's father died from cancer when she was a young girl.
Houk's mother admonished her daughters to "sustain themselves" and not rely on marriage in order to live. After graduating from Lindbergh High School, Houk attended classes at Meramec and Forest Park community colleges. Asked what she was studying in school, she responded, "Nothing. Going to make my mother happy."
Houk's first job as a waitress at age 18 was at The Loft in West County. From The Loft she went to H. Brown’s, a bar in the Central West End, as a waitress and underage bartender, with her sister, Belinda. Caleco’s and The Ladle followed, and at each restaurant she learned a little more about the business. In 1981, Houk moved on again to the Empire Cafe in Lafayette Square.
* * * * *
Beginning in the late 1960’s, a restoration
movement took root in the Lafayette Square area. Many young couples
moved into the neighborhood, buying old houses and renovating them. In 1972, Lafayette
Square was declared a historic district by the city.
In May of 1980, Jill Mead and Susan Vaughn opened the Empire Cafe and Charcuterie at 1923 Park Avenue. Mead was in charge of the kitchen and Vaughn managed the business.
The Empire menu included soups, salads and sandwiches. The most popular item was the chicken salad. "We make 550 pounds a week and run out," said Mead.
In a March 12, 1981 St. Louis Post-Dispatch review, Joe Pollack wrote:
The creamy, all-white-meat chicken salad was so
popular, it was available for takeout at both the Ladue and Wydown
Zoe Houk had waited tables at the Empire Cafe for about a year when she was pegged to manage Empire's new venture, the Shell Empire Cafe, which opened in August of 1982 in the renovated Shell Building at 13th and Locust.
However, all was not well at the Empire, as Mead and Vaughn clashed over how to run the business. Vaughn was forced to withdraw from the enterprise in January of 1982, filing a lawsuit against Mead a year later. The turmoil led to the closure of the Lafayette Square restaurant in December of 1982, shocking the Empire's enthusiastic customer base.
Zoe Houk, who was still managing Empire's restaurant in the Shell building, was at the right place at the right time.
In February of 1983, Houk and her partner Steve Robinson took over the Lafayette Square space. Houk had met Robinson a few years earlier when the two were working at Caleco's.
"We had to quit our jobs to work on the place," Houk said, "so we practically had to live there."
Cafe Zoe opened its doors June 1, 1983, four
While the cafe was in essence the place that Jill Mead and Susan Vaughn had built, Houk and Robinson did manage to make the restaurant their own. An exciting and attractive dining space from the Empire days, the cafe became more sleek and less cute, losing its bay window.
They kept the stark white walls and invited
local artists to hang their works in the bright showcase. Light from
the storefront's large windows played on the interior's muted grays,
charcoals and off-whites. Seating was available in two large rooms.
However, all was not perfect at the start. In the space of a week after opening, Houk fired both her chef and her restaurant consultant.
Houk hired new cooks and redesigned the menu. One of those cooks was Ny Vongsaly who had worked with her at the Empire Cafe.
"He swam across the Mekong River with people shooting at him to escape to Thailand," Houk explained of Vongsaly's harrowing 1979 journey out of war-torn Laos.
Though never professionally trained as a chef, Vongsaly learned about food by watching his mother and sisters. He picked up their techniques and traditional Laotian recipes well enough to impress Houk and his other co-workers when they worked together at the Empire Cafe.
"Zoe would say, 'Hey, this is what I want — salty, spicy big flavors,'" Vongsaly said, recalling how he would bring in traditional Laotian dishes for his colleagues. "They would all say that they wanted more of this for lunch."
After a few months at Cafe Zoe, Vongsaly became the restaurant's executive chef, creating a menu of dishes influenced by the food he'd grown up eating in Laos, as well as what he concocted while experimenting at home.
Vongsaly would eventually leave Cafe Zoe for Modesto, California, but would reconnected with Houk in 1998 in an enduring partnership that would take him to James Beard semifinalist status.
"Ny Vongsaly and I are like brother and
sister," said Houk, "except we don’t fight. We can complete each
other’s sentences. We work on menus together, but he does all of the
execution. We both have pretty good senses of humor so it’s a lot of
fun and we get to eat! He is a wonderful chef and person. I could
not be luckier to work with him."
The Cafe Zoe menu expanded, including Houk’s longtime dream, Oriental Chicken Salad, and the dishes became more bountiful. Most of the changes were directed at attracting a new clientele — men in general, and business people in particular. As the Empire Cafe, the restaurant had a reputation as the kingdom of chicken salad and the mecca of the ladies who lunch. Houk began attracting a broader clientele.
Lunch was served Monday through Saturday. The lunch menu included soup of the day, two or three appetizers, five salads and seven entrees, some of which were sandwiches.
The chicken salad, which built the Empire Cafe's reputation, remained on the menu. Whether ordered as a sandwich with homemade white bread or alone atop lettuce, it set the standard for chicken salad in the city.
Dinner was served on Friday and Saturday nights only. Entrees included broiled chicken sprinkled with rosemary and lemon juice, baked Cornish hen with apricot brandy sauce, chilled broiled beef tenderloin with mustard sauce, sautéed shrimp in pesto sauce, and broiled salmon filet with citrus butter. Salads, sandwiches and appetizers were carried over from the lunch menu.
came and went and then came back again, if they were favorites. One
that appeared periodically was asparagus wrapped in prosciutto and
served with vinaigrette.
Cafe Zoe was a success from day one. Crowds
flocked to the little restaurant to enjoy the fresh, simply prepared
food. Zoe Houk's restaurant was one of the top places in town "to be
seen." Food critics love her food and the media loved Zoe. She
was featured in a 1985 article in St.
Louis Dining entitled "Restaurant Women."
Zoe Houk and Steve Robinson were married on October 17, 1987 in Taos, New Mexico, after an eight-year courtship. The wedding took place before a justice of the peace and two 9-year-old girls who were summoned from a nearby playground by the couple to serve as witnesses.
In a June 12, 1990 St. Louis Post-Dispatch article, Jerry Berger reported that the Robinsons had sold their Lafayette Square restaurant to Richard Cole who would rename it Park Avenue Cafe. Berger went on to report that the Robinsons were moving Cafe Zoe to Clayton.
Cafe Zoe opened at 12 North Meremac in November of 1990. According to Zoe Robinson, the location in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the city was where she had always pictured herself.
"I wanted to be in the mainstream," she said. "People drop in now who never would have found us before."
The new restaurant was more spacious. It was
awash with cool grays and whites, highlighted by French blue art
deco lamps. Colorful contemporary paintings hung on the walls over
black and white striped booths, and gray carpeting imprinted with
paler gray leaves covered the floor. Wide windows overlooking
Meramec added to the light, airy atmosphere. One constant was a
cheerful greeting from Zoe Robinson, who was almost always on hand.
Along with lunch, dinner was now served six days a week. There were more Italian touches to the menu, with a selection of pizza and pasta. Pizzas were topped with salmon, capers, dill and mascarpone; plum tomatoes, basil, mozzarella and pine nuts; eggplant, sun-dried tomatoes, basil and fontinella; or shrimp, pesto, fennel, black olives and ricotta. Pastas included angel hair with chevre and broccoli. Penne was tossed with prosciutto, peas, crimini mushrooms and mascarpone cream sauce.
There was also a risotto, which changed daily.
One was made with scallops, shrimp, sun-dried tomatoes and fresh
spinach, pine nuts, sun-dried tomatoes and fontinella dish was a
In an October 5, 1997 St. Louis Post-Dispatch article, Jerry Berger once again announced that Zoe Robinson was on the move. She had sold her restaurant at 12 North Meremac to Mike Johnson, who would open Cafe Mira in the space.
Whether related to her divorce, her frustration with the parking in Clayton or her desire to try something new, Robinson closed the doors on her Cafe Zoe concept. In January of 1998, she moved to the Central West End, opening Zoe’s Pan-Asian on McPherson at Euclid.
But by the end of 2001, Zoe Robinson would
returned to Clayton. She would open I Fratellini, Bar Les Freres and
Billie-Jean on Wydown Boulevard — the former next door to the space where the Empire Cafe's chicken salad
had been sold.
Copyright © 2019