Cafe Zoe

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.

The Houks were really very talented. My husband was an accountant at Union Electric, where we met, but he loved to write, and had a brother who studied cooking at the Cordon Bleu and another who worked as a commercial artist and invented Tony the Tiger.

Houk's father died from cancer when she was a young girl.

My family felt like we were outcasts after my dad died. I was 5 years old, and there were no single-parent homes on the block. It was rough to be square pegs in round holes. My mom had that whole "Doris Day thing" going on — beautiful and soft, yet tough. Other women saw her as a threat, and even I wouldn’t have wanted to be her neighbor.

Billie and Jean Houk
May 13th, 1950
Belinda, Carrie and Zoe
St. Louis Arts Awards, 2019

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."

I was in college, early days of college, and I got a job in a restaurant. I fell in love with it. I fell in love with the money; I fell in love with the camaraderie; I fell in love with the idea of learning service and learning cocktails and learning wine and learning food.

I worked in a corporate restaurant first. They really tested the heck out of us and I can remember flashcards and really studying. I found it so much more engaging than school. I found myself not going to class and picking up more shifts and working more. The job made me happy and I was really good at it, so I gave up on college.

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.

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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.

Northeast corner Park Avenue and Mississippi, Lafayette Square, mid 1980s

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:

Everything at the Empire is presented with style and grace, and the chicken salad is, quite simply, the best in the area. The sandwich is huge, and the large chunks of chicken are delightfully flavored. The combination of chicken salad and large portion made for a bit of a messiness, but it’s well worth it.

The creamy, all-white-meat chicken salad was so popular, it was available for takeout at both the Ladue and Wydown Markets.

Empire Cafe and Charcuterie, 1923 Park Avenue
Jill Mead and Susan Vaughn

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.

It was a fluke. I was working for these two women and they were highly successful. They hated each other and they wound up suing each other. And the restaurant closed.

That was right when Lafayette Square was just getting going and they really needed that restaurant there. It was helping build their community. John Ferring owned the building and told me he'd lend me the money to take it over. I think it was $18,000 but it felt like a million to me.

So it just worked out. I was 23 years old.

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 months later.

Cafe Zoe - 1923 Park Avenue
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Nov 7, 1988
Steve Robinson and Zoe Houk
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 16, 1984

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.

Cafe Zoe Dining Room - 1923 Park Avenue
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Nov 7, 1988

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.

We were too scared to make all the decisions ourselves, and probably afraid to rely on our instincts, but we realized right away that it wasn’t going to work. The menu wasn’t right, and the chef was into high-prep foods with sauces. We wanted things simple.

And I’ll tell you, if the chef and consultant had stayed, we wouldn’t have made it. Our concepts were totally different.

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."

Ny Vongsaly
St. Louis Homes + Lifestyles, 2013

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.

Special dishes 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 Lunch Menu, 1984
(click image to enlarge)
Cafe Zoe's Oriental Chicken Salad
St. Louis Magazine, 1984

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."

Eni Liu, Zoe Houk, and Lucy Bommarito
St. Louis Dining, 1985

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.

Cafe Zoe Dining Room - 12 North Meremac
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Nov 24, 1991

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 mozzarella. The spinach, pine nuts, sun-dried tomatoes and fontinella dish was a favorite.

Partial Cafe Zoe Dinner Menu, 1991

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.

Wydown Market, 7622 Wydown I Fratellini, 7624 Wydown

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