Illustration by Matt Lehman
Sadly, department stores are now a thing of the past in downtown St. Louis, after decades of retailers drawing customers elsewhere, where the parking was free. With the loss of Famous-Barr—that one-time holiday wonderland, where bundled-up families traveled to see the elaborate window displays—came the eventual disappearance of the Forum Cafeteria.
Located across Sixth Street, it had plenty of fans. On the Friday after Christmas, when customers flocked to Famous for sales and returns, lines would form out the door at Forum Cafeteria. A classic Art Deco interior, terrazzo floors, and streamlined aluminum furniture awaited.
Through a child’s eyes, the cafeteria’s offerings were jaw-dropping: yards of brightly colored food served in individual dishes, an oft-failed test of willpower that caused parental hissing. It was a mosaic of carrot-raisin and Jell-O salads, a dozen sides and an equal number of pies and cakes—surprisingly dramatic to the untutored eye. Where else in St. Louis could you find out-of-season strawberry shortcake? Yes, the juices were thickened and the biscuit was hard, but it was strawberries. It took years for me to manage cutting that shortcake biscuit without pieces flying onto my mother.
The best table was next to the balcony railing. There, you could watch overcoated folks stand in line, at a time when department stores still drew crowds to downtown.