“Leon Bierbaum is a fabulous host!!” wrote someone on the website TripAdvisor. Yes. And we’ve lost him. Leon ran the eponymous Chez Leon, first on Laclede where Brasserie by Niche is now, and then briefly in Clayton. He died on May 2, 2016.
Leon, with his silver hair and always-impeccable style, was, when I first met him, at Eddie (Neill)’s Steak and Chop in Clayton. He looked...well, imposing. Dignified, at the very least. But when he opened Chez Leon, we quickly bonded over agreement on the right way to make salade Lyonnaise and our love of a dish not on the menu, oeufs meurette, eggs in a red wine sauce.
Chez Leon was very much a real French bistro, right down to the hat rack. But at times, Leon treated it like his living room. One of the most memorable nights was when he brought in cabaret singer Steve Ross and a piano. It felt like a private party – it wasn’t, there’d been notice given weeks beforehand, it was just that intimate and relaxed. A dedicated Francophile, Leon organized road trips in France for his buddies, ones the participants talked about for years afterwards.
When he became ill, Leon was the concierge at the Gatesworth, and working the front of the house at Tony’s on weekends – years before, he had worked at Anthony’s. He was the epitome of the Bommarito employee. “If you had designed someone to do that job, you couldn’t have done any better,” said Vincent Bommarito, the restaurant’s patriarch. “He looked great, he was always so calm and so patient. He was such an elegant guy.”
Francophile or not, you couldn’t take the Marthasville (MO) out of the boy. I remember him arriving at a July 4th birthday party bearing a raspberry tart, the berries, he beamingly assured us, from his home town. To my recollection, his shirt matched the tart.
Leon’s leaving us was very low-key, in keeping with his overall style. We’ll toast him with a nice Haut-Brion and some pâté.
There’ll be a less formal wake, sans pâté and Haut-Brion, at Rosie’s Place, the bar on Laclede across from the old site of Chez Leon, on the evening of Bastille Day, July 14.
The bar and back bar at Chez Leon in Clayton