How did you get started in the restaurant and catering biz?
I started in the restaurant biz with my brother, Ron. In 1989 I wanted my own place, but I was interviewing at the Hilton in Clayton for the position of banquet manager.
After I left the interview, I drove past the former Velvet Freeze on Hanley Road. There was a For Sale sign in the window. I called the number and it turns out it was someone from my parish St. Dominic Savio who was selling the business. I made an offer for the whole place but only had 10,000. I partnered with a friend and the deal was sealed. We signed in September of 1988 and opened in January of 1989. We had to keep changing the opening date due to all of the renovation and work that needed to be done with the place.
The business was slow to start. My partner and I worked double shifts and slept on a cot in the basement of the restaurant. The first year we each made 15,000.
Thankfully, the business took off. We quickly learned that quality service and good food meant a lot to the neighborhood. We opened Manhattan Express at the corner of Wydown and Hanley in 1992 to keep up with the business of delivery and carryout. Four years later, we opened a Café Manhattan south on Tesson-Ferry near Lindbergh.
How did you come up with the name and the theme?
Right before all of this happened, my friend and I flew to New York City and while we were there, we looked through phone books, checking out restaurants from other states. We took bits and pieces of everything that we saw and experienced, landed on the name Café Manhattan and started building our menu.
Where did you get all of the cool memorabilia and tchocke that fills your restaurant?
We went to an auction to buy a pizza over and while we were there, we saw a Coca Cola sign, circa 1934. We bought that and the pizza oven. The Coca Cola sign hangs on the south wall of the dining room and the pizza oven is still working after 31 years. We invested in the Wurlitzer jukebox–$7000.00!
Elvis is a strong presence in your restaurant. Please explain.
I was at an estate sale and bought an entire collection of Elvis record albums.
Went back to our roots…In Clayton, we been with families as they’ve changed and grown. Recently a former busboy came to visit with his four children! Business has been good…but you don’t think you can just survive on regulars.
Besides the food and service, why do you think people come to Café Manhattan?
We run a clean business—I pride myself on cleanliness. From the bathrooms to the utensils, I oversee the cleaning. The place is nostalgic and people love it. It’s casual, comfortable…good food, and reliable.
What’s new at Café Manhattan?
With both the restaurant menu and the catering menu we’ve tried to keep up with what people want. We have gluten-free and vegan options , and we’ve recently expanded our pizza line to take & bake.
See and be seen! Among the regulars are some familiar faces who’ve dined at the restaurant:
Tony La Russa
Café Manhattan is proud to support:
Clayton Chamber of Commerce
Zoo-fari of the St. Louis Zoo
St. Louis Science Center
St. Louis Art Fair
Taste of Clayton
The Clayton Greyhounds
Some of our “Best-of” Menu Items
Best Veggie Sandwich, Sauce Magazine, 2012
Best Pizza, St. Louis Magazine, 2007
Best Beef Sandwich, 101 the Fox, JC
Best Deli Sandwiches, Allan Cohen
Best Milkshake (hand-dipped), The Riverfont Times, 2000