Literary City Guide | St. LOUIS, MISSOURI
Tour Guide: t.j. olwig
Born and raised in the Gateway to the West, T.J. is a writer with a love for philosophy, travel and good coffee. He’s lived in Colorado, Spain and Southern California and frequently contributes to Islands magazine. This summer he will complete a major passion project of his: Fetch in 50, a quest to visit and play fetch in all fifty states with his yellow lab, Gus. You can track their adventure in Betty White (that’s his car, and home on the road) and read his essays at tjolwig.com.
Relationship to St. Louis: I've lived here 24 of my 30 years on planet Earth.
Chef you’d like to prepare the meal: Hmm… I’m not familiar with many chefs. Does my mom count? She’s my gluten bodyguard.
Writing soundtrack: Ravi Shankar, Monks of the Abbey of Santo Domingo de Silos, any type of jazz. But usually, silence is my recipe if writing. My noise-canceling headphones? I don’t leave home with ‘em.
Pen or Pencil: Pen, always. Ink has conviction.
Coffee or Tea? Espresso.
Paperback or Hardback? Anything but digital. I need to feel the text.
Subterranean Books. It’s warm, well-curated and smack-dab in the heart of The Loop, St. Louis’ most eclectic and entertaining neighborhood in University City.
Left Bank Books. St. Louis’ oldest independent bookstore, and most popular, dates back to the 60’s. They’re the local leader in events with 300-plus per year and a multitude of book clubs.
Hammonds Antiques & Books. A walk through these doors on Cherokee Street feels a bit like time travel. French music from way-back-when plays while you roam the two-story city building. It’s family-owned with out-of-print books and a magical charm.
Central Public Library. The architecture alone will leave you awe-struck. Marble stairways, stained-glass windows, and reading rooms abound. The 100-plus year old palatial structure became possible due to a $1 million donation from Andrew Carnegie. After an extensive two-year renovation, it reopened in 2012. The Great Hall is stunning, like a scene from Harry Potter.
St. Louis Mercantile Library. Originating in 1864, this is the oldest library west of the Mississippi. No longer at its original location, its special collections, which focus on Westward Expansion, American rail and river transportation history, and even archival presidential letters, now sit on the campus at the University of Missouri St. Louis. Mark Twain, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Oscar Wilde once spoke here.
READINGS & CONFERENCES
Maryville Talks Books Presented by Maryville University and Left Bank Books. As a writer, I love to get a glimpse behind the curtain of successful authors and their process and habits. I’ve attended conversations with Judy Blume, Elizabeth Gilbert and John Grogan. The mood is light and I always leave with a spring and creative boost to my writing psyche. It depends on the author, but admission is often free.
St. Louis Speaker Series by Maryville University. This event has built quite the résumé of global dignitaries, from Jane Goodall and Colin Powell to Tom Brokaw and Margaret Thatcher. Each year seven new speakers take the stage at St. Louis’ historic Powell Symphony Hall. Past writer-speakers include historian David McCullough, poet Maya Angelou, and journalist Tom Wolfe.
River Styx. An ongoing series of literature readings and a magazine that dates to 1975. All are welcome to join their Monday night gatherings that feature poetry, essays and fiction. They are St. Louis’ oldest literary publication.
Urban Matter. Everything is well curated and intentional at this home and accessories boutique in Dutchtown, a testament to owner Mary Hennesy. Most goods are from local makers and artists, including soaps, stationery and jewelry.
Hemingway Daiquiri at Publico. Grapefruit, maraschino, and lime made with Rhum J.M. White rum agricole (the good stuff).
St. Louis Walk of Fame. Walk down Delmar in the Loop and stare at the stars of St. Louis’ most prolific writers. Names like Tennessee Williams, Maya Angelou, T.S. Eliot and Beat writer William Burroughs, whose tombstone with the engraving of “American Writer” is in North St. Louis, line the sidewalk.
Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis. If you’re looking for peace and quiet coupled with one of the most beautiful churches on the planet, visit what’s known in St. Louis as “the New Cathedral.” It has the largest collection of mosaics in the world. My jaw drops every time I enter. The stillness is a true refuge for a writer seeking clarity.
The first time I ever saw St. Louis, I could have bought it for six million dollars, and it was the mistake of my life that I did not do it.
–Mark Twain, 188
Blueprint Coffee. If you’re looking for a first-class coffee experience, Blueprint Coffee in U. City is the destination. The baristas are knowledgeable (and nationally competitive), the space is beautiful (with lots of sunlight), and the coffee is divine (smoothest espresso alive). You’ll run into creators of all types here and plenty of Washington University students.
Comet Coffee & Microbakery. The best chocolate croissant this side of the pond is right here in St. Louis city. Their coffee program is top-notch too with rotating roasters and spot-on baristas. Frank might be the nicest barista I’ve ever met. Be sure not to leave without a piece of the egg quiche or a slice of a seasonal pie.
Sump Coffee. This place is not for the average Starbucks customer. Sump serves delicious pour-overs and has a strict no cream and sugar policy. I love how payment isn’t due until you leave. Walk in, order your drink, they write it down, and settle when you’re finished.
Rise Coffee. Located in The Grove, an up-and-coming St. Louis neighborhood, Rise feels like a 90’s coffee joint but with coffee-of-the-day. I love the bar area, the old typewriter and the “Wake Up, Kick Ass, Repeat” sign. Great sunlight enters through its large front windows.
A PROPER MEAL
Retreat Gastropub. This corner bar in the Central West End is stellar on all fronts. I’m not a cocktail drinker by any stretch of the imagination, but Tim Wiggins behind-the-bar magic has me exploring new terrain. The smoky-fresh Oaxaca Flocka Flame with tequila is my go-to. As for dinner, it’s a burger and shoestring fries. Both are the best in town.
Público. Chef and serial-restaurateur Mike Randolph has set the bar for dining in St. Louis where small plates are the theme at his new Latin-inspired restaurant, one that’s receiving national acclaim. I always start with the guacamole that comes stacked on pancake-thin (and crispy) corn arepas. These satisfy my gluten-tooth. For dinner, the brisket tacos on their in-house tortillas feature the most tender meat you’ll ever eat. Two orders, please.
Mission Taco Joint. Speaking of tacos, and right down the street from Público, Mission Taco is nailing the West coast street taco thing. The Portobello mushroom tacos with goat cheese and arugula are my staple. They also have some of the freshest (and most potent) margaritas around. Be careful.
Seedz Café. For the longest time, St. Louis has struggled in the health arena of eating, but not anymore. Seedz has both cold-pressed juices and the best veggie burger I’ve ever eaten. Located in the quaint DeMun neighborhood, Seedz had me at “100% organic.”
Ices Plain & Fancy. Nitrogen-infused ice cream. What does that mean? It means your taste buds will send you a thank you card. The ice cream is flash-churned at -321 degrees for the silkiest of textures. So sit back, relax and watch the science experiment unfold.
Ted Drewes Frozen Custard. I’d be exiled for all of St. Louis eternity if I failed to mention this local landmark dating back over 80 years. In the summertime, expect long lines of both locals and tourists. You can’t go wrong with the mint chip concrete. Ted Drewes is a custard mecca.
Kakao Chocolate. A small-batch, artisan chocolatier bringing world-class chocolate to the heart of the Midwest. I dare, no, double dare you to go just once.
t.j.'s 5 Favorites
1. Favorite bookstore: Subterranean Books. Cute and cozy with handwritten recommendations make this Delmar bookstore the best in town.
2. Favorite place to write: Anywhere with ample sunlight and a comfy chair.
3. Favorite museum: History Museum. It has continuing exhibits like the “1904 World’s Fair” exhibition that was held in St. Louis. My favorite though was this winter’s “Coffee: The World in Your Cup & St. Louis in Your Cup.”
4. Favorite coffee shop: Blueprint Coffee. Best. Espresso. Going. Period.
5. Favorite thing about St. Louis: St. Louis is a big city with a small town feel. It has a rich history, genuine people and four seasons that my soul craves. Things fly under the radar here, really, but it will be on food and travel lists in the near future. If St. Louis was near a coast, it’d be one of the most visited places in the U.S.