September 3, 2019
Cafe Belle Epoque
DEFINITION: Having a value that is not limited to a particular period and will continue.
Walking into Café Belle Epoque takes you back in time. The copper tin ceiling, marble table tops, hardwood floors, wood-burning stove and jazz music seem to transport you to a period of economic glamour in historic St. Joseph.
In its European origin, “belle epoque” means a period of time from around 1871 to 1914 when many artistic and cultural innovations flourished, a.k.a., a time when a lot of creative and beautiful stuff was made. If the name fits, wear it – and owner and chef Olin Cox wears it well.
This expertly-renovated space, located at 1141 Frederick Avenue in the historic Ryan Block, opened its doors nearly two years ago and has been creating a local buzz ever since. It could be the regionally-sourced menu, hitting it hard on an uncomplicated list of salads, sandwiches, entrees and desserts. Or maybe it’s that Cox had already created his own foodie following with his fresh breads and memorable meals and his 1885 Whiskey Mansion B and B. Or perhaps the daily din of customer conversations at Café Belle Epoque is tied to its elegant yet casual atmosphere, with cozy seating and plenty of clever touches.
A glance at Facebook and it’s clear that Cox has his eye on community, giving frequent shout-outs to his next-door neighbor, Friedrich’s Market (an indoor farmer’s market filled with local foods) and St. Joseph’s own Liberty Cap beer, served at the Café Belle Époque bar. Even the eggs he uses for dozens of homemade sourdough waffles and gourmet Eggs Benedict on a Saturday brunch come from a local farmer.
Ultimately, Cox believes the meals and the feeling generated by Belle Epoque are part of a much larger picture. “We are promoting the district as ‘Frederick Village,’ and with a focus toward local and fresh, we want to involve the community in bringing a change toward a better lifestyle and food choices,” says Cox. “My goal is to see Frederick Village be a place where people in the greater St Joseph area go for entertainment. We can accomplish this through further historic preservation and attracting entrepreneurs that want to bring quality experiences to our town.”
This goal is well underway, with customers commenting on the freshness and quality of the food at Café Belle Epoque. The bacon gets a little extra love – it’s sourced from Paradise Meat Locker in Trimble, Mo., and is unashamedly called by Cox “the best bacon … really, really good bacon.” Thus, the BLT is a crowd favorite, stacked high on homemade bread and served with heirloom tomatoes. (Sourdough is notoriously a high-maintenance member of the bread family, but many say he’s the master). Cox has a rich travel history, including extensive time in Europe and Asia, which allows for the European atmosphere to flourish – yet features foods people understand and appreciate. This travel experience also influences the extensive wine list, one of the most diverse in the city.
What pairs better with all this culinary expertise on a Saturday morning than occasional jazz or live music? (Maybe nothing, unless it’s the mimosas.) Cox offers local music on a regular basis, setting the tone for lingering and enjoying the best of what’s around. Happy hour specials pop up often on social media, as well as tempting descriptions of the desserts. Even with dessert, the chef and owner isn’t messing around; there’s caramel date cake with ice cream. Sticky toffee pudding cake a la mode. Or Bourbon pecan pie, which prompts customers to say “there’s nothing else like it.”
Customers also say that the salad is not to be overlooked, but savored and genuinely looked forward to. The wedge salad, for example, is topped with more of that really good bacon, fresh cucumber, heirloom tomato, and a house-made blue cheese and ranch dressing that could be star of the whole show. There are warm seasonal salads topped with caramelized Brussel sprouts, local cheeses and other delicious things. Entrees include the lemon basil chicken and artichoke white lasagna, or Italian meatballs made with Paradise Meat Locker beef and pork. For a sandwich, options include Sid’s Roast Beef on homemade rye with melted Swiss and au juis. It’s no surprise media mentions for Café Belle Epoque include KansasCity.com, which listed it as a “destination” for visiting fans to Chiefs Camp, as well as part of an emerging food and entertainment district.
Good things are happening all around the Ryan Block neighborhood, like Friedrich’s Market, River Bluff Brewing and Il Lazzarone, but it’s easy to spot Café Belle Epoque on a casual drive on Frederick Avenue toward downtown. The bright front windows, cast iron trim and colorful interiors are enough. There’s also the building’s corner “tower,” a two-story oriel window that showcases another chapter in St. Joseph’s much-admired architectural legacy.
Now, here’s your short but important history lesson, even though you will be fully distracted by the Café Belle Epoque menu if you visit. Built in 1889, the building was part of a busy street lined with small stores, like grocery markets, taverns and small factories. They were positioned as a sort of gateway toward downtown, and many in this area boasted significant architectural flair as the city sprung to economic prosperity in the late 19th century and early 20th century. The original owner, John B. Ryan, immigrated to the U.S. in 1849, arriving in Andrew County from Philadelphia in 1858. Interestingly, Ryan was part of the Missouri militia in 1862 and a driver for the Overland Stage Company. The first floor of 1411 Frederick had a meat market and a grocery store; townhouses with 12-foot ceilings made up the second floor. Ryan was known for having fresh, high-quality meats and business boomed – and all the while he took an interest and a passion in the local community and civic progress.
In this way, history really does repeat itself as Cox’s efforts continue. “When we support local, we not only create a unique district, but we also create opportunity for artists, farmers, and craftsmen through the area,” he says.
Maybe the most special ingredient Cox uses is time. All of the food takes time, especially with everything made fresh and local. This explains why the kitchen area doesn’t really have much of a freezer, only enough to keep the ice cream – and why the menu changes seasonally.
Or sooner, if creating something fresh and beautiful from local food calls for it.
You don’t get on billboards in New York City, praised by publications like Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly and perform alongside rock legends without breaking some rules.
When visitors and locals visit historic Hall Street in St. Joseph, they usually look up. A lot. And then they stop and stare. They take pictures and walk very slowly. They usually return, because this neighborhood known as “Millionaire’s Row” tells the story of St. Joseph’s turn-of-the century wealth and opulence like nothing else.
What does it take to become a local legend in sandwich-making? The recipe calls for a family history of food know-how, plus a generous amount of business savvy.
Added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978, this architectural feat, designed by esteemed local architects Eckel and Mann, is getting a second life thanks to a $20 million shot in the arm from Mosaic Life Care.
Games of chance and dining establishments have been a part of St. Joseph, Missouri’s uncommon character since the earliest settlers gathered to let off some steam and gamble on optimistic odds.