There is something odd, if not disconcerting, about spying a $92 menu item during breakfast.
Fortunately, as I sat awaiting my French toast at a suburban St. Louis restaurant called Half and Half, I realized that the $92 item was not diamond-encrusted pancakes; it was dinner at a restaurant called Little Country Gentleman.
When did differentiating between two restaurants with different names become so demanding? When the two restaurants with different names are housed under the same roof.
From 7 a.m. until 2 p.m., the brick storefront amid a row of restaurants and retailers, operates as Half and Half, a fresh, modern take on breakfast and lunch. The room then is shuttered for four hours before reopening as the Little Country Gentleman, a gastronomic dinner adventure.
The restaurants share a dining room, walk-in refrigerators and a kitchen, where an image of young Bob Dylan, guitar in hand, lords over the proceedings. What they don't share are staff, menus or names.
Mike Randolph, 33, who has cooked in Chicago (Moto and M. Henry) and Charleston, S.C. (Peninsula Grill), opened Half and Half in 2011. It quickly became a hit, generating two-hour waits on the weekends. Yet he resisted when his general manager suggested that the restaurant stay open for dinner. Instead, he was struck with a novel idea: What about a completely different dinner experience in the same space?
The idea led to Little Country Gentleman, a restaurant he calls his "toy": There would be no fixed menu items but instead dishes that vary with the seasons, plus whatever inspires him at the moment. Randolph also owns a popular pizza spot in St. Louis called The Good Pie.
"Because of the shared-space thing, I didn't have the weight on my shoulders of having to structure a restaurant to pay off debt in Year 1," Randolph said. "I love making pizza and pancakes, but (the Little Country Gentleman) is what drives me."
On a recent trip to St. Louis, I visited the building on consecutive days for both sides of the Half and Half and the Little Country Gentleman experience.
I arrived at Half and Half about 10:30 a.m. on a Tuesday to find a space both modern (white tile, dark wood walls with inlaid mirrors) and comfortably retro (light bulbs dangling from the ceiling in glass jars). Modern rock music played softly above. Nearly every table was full.
I was given a menu of that week's coffees and a lengthy description of the "coffee program," which relies on smaller roasters, such as Blueprint (St. Louis), Madcap (Grand Rapids, Mich.) and Intelligentsia (Chicago).
The food didn't seem to offer much surprise at first glance: omelet and hash, French toast and pancakes, hamburgers and grilled cheese.
But a deeper look showed flair in each option. The French toast, made from brioche, was covered in blackberries and infused with mascarpone. The veggie hash didn't feature any cop-out ingredients, such as green pepper. Instead it boasted that most underrated of vegetables, Brussels sprouts. The burgers were composed of house-ground chuck, brisket and hanger steak. There was even a banh mi dog, which was a hot dog topped with pickled vegetables, jalapeno, cilantro and cucumber.
And the French toast was no disappointment, arriving thick and fresh and doused in blackberries that veered tart rather than sweet. The mascarpone added a creamy backbone. At my server's suggestion, I paired the French toast with a locally sourced sausage patty that was fresh, lightly herbal and a pleasantly greasy counterpoint.
As my meal wound down, I spied the $92 fixed-price Little Country Gentleman dinner on a chalkboard above the restaurant's open kitchen, where dishes were churned out for a dining room that never slowed. I asked Half and Half's chef, Chip Bates, what I could expect at dinner.
"This is in your face and fast paced. That's slower, and you spend a lot more time on each plate," Bates said of the Little Country Gentleman. "There's kind of a big brother, little brother thing."
Who is the big brother, I asked.
"Depends on who you ask," he said.