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From teen waitress to James Beard semifinalist | How Zoe Robinson inspires the STL food scene

The woman behind Billie Jean, Bar Les Freres and I Fratellini was profiled in Vogue for staying "front and center" in the Midwest culinary scene
Credit: 5 On Your Side

This story is a companion piece to the Abby Eats St. Louis podcast episode titled 'Going Vogue for 2020.' Click here to give it a listen and hear more of our interview with Zoe Robinson.

CLAYTON, Mo. — Zoe Robinson’s restaurant row on Wydown Avenue in Clayton is as charming as it is sexy.

Afterall, she was profiled in Vogue magazine for staying “front and center” in the Midwest culinary scene.

The restaurateur started as a teenage waitress at a chain restaurant. Now, she’s the James Beard Award finalist who runs Billie Jean, Bar Les Freres and I Fratellini.

“I feel like I’m the luckiest person in the world,” she said while sitting among the moody walls of Billie Jean.

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As the new year—and all those resolutions—gets underway, Robinson sat down with Abby Llorico for an episode of the Abby Eats St. Louis podcast to talk about what motivates her to be the best version of herself. 

"I think every day I have resolutions. I'm that person. How can I improve on me tomorrow? What did I do today? So, no, I don't do that once a year. Do it everyday," she said.

Robinson shared some advice on how to others can resolve to be better not just at the beginning of the new year, but every day of 2020.

1. Your personality doesn’t evolve, it has different aspects. Let each of them shine.

Robinson opened Billie Jean in late 2017 to quite a bit of buzz.

“It felt wonderful getting that type of attention and quite honestly, I don't want to turn into a dinosaur. And for me, the only next move when I had Bar Les Freres and I Fratellini, I just thought I can't fade away. I'm in my prime. And I really felt like, well, the only way to keep building on my reputation and to keep building my career is to open something new.”

2. If you’re drawn to something, stick with it, even if you have to wait for it. It’ll pay off.

“When I wanted to open Bar Les Freres, I would just be staring out the window at that space and I would think, oh God, I could make that so wonderful. It was the Wydown shoe repair for 88 years. And I would go over and say, hi, mr Zarrillo, how are things going? You're ready to retire? Yeah, I would call, you know, the landlord and you know, hound him. If mr Cirilo ever wants to leave, I'm here. And again, it happened.

3. Don’t compromise on the aesthetic, even if your motif is a bit obscure, at first. And remember, details matter.

“For me, it’s going after this space and then the space dictates what it’s going to be,” Robinson said while sitting Billie Jean.

She fell in love with a window in the back of the restaurant that looked very “New York.” Her contractor said it had to go.

“I said, no, no, no. That’s why I want this space. I just thought this is very Manhattan. It’s so new York and I want to make it that way and I want that vibe. I also wanted something really elegant. I wanted a white tablecloth restaurant, but we have an open kitchen. So, it’s kind of a fun juxtaposition. It’s casual, but it’s formal and you can definitely come in here in blue jeans and a t-shirt or it can be your anniversary dinner where you’re wearing sequins.”

4. Embrace imperfections. Focus instead on overall experiences.

Robinson said learning lessons from when things aren’t going so well are some of her favorite things.

“We’re not perfect and we screw up all the time,” she said candidly. “We mesed up a reservation the other and I had to talk to the customer about it. I told him, ‘I’m so sorry. We’re not perfect and we want to be, but what can I do to make this better? And I think that’s our challenge every night. It won’t always go well and what lesson can we learn? How can you take a bad situation and make that customer fell like you went the extra mile to make them happy?”

She said her team works to make diners’ experience memorable in a good way, even when the crew has made a mistake.

“If you're here with your boyfriend and your meal is perfect and his isn't and he has to send his back, I want to make sure that his steak not only gets sent back and re-cooked, I want to put something in front of him to keep him busy and also make you feel comfortable to go ahead and eat your meal and not let it get cold. And then his food comes out, and then I want to take that off of his check. I certainly don't want him to have to pay for that and then maybe I'll buy you dessert, you know, for the trouble. So, those are the things that we do to try to save your evening and to make you leave here happy. Even though we've made a mistake.”

5. Try something new… wherever you can.

“I think that sometimes we have to break our habits and try new things,“ Robinson said.

She encouraged diners to break their cycle of usual favorite spots and get out of their comfort zone.

“I think that people have a list of five restaurants that they go to and that’s their cycle. A lot of people are guilty of that, and I’m guilty of that. Support local restaurants and get out there.”

About Abby Eats St. Louis

Abby Llorico tells the story of St. Louis based on what’s on the table. From the hunger for local ingredients, to the booming brunch scene and the craving for creative cocktails, Abby dives into the nitty-gritty of how St. Louis grew to become the foodie town that it is.

Abby Eats St. Louis is available for free on all podcast apps. Take a listen to our latest episodes in the audio player above. We’ve also included links to some of the most popular podcast platforms below.

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