Nick Luedde’s voice was so passionate—and so loud—while discussing his new restaurant, The Libertine (scheduled to open this month at 7927 Forsyth), that he felt embarrassed enough to buy lunch for a nearby complainer. The man voted among Chicago’s best sommeliers and mixologists then whispered the remaining details of how The Libertine’s atmosphere and blockbuster team of sommeliers (including Luedde’s wife), managers, and chefs (including Josh Galliano) will offer Clayton a dining experience that every neighborhood covets—in his words, “transcendent food at exorbitantly affordable prices.” Go ahead and speak up, Nick. That’s something to shout about.
You won several different awards while in Chicago.
I did, but I tend to blow that stuff off. That said, getting your name in the paper a few times can help get you a tough restaurant reservation.
Did you have a mentor there?
My mentor is here: Jimmy Kristo [of Jimmy’s on the Park Café]. During the several years I worked for him, I learned all I needed to know about how to work the floor. Ever seen Bill Clinton work a room? Same thing. It’s a verbal hug. Some call it old school; I call it hospitality. Dude should write a book.
Oh, I’ve had other mentors, like Greg Harrington, the master sommelier. I thought I knew everything about wine until I met him, and then realized that I knew nothing. He’s a think tank for wine.
Where did you meet him?
He worked for BR Guest Hospitality, one of the biggest multi-unit operators in the world, parent company of Fiamma Trattoria, Blue Fin, Blue Water Grill, all the J Bar’s—kind of a higher-end Lettuce Entertain You. Now he makes wine. Natural progression, I guess. He’s making Tempranillo in Washington state, at a place called Gramercy Cellars, and it’s good.
Restaurant service is criticized, not just here but across the country. What’s your plan for doing it better?
The first questions that Tom MacDonald—who owns Webster’s Wine Bar in Chicago—asks in an interview are: “What else is the person into? What interests them? What—besides food and wine—could the customers relate to or learn?” That made sense to me.
The best servers are those you’d want to spend some time getting to know. Then, they need to multitask without losing it, and know how to move through a space—this is right out of Danny Meyer’s book. The cuisine? That’s why I hired Josh [Galliano]. He can teach that. Beverages? I can teach you all about that.
So experience isn’t important to you?
You’re hiring jadedness; it’s hard to untrain that. I’d rather focus on passion. Wine is not a career move for most, for example, but I bet my passion for wine would rub off on you just a little.
What was your most memorable part of being in Chicago?
I worked for a company, Feast Catering, that catered a lot of touring shows: The Stones, Paul McCartney, Britney Spears… I had many a discussion about wine.
Who was fun to hang with?
Brian Dennehy, when he was in town doing Death of a Salesman. Wine, scotch, cocktails—he and I covered a lot of ground. Matthew Broderick was shy; Sarah Jessica Parker was just the opposite. She’d pour wine at other tables and walk right into the kitchen. Mel Brooks was awesome. He asked my name, I told him “Nick,” and he’d say, “I have a son named Nick,” which put me at ease. Comparing notes later with staffers, we figured out he had a daughter named Susan, another son named Bill… He worked that same bit the whole month he was in Chicago.
Your favorite celebrity?
Tom Hanks is the nicest guy you’ll ever meet.
Are St. Louisans any different than Chicagoans?
St. Louisans are a bit more relaxed and approachable. Up there, the pace and expense and difficulty of getting around can make people…angry. Here, we want to park right out in front.
Is the dining scene significantly different in Chicago?
I don’t know that it is. There are more people there who have a massive amount of disposable income. Dropping a couple of hundred bucks at dinner on a Tuesday night is no big deal. That part is different. And the restaurants respond to that.
But there’s no place like The Violet Hour here?
Not true. Taste, Sanctuaria, Blood & Sand… People visiting from Chicago say it’s just as good or better here. Niche, Farmhaus, Sidney Street… They’re killing it. That is why I came here. Chicago just has more of those places… We have six; they have 60. Hopefully, we’ll have one more. That, and I had a 1-year-old and just didn’t want him to grow up a Cubs fan, [smiling] accustomed to failure.
Talk about this team you’ve assembled.
The best talent is often the 24-year-old kid who hasn’t been discovered yet, so I try to surround myself with people like that. My GMs, Victoria Mitchell and Nate Weber, managed restaurants in Chicago and at Home Wine Kitchen here. My wife will be one of the sommeliers. And sous chef Josh Poletti [from Niche, Monarch, and Dressel’s Public House] will assist Josh.
How important is it having Josh Galliano in the kitchen?
Oh, not very… It’s just everything. People will come because we have a killer chef. We’ve got a Picasso in the kitchen, but we’ll charge prices like when Picasso was still alive.
Josh has become known for his fried chicken. Will that item play a part?
I’d like to pair that fried chicken with champagne, a weekly Sunday supper, because, hey, what goes better with chicken than champagne?
Can you pigeonhole the concept?
It’s an amalgamation. How about “transcendent food at exorbitantly affordable prices?” To give diners the best food we can means involving the local farmers; to call us simply a farm-to-table restaurant is a compliment, but it sells us short. Every good restaurant is a farm-to-table restaurant.
What’s transcendent food?
Food you’ve hopefully never experienced before—something similar, maybe, but different. Often such experiences come with pretension. That will not happen at The Libertine. The last thing we want you to feel is intimidated.
How will you handle menu-item descriptions? Overly detailed explanations can come off as pretentious, too.
I hate all of that. But if something special needs to be mentioned—a rare, heirloom breed of pig, for example—we’ll certainly mention that.
You have opinions on certain kinds of food.
I love innovation, but certain things—certain classics—are sometimes better left alone. French-style escargot, for example, with herbed butter and a little bread for dipping, are perfect just like that. I say don’t mess with it.
You also said that appropriately: The Libertine will defy some conventions.
Diners are often more forgiving—in food, service, drinks—when dealing with their neighborhood restaurant. We’d like to change that, and open a place where we’d like to eat, without having to compromise.
Will you accept reservations?
We will. I wasn’t going to, but I don’t want to see people—and that includes me—waiting who knows how long for dinner. I believe diners mentally allocate a fixed amount of time for dinner, especially if they have kids at home. Reservations allow them to keep within that framework. We’ll accommodate walk-ins as well. We’ve designed the bar and waiting area to be as comfortable as possible, but you can still leave if you want, and we’ll text you when your table is ready.
Discuss parking. That’s always an issue in St. Louis.
There’s this perception that there’s no parking in Clayton, which is ridiculous. But because the perception exists, we will offer free valet parking. Since it is an issue, I say, “Fine, just give it to ’em, especially since people tend to remember the free stuff.”
Can you do a quality cocktail for less money? Ten to $12 per seems to be the going rate.
Most do so because they can. Ours will be $8 or $10 on the high end, and that’s just because some components are more expensive. There’ll be a 10-to-15 item cocktail menu, with more emphasis on classics than on specialty drinks. Peter Vestinos, who [was a renowned mixologist at] Sepia in Chicago, will help me both write that menu and train the staff.
You say Libertine is “fun, comfortable, stylish, and perhaps, even a little bit sexy.” Elaborate on that last part.
My idea was to take an English pub and shove it inside a sexy, circa-1930s French salon. Both epitomize the best in socializing, so why not fuse them? The key is to make it as comfortable for three guys having a drink as for a couple on a date. You do that by using different gradients of light throughout the space: lights set at angles, accent lights, back lighting. Plus cushions with four-hour padding, nice wall treatments—the same comforts you have at home. My mom said, “I feel like I’m in an old country house that someone dropped a pub into.” Exactly.
How will you address noise?
There are sound diffusers all around, with carpet placed under tables and chairs. A restaurant floor is no place for carpet, in my opinion. Spills equal smells. Later, I hope to arrange the facade so that you can sit and dine at the bar, basically outside, which will also dissipate noise. That element has been done everywhere but here.
How large a part will your wife, Audra, play?
We’ve worked side by side for a long time. I get to work with my best friend. We’re good at it. I’m not sure we could do it any other way. She’s a sommelier and is culinarily trained, but since we have a child, we’ll tag team our time at the restaurant.
You originally wanted to do a restaurant called Verona. It even had a website. What happened to that idea?
It was to be true Northern Italian, Piedmontese cuisine—simple sauces, game meats. It might have been too aggressive, though, requiring too much education, especially as a flagship. Now, Verona well could be the second place…or a Ligurian restaurant. So many ideas.
You’re a certified sommelier. Any wine surprises up your sleeve?
We’re planning to do an organic King Estate Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir—both on tap—for less than $8 a glass, along with about 20 glass pours from $9 to $12.
Do you have any other interests?
I’ve written several fiction books, short stories, novellas, a book of poetry—the kind of metaphysical nonsense you write in your 20s. That’s how I originally got into wine. I was on a book tour, and all of the other authors knew about wine but me. I was feeling left out of their club, so I took it as a personal challenge.
Are you still writing?
I am. [Smiles] But right now I’m busy opening a restaurant.