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Farewell to Duff's from one who knew it well

Karen Duffy, left, and Margaret Kelly, a Duff's waiter since 1978.
Harper Barnes | St. Louis Beacon | 2013

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: "Welcome to our tavern, a fine and public place

to rest and talk, in momentary stay,

where food loves drink, and life and art embrace."

-- Jon Dressel, founder of Dressel's pub, in a poem read at Duff's

The cadaverous man in the gray narrow-lapel suit and fedora hat leans into the overhead light, grabs the lectern and launches into a wild tale of a highly unorthodox operating room and a crazed surgeon. In a sharply nasal voice, he snarls,

"Dr. Benway...looks around and picks up one of those rubber vacuum cups at the end of a stick they use to unstop toilets.... He advances on the patient... 'Make an incision, Doctor Limpf,' he says to the appalled assistant.... 'I'm going to massage the heart.'"

The crowd roars and William Burroughs really gets rolling on the luridly funny tale of Dr. Benway, one of the heroes of the novel "Naked Lunch." The mad doctor jams the toilet plunger into the open chest of the patent and blood spurts as Benway boasts of performing an appendectomy with a rusty sardine can and removing a tumor with his teeth. The crowd is rapt, sitting and standing in the bar and the main dining room of Duff's, and, in my case, jammed onto a tiny balcony at the rear of the main room. Burroughs looks out upon us and grins, his teeth sparkling, vaguely vampiric, and continues his bloodthirsty tale.

It was a memorable performance, dredged up from my memory because Karen Duffy, the proprietor of Duff's, has just hauled out a fat scrapbook, one of a number she has collected over the years, and we've come upon a flyer for  Burroughs' reading, back in 1981.

We have been discussing the sad news that Duff's, a Central West End mainstay of food, drink, and poetry for 41 years, is closing this month. (Owners Duffy and Tim Kirby decided it was time to retire. They have sold it to a local group that plans to open an Italian restaurant there in the fall.) The literary aura projected over the years by Duff's, as well as by Left Bank Books across the street, is in great part responsible for the fact that the intersection of Euclid and McPherson avenue is now known as Writers' Corner, marked by busts of T. S. Eliot, Tennessee Williams and Kate Chopin, all of whom lived in this neighborhood -- as did William S. Burroughs.

Karen Duffy, slim in a light purple summer dress, her white hair spilling past her glasses, gestures at the brick walls of the main dining room of the restaurant. "I have a fondness for this room," she says. Perhaps her fondness springs from the fact that "this room" -- just wide enough for two rows of mismatched wooden chairs and tables -- was all there was to Duff's in the beginning. That was in 1972, the year she and her then-husband, Danny Duffy decided to open a small restaurant in the slightly seedy, modestly hip Central West End neighborhood around Euclid and McPherson.

The restaurant was -- and is -- at 392 North Euclid.  Next door to the south on Euclid was an even narrower establishment, the Cafe Europa, which specialized in foreign beers at a time when they were hard to come by. To the north, Karen recalls, was "a witchcraft store run by a woman named Debbie." Motorcyclists used to hang out at Debbie's store, which may have helped keep Karen's rent down.

"We had a liquor license but no bar," Karen recalled. "People would bring their own bottles. But we used to keep brandy on a little table to flame shish kabob. One day, some of Debbie's motorcycle buddies rode in the front door, drank the brandy, and rode out again."

But within a few months, the space Debbie had occupied was vacant, and Duff's expanded in that direction, tearing out a wall and revealing the arch that now connects the bar and the main dining room. In a few years, Danny Duffy and Karen divorced, and Karen ended up with the restaurant, with Danny's blessing. Tim Kirby, hired as bartender in 1973, would eventually become a co-owner.

In 1990, the Europa space became open and Duff's expanded again, into a large room dominated by Bill Kohn's vast, fauvist painting of the Grand Canyon, and Michael Eastman's photographic study. "Black and White in Color." They called it the New Room, and still do.

I met with Karen and Tim on a recent Monday. Duff's is closed on Mondays, except for one evening a month, which is devoted to poetry.

Over the years, Duff developed a reputation for reasonably priced, imaginative menus and a particularly good selection of wines. It was one of the late food critic Joe Pollack's favorite places to dine. He liked the ambiance -- and the owners, in part because they lacked pretension yet clearly knew what they were doing.  In 1993, when he last reviewed Duff's for the Post-Dispatch, he wrote:

"When I began writing about these weekly adventures, some 21 years ago, Duff's was my first major Grail. The small, casual place with the mix-and-match furniture already was known to many people, so I didn't actually find it, but I helped spread the word.

"At that time, Duff's was far and away the best dining value -- and dining bargain -- in the city. Over the years, as it grew into adolescence and maturity (restaurants mature much faster than people), Duff's has remained an outstanding value. . . . The wine list continues to grow, and Tim Kirby's superior knowledge makes it a strong one, with excellent variety and fine values."

But for many St. Louisans, what made Duff's invaluable were the readings of poetry and fiction, often accompanied by music, that took place on Monday evenings. Poetry readings were in the mix almost from the beginning, but they became an official part of the schedule in 1975, when a new literary organization called River Styx took over the programming. River Styx was founded by Michael and Jan Castro, and for most of the next 25 years, Michael was in charge of the poetry program at Duff's.

"That first year," Michael recalled as we chatted in a front booth at Duff's, "within a few months Jerome Rothenberg and David Meltzer, important Beat poets, were reading. To music. In the early years, we always had music, and sometimes dance, dance-theater. Quincy Troupe was always a big draw. Bill Moyers filmed Quincy Troupe reading at Duff's for PBS series, 'The Power of the Word.'"

Troupe, a nationally prominent African-American poet from St. Louis, collaborated with Miles Davis on his autobiography.  He has appeared at Duff's, usually accompanied by jazz, many times.

Castro said, "The famous Duff's podium, which has also served Left Bank Books, has been touched by some of the most important writers of our time. T.C. Boyle read at Duff's, the South African writer Breyten Breytenbach read here the first year. Bill Gass read frequently, he was on the board. Stanley Elkin, Mona Van Duyn. Many more. As a result, literary people and people in the arts tended to frequent Duff's. This was the hip neighborhood in the '70s, probably the only one at that time."

It is perhaps relevant that Duff's and the Euclid-McPherson neighborhood became hip as Gaslight Square and O'Connell's Pub moved from Olive and Boyle to South Kingshighway.

Michael recalled, "We would put visiting writers up at someone's house, often at Karen's.  Duff's operated on small budgets, and often out of town poets accepted smaller than their normal fees for the opportunity to read at Duff's, whose reputation as a great venue was widespread."

Michael, a poet and retired teacher, paused, and took a sip of his cappuchino, and then said, thoughtfully,  "I believe there were a couple of things we started at Duff's that we were successful in achieving, and that helped change things. One, at the time, poetry readings were at the colleges and at the St. Louis Poetry Center, which tended to have older audiences. We wanted to start a program in the community that would attract more than the literati -- we wanted to be, before the term existed, multicultural -- and I think we succeeded and were influential. By the late 1980s, there were poetry readings and open mics all over the community.

"And the other impact of Duff's and River Styx, molded by people who came out of the '60s, was the idea that poetry was political, cultural and spiritual in nature -- consciousness raising. The idea goes back to the spiritual pre-literate origins of poetry, where poetry had power."

In 1977, Left Bank Books moved into an empty storefront across Euclid from Duff's, and almost immediately a symbiotic relationship arose between the two small businesses. Kris Kleindienst, one of the owners of the bookstore, is effusive about the camaraderie. She recalled,

"Over the years we have shared everything: employees, family, important rites of passage, sound equipment and the legendary Duff’s podium, books, authors, bottles of champagne, tears, neighborhood crises. It began with our first Christmas season in the Central West End, when Left Bank Books broke its first $1,000 day. I went across to Duff’s and bought a bottle of champagne from Tim Kirby to celebrate. From then on, every holiday season since 1977, Tim has arrived on our doorsteps the week of Christmas with two bottles of a nice champagne."

She spoke of great admiration for Karen Duffy and her unruffled style in the midst of chaos. "I have taken a lot of encouragement in the example of Karen, who has always had to manage a much larger and more complicated staff than I have and never seemed to let the many dramas get to her.

"Duff’s was my backup plan if Left Bank Books closed, I figured I could always wait tables there. I guess I need a new Plan B." Kleindeinst said the thought of Duff's closing was enough to bring her to tears.

Last fall, with Duff's on the market and the future uncertain, Karen Duffy and Richard Newman, current head of River Styx, agreed that it made sense to move the reading program somewhere else for continuity. It has continued a few blocks west at the Tavern of Fine Arts at 313 Belt Ave. But there will be at least one more reading at Duff's, at 7:30 p.m. on the evening of Monday, June 24 in the main dining room. The reading will be sponsored by the literary organization Chance Operations. Richard Newman will be among the readers.  

Exclaims Karen, "We're ending the right way, with poetry!"

Harper Barnes
Harper Barnes' most recent book is Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement