Food and Drink, Happening in STL

A look at Soda Fountain in Union Station

St. Louis Union Station’s Soda Fountain officially opens its doors today at 11 a.m. Located in the former Hard Rock Café space, it marks the first of three restaurants as part of the new St. Louis Aquarium attraction at Union Station.

The restaurant pays homage to the charm of a 1950s diner but updates the template with an injection of unrestrained fun for a less buttoned-up age. The result: a place that looks and feels familiar yet offers its share of surprises.

The interior is divided into two main areas with a distinct character. Lodging Hospitality Management appointed St. Louis-based PGAV Destinations to the handle architecture and design for all of the new Union Station restaurant concepts, as well as the aquarium itself.

Guests enter through a central area with wood floors and booth seating. The striped upholstery’s muted tones harken back to the iconic American diner, and the color scheme carries over into the ice cream bar and bar area (pictured below), whose Art Deco design contrasts seafoam green booths with white tiles. Huge mirrors, elegant light fixtures, and a stunning bar give the space an elevated feel.

It’s the sweeter items that give Soda Fountain its sparkle, but if you came for something savory and substantial, the “Grill” section of the menu has you covered. Executive chef Russel Cunningham delivers an all-American menu of comfort food—nothing too fancy, just expertly executed.

The griddled cheeseburger, with thin, smashed patties, is topped with American cheese, shredded lettuce, tomato, onions, and sliced pickle served on a brioche bun with sport peppers on the side. The fried chicken sandwich is another example of a classic dish done to perfection. The brioche bun contains a slab of juicy chicken, marinated in buttermilk and breaded for a crisp, peppery finish, with mayo, lettuce, tomato, and pickle.

The entire grill menu is a who’s who of childhood favorites, such as PB&J, grilled cheese, and a BLT, as well as a tuna melt and fried chicken strips. The hot dog, served Chicago-style or as a chili dog, is made using St. Louis’ own G&W sausages. The sides include crispy onion rings and crinkle fries.

Two themes run through the menu’s sweeter sections: ice cream and soda, sometimes together. This is where Soda Fountain really starts to have fun. The restaurant lives up to its name with a collection of drinks that revive the craft of the early 20th-century soda fountain. The menu bills these as “old school sodas meet crafted, non-alcoholic cocktails,” drawing attention to the art that went into creating soda recipes in the past and once again here today.

Acid phosphate, lactart, malt extract and a variety of soda syrups are combined to bring such drinks as the Cherry Chocolate Cola, Union Station Sarsaparilla, and Caesar’s Crush to life. These drinks are fresh recipes for today’s audience, rather than a century-old greatest hits collection, and Anne Lehman’s Dirty Girl Farms helps bring additional flavor with such tinctures as wild bergamot, ghost pepper and rose geranium.

Things get truly wild with the Freak Shakes, which can be easily shared between two people. This is where Soda Fountain breaks decisively with Happy Days territory and proves it has a mind of its own, and a modern one at that. Each Freak Shake is a different beast, with five inventive, over-the-top takes on the humble milkshake. The Cotton Candy starts with a strawberry ice cream base and is topped with everything from actual cotton candy to a gummy shark and rock candy. The Everything But combines sweet and savory elements including vanilla ice cream, caramel sauce, a chocolate chip cookie, and a peanut butter cup. All of the Freak Shakes are served in a 22-ounce glass with the rim coated with a colorful mix of frosting and other ingredients, ranging from rainbow sprinkles to salty crushed chips.

The menu’s other striking offerings include “Remedies,” which introduce alcohol to the mix, blending ice creams, soda syrups, lactarts and phosphates with products from local producers like Clementine’s, StilL 630, and Brick River Cider Co. The St. Louis Standard, for example, is a combination of Still 630’s Expedition Rum, Clementine’s Gooey Butter Cake ice cream, and Golden Road Brown Ale.

If all of this is a little overwhelming for you, then the more nostalgia-tinged parts of the menu are there to provide old-fashioned comforts. There are milkshakes and malts, or for $4 you can have a scoop of ice cream in a cup or a cake cone in all the traditional flavors and a few more creative ones, such as peanut butter banana and blackberry buttermilk. Ask about the current vegan option. Or consider a vanilla ice cream float with your choice of four sodas.

The suggestion of an earlier era is also present on Soda Fountain’s terrace, where the St. Louis Wheel now turns and a new carousel and mini golf course sit nearby. The terrace looks onto the water at Union Station, where the fire and light show takes place every half hour.

Don’t leave without taking a stroll around the candy store, which will delight kids big and small. You can buy individual candy by weight, pick up boxes of retro candy (like Mallo Cups), or grab a candy-themed T-shirt designed by Arch Apparel.

The Train Shed, slated to open November 18, will be the next concept to open at Union Station. Construction should be completed on the aquarium around the same time, though it isn’t expected to open until later as its new inhabitants will need a couple of months to settle in.

Article originally posted by STLMag