Sweetie Pie's: The Soul of St. Louis

By St. Louis Eats and Drinks on August 7th, 2015

What becomes a legend most? Sometimes (despite the famous Blackglama ads) it's not a mink coat, it's fried chicken.

The elegant Robbie Montgomery, known as Sweetie Pie, sang backup to Ike and Tina Turner. In those days of segregation, she cooked plenty of meals for the musicians on an electric skillet in her hotel rooms. Later in her career, she backed up many other big names like Stevie Wonder and Barbra Streisand.

Robbie Montgomery (middle) with the Ikettes / Courtesy of imgarcade.com

But her lung collapsed, and she returned to her home in St. Louis. She ended up becoming a dialysis technician at one of the city's teaching hospitals. And she opened a small soul food restaurant in north St. Louis County. It proved to be popular. But Miss Robbie dreamed of bigger things. One of her patients was Leon Strauss, an architect, urban developer and one of St. Louis' princes of the city. Dialysis is not a slow process, and he and Robbie became friends over the years. Meanwhile, her second location, in a neighborhood known as The Grove, then just beginning to come together, was created with the same format as her original: soul food served from a cafeteria line.

Leon Strauss, the co-star in this narrative, may have been on dialysis, but he was a busy guy. He and his wife Mary, for instance, took on the project of rehabbing the 4,500 seat Fox Theater, an old movie palace in midtown St. Louis. The St. Louis Symphony was just up the street, and St. Louis University a couple of blocks south.  Robbie wanted to open a larger place, a little more upscale in its creature comforts, with room for private events - and more parking, always of interest to St. Louisans. She found a location on a side street between the Fox and the symphony hall, and worked like mad to finance and rehab it. Meanwhile, her son Tim Norman had decided his mother, her life and work, would make a television series.

Miss Robbie at Work / Courtesy of stlouiseats.typepad.com

It was tough going. She almost got evicted before the restaurant was ready, but Leon Strauss went to the building owners and said he backed her. Tim labored over the television series, making a pilot and trying to sell it. But she opened a few days before Strauss died. She was able to show him pictures of the opening. And Oprah Winfrey Network, OWN, picked up the television series.

The interior at Sweetie Pie's Upper Crust / Courtesy of stlouiseats.typepad.com

That fried chicken? In a year when St. Louis restaurants are busting out their best recipes, Miss Robbie's still does more than hold its own. It's Mississippi cooking, she says, learned from her mother and her great-grandmother. There's meatloaf and sweet potatoes and greens and chicken and dumplings. Oxtails? Yup, some days, just like liver and onions. The chicken, greaseless and crisp, hinting of garlic and of onion, seduces. The greens are dark and smoky, a little peppery with bits of ham laced through them They're sort of dish one could make an entire meal of, especially when accompanied by cornbread, something to set in front of a French chef and watch for a reaction. There's always peach cobbler, and other desserts, too, caramel cake, perhaps, and another cobbler, pear or apple or blissful blackberry.

Dinner plate with liver and onions, corn bread, potato salad, chicken and dumplings, and a chicken wing / Courtesy of stlouiseats.typepad.com

This dinner plate contains meat loaf, macaroni and cheese, yams, corn bread, greens and caramel cake / Courtesy of stlouiseats.typepad.com

The original location has closed, but the two newer ones thrive. Both the larger, Sweetie Pie's Upper Crust, and the smaller one, Sweetie Pie's At The Mangrove, do get some tour bus traffic because of the television show. After church on Sundays there's always a line, so allow for that. But there are pleasant folks to carry your tray, and the price is absolutely right.

Watch a snippet of Miss Robbie's Television show Welcome to Sweetie Pie's



Meet the author
St. Louis Eats and Drinks

St. Louis

Ann Lemons Pollack says she was a “cowardly” eater as a child and has been making up for it ever since. “When I was around 20, I began dating this dazzling, worldly man and didn't want to look like an unsophisticated kid, so I just followed his lead. (It was a man that drove me to eat, to paraphrase WC Fields - but unlike Fields, I did get to thank him.)” She received her nursing education at Mineral Area College in Park Hills, Miss…... More