Duff’s: Land of hope and dreams

Eric Mink is a freelance writer and editor and teaches film studies at Webster University. He is a former columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Daily News in New York. His column appears in the Jewish Light on the first Wednesday of every month. You can contact him at [email protected].

By Eric Mink

Duff’s Restaurant was a cornerstone of the resuscitation and recovery of St. Louis’ Central West End neighborhood that started in the 1970s. A place for creative, affordable food and drink in an environment of extraordinary welcome and comfort, Duff’s closed its doors June 24 after 41 years in business.

It reopened the doors two nights later.

Not for customers, but for a final party for employees present and past. For waitresses and waiters, hosts and hostesses, bartenders, cooks and kitchen workers, bussers and dish washers, some of whom traveled from distant corners of the country for a homecoming and one last revel at the place that meant as much to them as almost anything else they knew.

And it was a party for people who created Duff’s and kept it true to itself to the end: Karen Duffy, one of the founders, and her decades-long business partner, Tim Kirby, who started as a bartender in 1973 and soon became a co-owner.

The final party came in the wake of three “last” moments for customers — the ever faithful, as well as those who had drifted away and needed news of an imminent closing to bring them back. The last dinner was served June 22, the last brunch on June 23. A last poetry event on June 24 — an arts tradition stretching back almost to the restaurant’s founding — ended the Duff’s era.

I was there for the dinner and the brunch. They were crowded nostalgic affairs that sent communal energy and reminiscences bouncing off the tin ceilings, rough brick walls, leaded glass windows and heavy wood fixtures and trim. The lighting was warm, and spirits bright. But just under the skimcoat of stories and variations on “It was a great run,” ran reservoirs of regret, sadness and tears.

The final party for staff and family (with a smattering of invited longtime customers) felt different. To be sure, there was food, drink, stories and tears. But the presence of so many people who formed the collective personality of Duff’s brought the essence of the place to the surface: the uncommonly heartfelt human connections between owners and staff, between staff and customers, between customers and owners.

 “There was a goodness and a generousness and an openness that just welcomed people,” Karen Duffy told me the day after the party. By “people,” she meant employees and customers alike.

People who worked there, as former employees invariably testify, also felt encouraged, watched over and protected. The young people who came to work at Duff’s — often their first job of any kind — “learned how to be a good person, learned how to respect their co-workers,” Karen said. They also learned how it felt to be trusted and what it meant to be valued for the distinctive individuals they were.

Some stayed nearly forever: Nancy Kirby (39 years), Margaret Kelly (35), Elizabeth Barrett Brown (33). Others, Karen said, learned how to fly on their own, sometimes to new jobs at other area restaurants.If that sounds like parenting, so be it. Tim Kirby reminded me that there were many partners in the early years of Duff’s — too many, he said, to effectively shepherd a young staff that needed guidance not only in work but often also in living.

Fate took care of that. Marriages dissolved, temperaments clashed, interests shifted and partners moved on. The sorting-out process left Karen and Tim — the two people, he said, who related to the staff “most like a mother and a father.”

Duff’s mostly laughed at the notion of rules, but it lived true to a clear code of right and wrong that grew out of counterculture values of the much-maligned 1960s. To Karen and her then-husband, Danny Duffy, to their friends and early business partners and to Tim, these were unshakeable articles of faith.

They lived by these values, worked by them and passed them along, as best they could, to the people drawn into the Duff’s gravitational field. Not because they were good for business or because they scored well in market testing but because they felt right.

They weren’t complicated: Every person is entitled to respect; every person is entitled to be themselves; every kind of honest work is honorable; accepting people as they are, not merely tolerating them, is virtuous.

These values came to define the Duff’s experience, whether you were eating, drinking or working there, and Karen and Tim were beautifully consistent about them through the decades.

Yes, Duff’s welcomed writers, musicians, artists and theater people, eccentric city characters, the full spectrum of sexual orientations, clothing of all styles, hair of all lengths and colors and, more recently, lots of ink on skin and piercings through it.

But Karen and Tim understood that accepting everyone as they are didn’t just mean the ostensible non-conformists. It also encompassed the guys in khakis and blue blazers and $700 shoes, business women in Armani suits, suburban ladies in Saks dresses and people who didn’t know who Allen Ginsberg was — or hated his poems. Duff’s was never just for the cool people.

All were welcome really meant all, with the possible exception of fakes, phonies and frauds.

In “Land of Hope and Dreams,” Bruce Springsteen sings of a train, possibly heaven-bound, that “carries saints and sinners … losers and winners … whores and gamblers … lost souls … broken-hearted … thieves and sweet souls departed … fools and kings.”

All spent time at Duff’s one way or another, and all were welcomed.

In a quiet moment during the restaurant’s closing days, I spoke with Joni Kirby, who started working there in the 1970s and later “married my boss” (Tim) as she puts it. Heavy-hearted, Joni told me she sometimes thinks Duff’s might have been “a child’s dream. It’s not reality.”

Bruce sees things differently. “Dreams will not be thwarted,” he sings. “Faith will be rewarded.”

The rare and precious truth is that the dreams of the Duff’s partners were not thwarted. And Karen’s and Tim’s faith in people and the values of love, kindness and fairness were rewarded in ways beyond counting.

It may have begun as a naive, childlike dream, but the extended families of Duffys and Kirbys and scores upon scores of women and men who cooked, cleaned, served, ate, drank, talked, flirted, seduced, argued, fought and forgave at Duff’s — good people with great, true hearts — made the dream real for 41 years.