In the restaurant industry, there are two types of dining establishments: ones that you go to because you are hungry, and ones that you go to to celebrate life. In a dining climate where 60 percent of new restaurants close before their first anniversary, the competition is stiff, and the margin for error is slim to none. For Derek and Lucas Gamlin, Clayton-bred brothers turned Central West End-reigning restaurateurs, filling your stomach isn’t why they got into the business.
“I grew to love the industry,” Derek explains. “When that happened, I realized that I wanted to do something on my own. I had all these ideas while I was working for other people, but I decided to hold on to some of those ideas until I was able to come up with what I did.”
His first idea? A vodka bar. In a period where the trendy martini bar wasn’t so trendy anymore, he took a shot of faith and accumulated as much vodka as he could to open up shop. Following his college graduation in Oregon, Lucas couldn’t even start preparing for his planned move to Italy before he decided to help his brother create the new space, Sub Zero Vodka bar, in 2004.
“When we opened Sub Zero, we were just a bar,” Derek explains. “We added sushi to help add to the experience and keep people around to drink more vodka. But we realized that people were coming more and more for the food because of the quality. Our chef, Chef Vu Hoang, has been with us since we opened.” Over the years, Chef Vu and the Gamlin brothers streamed around that quality, pairing phenomenal sushi – and then adding burgers – with the finest selection of vodka to match. It’s a “bar food” destination for any palate.
“It took a while for people to realize that Sub Zero wasn’t just a bar to go to,” Lucas explains. “I would say after five or six years, we got that footing as a restaurant. That’s what we wanted to establish when we opened Gamlin [Whiskey House].”
“With Gamlin, the steaks and the whiskey are super important to us,” Derek adds. “We were looking at this as more of a restaurant than a nightclub or bar.”
Gamlin Whiskey House opened in 2013 as the next step for the brothers. Not necessarily a step up, but a step over, literally. In a vacant space just a block south from Sub Zero, Gamlin Whiskey House moved in. Today, the two restaurants are staples in the neighborhood, both sitting at one of the trendiest intersections in the city, Euclid and Maryland Avenues. Like most productive restaurateurs, location was always key.
“I looked all around the city at multiple spots that were interesting,” Derek says. “Maplewood, Clayton, but I love the central location of the Central West End. We grew up in Clayton just right across the park, and it felt like home to us. We wanted to elevate the area, help build and revitalize it as much as we could. The building that Sub Zero is in had six vacancies at the time, so along with Kevin Brennan – who was opening Brennan’s at the time – we got together and said, ‘let’s build something here.’”
“We’ve always loved the CWE,” Lucas chimes in. “Even going back to the 70s and 80s, things were doing all right in the neighborhood, but things changed in the 90s as everything started to move out to the suburbs. Now, as you can tell, there are no empty businesses here. And if there are, it won’t be for long. It feels like it’s becoming the new downtown of St. Louis with so much going on here, starting in the morning and going through the night.”
While the Central West End has become the vibrant neighborhood that it is today, the evolution since when Derek and Lucas first arrived in 2004 is apparent. “Bar Italia was around, and they did booming business,” Derek says. “There were some restaurants that were doing pretty well here. But the nightlife scene wasn’t as robust as it is now. Drunken Fish was a place called Asian Grill, where they had an all-you-can-eat lunch and was more of a takeout place. It definitely flipped and transformed when we came in, along with Kevin Brennan. Drunken Fish followed after that, and the three of us sort of changed the outlook of the Central West End, making it a place where you can bar hop, bounce and find something new.”
There’s simply nowhere else they’d rather be. St. Louis is the place where the Gamlins like to put money into and invest, and they feel that the Central West End is the heart of the city. “It’s only going to get better,” Derek continues. “Things that we have been fighting for years are finally happening.”
That “big city” feel is something rather exclusive to the neighborhood, tricky to replicate almost anywhere else in the city. And the walkable community is perfect for the Gamlins’ restaurants, with many of their regulars living in the homes and apartments nearby. “It’s super exciting to see those people walk out on a snowy or icy day where you would think that we’d be slow,” Derek explains. “It’s a huge advantage, much better than sitting in a strip mall in the county, waiting for people to drive in.”
Whether you are driving in, transiting in or walking in, the Gamlins’ are thriving as the neighborhood has forged itself into a foodie’s fantasy. Walk a little further south from Sub Zero and Gamlin Whiskey House, and you’ll find the newest addition to the Gamlin family, 1764 Public House. It’s a destination that takes them back to their roots, a respectful nod to the history of both the city of St. Louis and the Central West End itself.
“Obviously,  stands for the year the city was founded,” Derek explains. “We want it to be a place where St. Louisans are proud to go to, as well as a sort of tourist attraction where people can come to learn a little bit about the city of St. Louis and really take pride in both the cuisine and who St. Louisans are. We are a very friendly people, and it’s a nice place where people can gather at a nice, big bar and maybe watch a Cardinals game.”
1764 will serve breakfast, lunch and dinner. It’s easy to eat, you can be in and out or you can stay a while. “We want it to be ‘everyone’s living room,’” Derek laughs. “That may not make sense, but a lot of kids don’t even have TVs or cable these days, so it would be a nice spot for someone to walk down to.”
“We’re not inclined to have a liquor-centric place at 1764,” Lucas responds. “It’s called ‘Public House,’ which people think of beer, but we want it to be more casual and not focused on just one thing.” Nonetheless, because it is St. Louis, they plan on doing a lot of St. Louis drafts, as well as incorporating as many St. Louis products and local farms as possible.
While the style is quintessential St. Louis, the guys know where to look for trends. They’ve traveled as close as Kentucky and as far as London for design inspirations. “We’ve been fortunate enough to be able to travel, and if we see something we like, we take a photo of it or jot it down and try to absorb the feel and the atmosphere or those places,” Derek explains. “I can look around Gamlin or Sub Zero and say, ‘I got that idea in Vegas, Chicago, Dallas,’ wherever it might be, and we’re able to act on it and take bits and pieces and put it together to make it a St. Louis place.”
In keeping up with St. Louis history, the design will be a nod to when the building originally opened as the Forest Park Hotel. “It will be fairly modern because we had to rip out the entire space,” Lucas points out, “but a lot of the space will be a nod to when the building was constructed in 1922. Liberace used to play there weekly at the Circus Snack Bar nightclub.”
Liberace say what? From Liberace to Muhammad Ali, Sarah Vaughn to Louis Armstrong, The Forest Park Hotel was a destination itself in its day. And the Circus Snack nightclub – the space that 1764 will now occupy – deserves the nod that it will rightfully receive.
Like everything at a Gamlin restaurant, all the food will be from scratch. “It’s what we do,” Derek says. “We’ll have a bakery, so we will be able bake bread for all three restaurants. We’ll have a lot of fresh fish, which we have the opportunity to source through Sub Zero. We’ll also have great meat through Gamlin, so hopefully we’re creating this three-legged monster that can support and provide for itself.”
“One new thing that want to try is a redfish dish,” Lucas explains. “We’re testing it at Gamlin, and that will be on the menu at 1764. We want to incorporate the significance of the Mississippi by mixing the flavors of New Orleans and St. Louis.” Think along the lines of “crawfish toasted ravioli.”
Both of the Gamlins’ restaurants have received national attention, whether it’s being featured on Zagat’s “50 States, 50 Steaks,” “10 Can’t-Miss Whisky Bars Around the USA” by USA Today, even Sub Zero was named the “Best Vodka Bar in America” by USA Today. Still, St. Louis is in the middle of an amazing culinary renaissance, now it’s just time for everyone else to know about it. “I think that the reputation of being a dining destination is what we are missing,” Lucas says.
“I think St. Louis in underrated,” Derek adds. “Through our travels, you can see that you can get a great dining experience here for a value. One thing that it is missing is that dining core. You have all these neighborhoods with a couple good spots, but I think that the Central West End has the ability to have multiple great restaurants that are all walkable.” V
by Kevin Schmidt