In May, a renowned restaurant family revives and revamps an old St. Louis mainstay in South City. Lemmons By Grbic brings the former pizza parlor and bar – which closed in 2014 after a dozen years in business under its previous ownership – back to life with a complete gut renovation and a vibrant new food menu featuring a fresh Balkan-American twist.
SOURCE: Feast Magazine
The neighborhood concept comes from siblings Erna Grbic, Senada Grbic and Ermin Grbic, who, along with their parents, Ermina and Sulejman Grbic, operate Grbic Restaurant. Grbic Restaurant originally opened in 2002, since gaining a following with its authentic Bosnian specialties. The Grbics acquired Lemmons in August 2014.
“Our dad purchased it with the intention of turning it into a sports bar. Since then, we’ve gone through a lot of ideas as far as what Lemmons could become,” says Erna Grbic. “He eventually stepped away from it and said, ‘Go ahead and do what you want to do,’ so we took his original idea and put more of our flavors into it. We’re putting a spin on Balkan food with a Balkan-American menu that appeals to first and second-generation Bosnians as well as the larger community all around.”
While Erna runs the event coordination and marketing side of both businesses, her siblings tackle both front- and back-of-house duties. Senada, who serves as executive chef of Lemmons and sous chef of Grbic, received formal culinary arts training from Chicago’s Le Cordon Bleu in 2009, while Ermin studied culinary arts and restaurant-management programs at Forest Park Community College.
The approximately 5,000-square-foot space features a complete buildout from top to bottom completed over the past three years, leaving only the original brick walls intact. Around 99 seats will be available between the dining room and bar.
“Ermin is really rustic in his style, Erna is modern and I’m vintage-farmhouse style, so we incorporated it all,” Senada says. “Everyone had their hand in everything and it came together really nicely.”
The interior exudes a casual lounge-like feel reminiscent of its previous incarnation due to a decidedly similar layout. Pops of yellow highlight the lemon theme, with several furnishing elements designed and constructed by Ermin himself. Burkart’s Woodworks supplied materials for the bar, trim and some tables alongside imported furniture from Sarajevo.
In the kitchen, Senada works tirelessly with her family to create a debut menu that pays homage to both her Bosnian roots and classic Lemmons favorites.
“I’m being true to my roots but getting more modern and creative,” says Senada, who has full creative control with this venture, whereas Grbic focuses entirely on traditional Eastern European cuisine. “It’s essentially American-European fusion.”
Take, for instance, the list of flatbreads on housemade dough, which call back to Lemmons’ time serving Black Thorn Pub-recipe pizza. One particular option features heavy Balkan influence in the form of unique toppings: feta, ćevapi, onions and mozzarella. Another comes with their dad’s recipe for chicken – lovingly dubbed “Babo’s Chicken” – and ajvar, or roasted red pepper and eggplant relish.
“Lemmons has been around since the ‘40s, so we’re pulling a lot of history in the creation of the menu. A lot of people aren’t getting their original Lemmons dive bar, but we’re hoping to call back to those old memories and feelings,” says Erna Grbic. “People can have a taste of some of that old-school Lemmons in a completely new setting.”
To that end, the Grbics perfected their own crispy buttermilk-brined fried chicken over the course of more than 100 trial-and-error tests – even consulting with a past-life Lemmons cook in an attempt to fill in a few vague parts of the original process – to appease former regulars. Beyond that, expect Balkan flair in nearly every item on the menu, from a Vegeta-seasoned burger on a Bosnian-style bun from Sana Bakery to the fluffy, deep-fried ustipke the Grbics grew up eating with an assortment of dips and spreads.
Behind the full bar, guests will find a dozen local taps tied to a custom cooler and short keg lines set at a consistent 28 degrees – “There’s nothing our dad loves more than ice-cold beer after a hard day’s work – and it better be cold the entire time he’s drinking it,” the siblings insist. The beverage program also includes a selection of wine and cocktails including raspberry mojitos, housemade limoncello and more.
“We all live in South City and grew up in Holly Hills, so we love this area,” says Ermin Grbic. “We were born and raised here, so can’t wait to build the business right in our backyard.”
Lemmons By Grbic will tentatively be open Tuesday through Thursday from 11am to 10pm, Friday through Saturday from 11am to midnight and Sunday from 11am to 10pm.