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In one of the most fickle industries, Grady's Pizza and Subs marked 30 years in business in 2011. It's spent all this time in a nondescript strip center on a nondescript section of 12th Street between Mississippi and University. Whether it has thrived or merely survived across those three decades is hard to know from a distance, but the fact is Grady's has outlived almost all the competitors who were around in 1981. So it's clearly doing things right.
It makes good business sense to stick with a successful formula, and Grady's is fairly straightforward: The menu has remained consistent — with some additions — with an unwavering commitment to popular items. Prices are reasonable. Many things are made in-house, even some of the breads.
Among items purchased from food-service companies there is a commitment to quality ingredients (a friend in the business says the cheese Grady's uses on its pizza is higher-quality and about 40 percent more expensive than what almost all other pizza places use).
Service is friendly and casual, as is the ambiance. And the beer is cold.
Based on the size of a weekday, holiday-season lunch crowd — mostly working-class with some white-collar folks mixed in — the formula continues to work.
So many among the group of friends recruited for our visit wanted the Grady's Grinder that we drew straws, and the competition to see who would get to eat pizza was equally intense. So we spared another straw-drawing exercise and ordered a large pie for the table. Turns out those two tried-and-true Grady's stalwarts exceeded their lofty reputations and were proclaimed "best-in-meal."
The grinder ($7.25 for a whole and $6 for a half, a no-brainer choice) — is a meat-lover's dream with multiple slices of ham, salami, turkey and roast beef, all top-quality and accented simply with lettuce, tomato, mayo and mustard. While there are four bread choices, go for the homemade onion roll, which is soft, tasty and not over-the-top oniony.
Grady's pizza strategy is to be all things to all people, and it works. You can go as traditional as you want, or as avant garde. Don't want the traditional red sauce? Try alfredo ... or a garlic and olive oil glaze ... or (believe it or not) a salsa/sour cream base ... or even a ranch or bleu cheese or buffalo sauce base (as is offered on the Buffalo Chicken pizza). Regular crust bores you? Upgrade to multi-grain for $1.15 or go gluten-free for an extra 85 cents (11-inch only). Choose a predefined combination of ingredients or mix and match between 10 meats, 13 veggies and two fruits.
Traditionalists (keep your pineapple, dried cranberries and baked chicken breast the hell away from our pizza!), we opted for the 16-inch North St. Louis Special ($18.95), and absolutely loved it. It matches chunks of sweetish, fennel-rich Italian sausage with green olives, green peppers and strings of fabulous purple onion, topped with the "Steve's favorite" blend of cheeses, which adds cheddar to mozzarella. You can go all-mozzarella at Grady's, but if you haven't tried Steve's blend, you owe it to yourself to give it a whirl. This pizza features that hard-to-achieve combination of crisp, thin crust with ample ingredients. It is one of the best in town.
An unexpected delight was the soup of the day, which was chicken and dumplings, more like a hearty main course than a soup. We got it with the half-sandwich for $7.30, quite the deal. It was as good as we've had — rich and thick with plenty of shredded chicken and small, firm dumplings.
Everything at Grady's is decent, but not everything soars. The Italian cheese bread appetizer ($7.95 with marinara) was touted, but we found it boring, like a small, not-quite-crisp, cheese pizza with the sauce on the side. It was helped by a healthy dose of garlic. The chicken salad (like all sandwiches, it's priced the same as the grinder) is homemade, but it was too finely chopped for our liking, had too much pickle and, unless our taste buds were off that day, featured Miracle Whip instead of mayonnaise.
The muffaletta on the same fabulous onion roll had plenty of meat but was a bit short on olive salad. Its consumer pronounced the Italian sandwich a good choice, and an interesting one — ham, turkey and pepperoni topped with bell pepper, onion, lettuce, tomato and Italian dressing on a base of pizza sauce. The spaghetti with meat sauce ($9.25 with Italian toast and soup or salad) was solid but not spectacular.
A group of guys in full holiday-season gluttonous mode, it's not surprising we didn't get around to any of the 10 salads, many of them meal-sized. But we've heard good things about them from quantity and quality perspectives. There are also wraps, chili, Frito pie and calzones — plenty of choices to satisfy all manners of taste and appetite for 30 years ... and counting.