Into the Drink

Passing the bar just to get dinner

It seems incredible, but for a long, dark eternity, restaurants didn't exist (these were lean years for food writers, many of whom suffered nervous collapses when the town crier consistently ran out of breath before delivering their pronouncements on the local boardinghouse gruel). Food service as we know it, with à la carte menus, snooty waiters and private tables, has been around only since 1782, when the Comte de Provence's chef severed ties with the royal family just in time for the French Revolution and opened the swank Grand Tavern de Londres in Paris. Of course, his clientele was confined to big shots with wads of jack. Whither, you might wonder, did hie the hungry proletariat of yore?

Back in the day, it was to the tavern for whatever the publican's wife had chucked into the communal pot. In colonial America, primitive ale shacks were short on amenities -- no Megatouch for the conversationally challenged, no multiple televisions for the sports-minded. The food, consisting largely of unspeakable stews and porridgey things, was of tertiary importance as entertainment. After liquor, the big draw was lively discourse. Despite the adage that politics and bars don't mix nearly so well as Scotch and soda, the American Revolution would have been dead in the water without pubfuls of rowdy dissidents firing each other up at the cider keg. Word on the street is that Thomas Jefferson scribbled much of the Declaration of Independence while hoisting cups of wassail at a Philadelphia watering hole. Thus it came to pass that, until a Swiss sailor named Giovanni Del-Monico first sicced his French chefs on New York's nouveau riche yokels in 1831, the tavern, in one shape or another, was the primary form of public eating house in America.

Like other good ideas -- shoes, novels and indoor plumbing spring to mind -- the tavern has persisted into our own time, but the evolutionary tides have shifted; whereas it was once the other way around, Ye Olde Grog Shoppe's modern descendants now tend to emulate true restaurants. They've ditched the long communal table and the dubious practice of potluck. They employ waiters and admit women. Though the culinary focus still revolves around humble standards like burgers and fries, my recent pub crawl revealed that the postnuclear taverngoer enjoys choices galore when laying a sustaining foundation for a night of debauchery. To wit:

Black Thorn Pub owner Dave Difani assesses the competition's pizza sauces: "They're just red."
Jennifer Silverberg
Black Thorn Pub owner Dave Difani assesses the competition's pizza sauces: "They're just red."

Location Info

Map

Hammerstone's

2028 S. 9th St.
St. Louis, MO 63104

Category: Bars and Clubs

Region: St. Louis - Soulard

BlackThorn Pub and Pizza

3735 Wyoming St.
St. Louis, MO 63116

Category: Bars and Clubs

Region: St. Louis - Tower Grove

"We now have artichoke dip" proclaimed a flier on our table at K.C.'s Grill and Bar. I was stunned. Artichoke dip seemed an oddly effeminate foodstuff for this South City sports bar. My associate Col. Tex Trailer, who has a degree in tavernology, informed me that artichoke dip has been popping up on pub menus left and right lately. He sounded suspicious. I ordered it forthwith.

Tex has been coming to K.C.'s for years. He and his blushing bride-to-be, Babs, had their first date here. Like all good taverns, a hum of contentment buzzes in the air. The folks who work here treat you with a neighborly familiarity whether they know you or not. Budweiser paraphernalia and sports stuff crowd the walls. There's not a yuppie for miles. It's the sort of place to which the team repairs for pitchers after the softball game -- or, like Tex and Babs, for restorative bloody Marys and an inexpensive bite to eat on Sunday afternoons.

The bites to eat are good here. I could resist neither the Reuben sandwich nor the French onion soup. You know how sometimes you tuck into an improperly engineered Reuben and all its insides end up flapping in the breeze between your teeth? At K.C.'s, they know how to stack a Reuben. This sandwich, fat and sassy with just the right amount of kraut, scored big points when I was able to secure demure bites without embarrassment. And the soup -- a sturdy, uncomplicated representative of the species -- was hot, gloppy sustenance in a bowl.

The suspect artichoke dip mesmerized me. It arrived with piping-hot tortilla chips, addictive in their own right. The dip itself -- chunks of the thistle adrift in gooey white sauce -- was warm and tangy, if a bit difficult to scoop up, and a welcome change from prefab mozzarella sticks.

Tex having warned me of its proliferation, I was not surprised to encounter a similar dip across town at Hammerstone's. This specimen, augmented with spinach, also came with tortilla chips; though nothing fancy, it satisfactorily dispatched my craving for hot, goopy food.

Hammerstone's, occupying Ninth & Russell's former digs, emits the unmistakable venerated aroma of the classic Soulard tavern. A cozy room, there's lots of wood and exposed brick; they hawk Mardi Gras beads and T-shirts at the bar, and blues bands set up in the back on weekends. The cliquish Soulardian barflies can be, perhaps, a little haughty, but the bartender -- ever on the ball with refills -- is a sweetheart. Menuwise, Hammerstone's is heavy on low-priced pub food that cries out to be washed down with beer. The dishes I sampled were executed with some amount of finesse.

The one-third-pound burger, for example (it also comes in a half-pound version), raised no startled eyebrows, but the grilled bun was the kind of extra touch that never fails to engage the burger aficionado. I had mine with a bit of raw onion and was happy as a clam. Likewise, the fried batter-dipped onion straws, though probably of frozen origin, were crunchy, habit-forming little tidbits, especially when dipped in the ubiquitous honey-Dijon dressing.

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