Thus it was that Babs and I paused warily last Friday night on the stoop of the month-old Pepper Lounge & Eatery, listening. Rattling the windows was the ill-omened rumble of about 27,000 happy-hour partiers embarking on their fourth consecutive hour of happiness. Because the ambience of a demolition derby impairs the Posey-Smith digestion, my own primal instincts exhorted me to phone Bar Italia at once and offer them Babs' firstborn in exchange for a last-minute table on the patio. Conscience, however, stayed my dialing hand. The Colonel was already on his way to meet us, so there was nothing to do but press through the door and deliver our will into the fickle hands of Fate.
The scene within unfolded much as the thundering portents had foretold. Clinging like plaque on arteries to every surface were clots of handsome young urban professionals who had just seen the Dow plummet further than it had in nearly a year. They brandished Mich Lights, they hailed their fellows-well-met with hyperbolic decibels, they dropped nachos on their Dockers. Conversation in a normal speaking voice was out of the question; it was like a bag of cats in a hurricane in there. Using our elbows as machetes, Babs and I hacked our way into a clearing through a thick clump of revelers and dug in at the bar, where we commenced communication in broken sign language.
The weird thing about this frenzied shemozzle was that, not three days earlier, the posse and I had lounged in grand comfort at this same bar, enjoying a princely quantity of elbow room and a toothsome spinach-and-artichoke dip. The only customers in the place, we were the very picture of coddled serenity. Our bartender, the excellent Warren, doted on us like rich relatives, chatting amiably about Winston Churchill's favorite bourbon and accommodating us with Manhattans the size of Guam. As we swigged these restoratives, discussion shifted to the transformation of the restaurant's interior.
We'd haunted this room intermittently since the previous millennium, when for a time it housed one of our sentimental favorites, Hot Locust; naturally we couldn't resist comparing establishments past and present. The layout hasn't changed much -- with its lofty ceilings, dark wood, and exposed brick, it retains a pleasant warehouse chic. Of note were the additions of puffy upholstered booths and a clubby new backbar, and I'd be lying if I said I didn't covet the stained-glass light fixtures they snagged from the now-extinct Schneithorst's. But where Hot Locust emphasized restaurant over bar, the Pepper Lounge leans the other way.
They're all about happy hour, giving it equal billing with lunch and dinner. On Mondays and Tuesdays the kitchen actually shuts down at 7 p.m., and martinis nearly outnumber food items. Of the latter, choices are heavy on beer food -- nachos, sandwiches, pizza -- embellished with adjectives such as "Cajun" and "Caribbean" and "Middle Eastern."
Ordinarily, even modest pan-global aspirations are a restaurant's quickest ticket to mediocrity; the best places, like the best conversationalists, pick a subject and stick to it. To its credit, the Pepper Lounge is a self-proclaimed eatery. This changes everything. One doesn't dine at an eatery; one queues up at the trough, shovels it in and washes it down with vitriolic liquids and hearty guffaws. In such cases it is acceptable to embrace a convivial, something-for-everyone menu that would spell certain death for a serious dining room. Despite their interesting theory that "Mediterranean," "Spanish," and "European" are mutually exclusive culinary styles, it turns out that the Pepper Lounge excels at bar food.
I greatly approved of the fish tacos; an emulation of the now-mythical Flaco's dish, they contained crisp, deep-fried cod and cabbage. If it was slightly unsettling seeing French fries on a plate of tacos, I soon recovered. They were delicious.
Also enjoyable were two sandwiches -- pork tenderloin and grilled chicken -- both of which came with more of those great fries and possessed a satisfying flavor I am tempted to call "charbroiled." This same taste infused chunks of steak we found topping the Lounge Nachos. Served with a dish of Tex-Mex-ish condiments called a "pico set" and beset with "nacho cheese," these were a bit greasy but were companionable to Warren's vigorous highballs. Less successful was the pizza Margherita; after 25 years in St. Louis, I am still unable to advocate any pie afflicted with Provel.
I don't know what a "pommo" is, but an agreeable linguine dish of that name, which benefited from porcini noodles and the complementary piquancy of garlic and briny caper berries, was one of the more complex dishes we tried. The other, a fish-of-the-day special, was a pleasing jerk-glazed escolar. This creamy fillet, served on a handful of citrus chunks and a few torn leaves of spinach, was nicely shellacked, moist and tasty (I would significantly amend my views on this fish some 30 minutes later -- see Side Dish).
There were only a couple of stinkers. An undistinguished NY strip came with an ancient baked potato and was served, annoyingly, on a leaf of lettuce (Why put hot food on lettuce? Why?), a bland fish chowder contained scant evidence of fish and a white-chocolate pie tasted like Oreo filling. But the service (when we could communicate over the din) was excellent, and the owners were hospitable. The place will likely become a popular lunch destination for the downtown crowd. So you already know you're gonna get bar food; the question is, do you want it marinated in lime teriyaki and served on a brioche in a tidal wave of squalling khaki? If the answer is yes, you know where to go.
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