Weakened at Bernie's 

Bernie Federko takes a shot at a steak house/sports bar -- but does he score?

It's a Thursday evening at five-month-old Bernie Federko's Steak & Sports Grille, and I'm not sure who to feel sorry for — the sports-radio personality or the three middle-aged women he's hassling.

Normally I'd side with the women. They seem like they're here to enjoy a couple of drinks, maybe some T-ravs or cheese cubes from the happy-hour buffet, after another day at the office. And then here comes Sports-Radio Dude waving his microphone in their faces, asking them to play air hockey.

It's a tournament, apparently. The winner gets to play air hockey against Bernie Federko himself. Not tonight, sadly, though Bernie Federko is here, surveying his joint less like a proud owner, more like the field general he was on the ice. Seriously, his stare is intense. I wouldn't want to play air hockey with this man. I love all 32 of my teeth.

Like I said: Usually I'd side with the women. But Sports-Radio Dude is dying up there. I mean, the bar is packed — Blues fans and Cardinals fans (both teams are at home on this night) and the happy-hour crowd — but he can't find anyone to play air hockey. He's practically begging the three middle-aged women. I expect him to pull out a thick roll of bills and peel them off, one by one, until the women surrender. I imagine the dark corner of the restaurant where he'll confront his producer later, muttering, "Do you want to play air hockey?" over and over again.

I'm so distracted by this scene that I don't really notice the progress my buddy Eric and I have made on our "Hall of Fame" appetizer platter. I'm just blindly grabbing and eating and grabbing and eating till Eric snaps me out of it by asking, "Who's this Bernie Federko again?"

Hold your letters. Eric isn't from St. Louis. He knows nothing about Bernie Federko and not much more about hockey. In other words, he's an ideal dinner companion to discover whether there's more to this place than its name and game-night energy.

The early returns aren't encouraging. The "Hall of Fame" platter might be the most ridiculous thing I've ever (intentionally) ordered. You get T-ravs, calamari, chicken "fingers" and wings, barbecued baby-back ribs and "popcorn" shrimp, all served atop a tremendous mound of fried onions. When it arrived, a man at the next table asked, "What is that?" His voice was pitched somewhere between fear and awe, sort of how I think my voice will sound when the alien spaceships finally arrive.

Frankly, though, I admired the sheer, outlandish everything-but-the-kitchen-sink-ness of it. I was even a little disappointed that it didn't include any fried cheese. And it provided fine snacking during the saga of Sports-Radio Dude and the three middle-aged woman. But now that I've switched back to job mode, I'm disappointed. The T-ravs' filling is mealy, the ribs are tough and bland, and the chicken wings' bright-orange sauce smacks of vinegar and little else. Though the chicken fingers offer plump breast meat and the calamari are tender, both taste only of frying oil. The three generic dipping sauces — barbecue, marinara, ranch — don't help any of it.

Meantime Sports-Radio Dude has found a few air hockey players. I'm happy for him. But with the start of both the Blues and the Cardinals games imminent, the bar crowd has thinned, and Bernie Federko's now resembles the place I remember from two previous visits: large, poorly lit and dowdy. If not for Bernie Federko's memorabilia on the walls and the blue-and-yellow Blues color scheme and the T-ravs, I could be in any hotel sports bar in any American city.

Bernie Federko's does offer a truly unique lunch special, though. For $7.95, you get a choice of sandwiches, a side salad or fries and a tiny apple cobbler. And a lottery ticket. A $1 Missouri "Wild Doubler" scratch-off ticket came out on the same plate as my "slow-smoked" brisket sandwich. The brisket was tough and not especially smoky, while the accompanying barbecue sauce added just a slight tang. The ticket was a loser, too, but at least that $1 ostensibly went to fund our schools.

Against my recommendation, Eric has ordered the filet mignon for his entrée. Actually, I haven't tried the filet mignon, but on my first visit I had the New York strip steak. It was a horrible piece of meat: gristly, overly salted and, despite being the correct color for medium-rare, dry, as if the kitchen hadn't given it the proper time to rest. I suppose I shouldn't have been shocked. The menu didn't claim this was prime meat. But when you put "steak" in your name and charge roughly $27 for a New York strip, it ought to be edible.

At that first visit my fiancée ordered "The Federko Favorite," a bacon cheeseburger. (Not to be confused with "The Bernie Burger.") The burger itself was fairly blah, its only flavor a medium-well char. A few thick slices of applewood-smoked bacon helped pick up the slack, but I don't think I can recommend the meat at Bernie Federko's to anyone.

To my surprise, the filet mignon turns out to be much better: tender, juicy, not too salty. This isn't a great steak, but it's not bad. Which is lucky for Eric, because the mashed potatoes on one side of it are pasty, either made from a boxed mix or prepared hours ago, and the vegetables on the other side have been boiled in the Dead Sea.

Then there are the sauces. Eric was my supervisor at my previous job, and I guess I must be nursing a grudge over something he made me do, because I don't warn him how bad Bernie Federko's two steak sauces are. (Thankfully, they come with, not atop, your steak.) One is a mouth-puckeringly astringent cabernet sauvignon reduction. The other is a Guinness reduction, though I like to call it "Hell's Own Marmalade." It's an impossibly foul substance, black and bitter. However Eric did me wrong, now we're even.

For my entrée I try the "fire-grilled shrimp skewers": a dozen shrimp split between two skewers, each half-dozen wrapped in bacon. The skewers have been grilled so that the bacon is very crisp, which is fine, only the shrimp are now beyond well-done. The flavor is truly bizarre. It takes me a while to place it: a burnt slice of pineapple-and-bacon pizza. I have no idea how the kitchen managed to accomplish this. The pasta served alongside the shrimp is a "zesty garlic linguini," whose sauce looks like the oil from a greasy slice of (pineapple-and-bacon?) pizza and tastes vaguely of dishwater.

After dinner Eric and I head across the street to the Scottrade Center to watch the Blues play an exhibition game against the Minnesota Wild. We're not here for the hockey — we're here to see how the arena's food compares to Bernie Federko's. I order a large cup of curly fries, while Eric orders a chili dog from Nathan's. Instead of taking it back to our seats, we eat our food at a table along the concourse.

This, of course, is a mistake. Without the game to distract us, the food comes off as terrible. The chili on the chili dog is grainy, like Hormel from the can; the hot dog is spongy. My fries have a scientifically formulated crust meant to keep them crisp — though not hot — but taste off, like old frying oil. I'd much rather try to smuggle Bernie Federko's "Hall of Fame" appetizer platter into the arena. (A XXXL Blues jersey should do the trick.) It's the perfect match of entertainment and food meant to be eaten only while entertained.

Eric and I stay long enough for him to see his first hockey fight. I hope he's watching it carefully, and taking notes. You know, in case he has to play air hockey someday against Bernie Federko himself.

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