Welsh, Welsh, Welsh 

Llywelyn's expands the empire

The urge to revisit Llywelyn's Pub hit while I was watching an episode of Good Eats, the quirky food/science/pop-culture show on the Food Network, hosted by the geekily lovable Alton Brown. The subject was toast: the history of it, how to make it, what to put on it. Yes, an entire show on toast. When Brown made Welsh rarebit, the desire for the creamy, cheesy, savory, dark beer-laden sauce overwhelmed me like a surge of desire hitting my deepest chakra. (Or, as Alton put it: "Anything with cheese, beer and cream is good eats.") That took me back to my early-'80s memories of the beloved Welsh pub, whose then one-and-only McPherson Avenue location I'd frequented as a grad student.

As with most remembrances of things past, nostalgia outpaced reality. (Same damn thing happened with Thick as a Brick. I played the hell out of it when I was a kid. Then, years later, I bought it on CD. The CD was 43 minutes and 44 seconds long. I lasted precisely fifteen of those minutes before hitting the proverbial brick wall and putting the disc away for good.)

My first meal at Llywelyn's in I-don't-know-how-many years and the rarebit was grainy. That's what happens when cheese sauce spends too much time on the back burner. Not only that, but the pub's famous Welsh chips -- unpeeled potatoes, thinly sliced and deep-fried, perfect with a dash of malt vinegar -- arrived a darker brown than the golden hue served up by my memory. These are the hallmarks of an established restaurant that has grown tired, or one that has spread itself too thin.

But before jumping to any conclusions, I resolved to give Llywelyn's -- in all three of its current locations -- a thorough test spin.

A little background: Jack Brangle and John Dressel introduced Llywelyn's on McPherson back in 1975. Not long afterward Dressel backed out of the partnership and opened his own namesake pub around the corner on Euclid. Then, in 1997, Brangle sold Llywelyn's to a trio of investors (their motto: "Established in 1975, reestablished in 1997"). The new owners, Chris Marshall, Scott Kemper and Brett Bennett, augmented the menu with new entrées and proceeded to branch out, first to Westport Plaza and then, last year, to Webster Groves.

The opening in 2000 of a west-county Llywelyn's surprised and dismayed many hardcore patrons of the Central West End original. This new rendition, sequestered in the unlikely, contrived environs of Westport Plaza and its nearly two dozen bars and restaurants (four of which have "pub" in their name), caters mostly to yuppyish bar hoppers and hotel guests. It's smaller than its two siblings, though just as warm and woody. With a Saturday opening time of 5 p.m. and no Sunday hours, the Westport Llywelyn's is clearly geared toward a drinking crowd. Right on the front of the menu, diners are warned not to expect the same selections that are offered on McPherson, owing to the diminutive size of the kitchen here. That also presumably explains why food is served only until 9 p.m. Forget the mini-burgers (though, oddly, you can get one big one) and the desserts (unless they're feeling effusive and have some cheesecake on hand). Still, when it's not crammed with boisterous revelers, the Westport Llywelyn's proved to be a fine spot to enjoy a bowl of white chili: thick, smooth and creamy. And that aforementioned burger, which is excellent when topped with rarebit sauce and crisp fried onions.

The newest Llywelyn's, a block north of the Lockwood/Elm Avenue nexus in Webster Groves, debuted in September. Building a restaurant in a cavernous space that once was home to a bowling alley (and later a machine shop) has advantages and drawbacks. A half-wall partition separates the bar from the dining area, but the high ceiling causes everything to reverberate, and on a packed weekend evening "everything" includes large families, rogue children, noisy drinkers and live music. (If it's a nice night, better to sit outside.) On the plus side, it's a very cool-looking space. Co-owner Kemper built the huge front bar himself to match the century-old back bar, rescued from Gaslight Square.

It was here that I found the rarebit I remembered -- smooth and creamy, trumped up with the addition of bacon bits, tomato and fried onions and ladled over four grilled wedges of Texas toast. I also discovered pub pickles: battered and deep-fried dill spears that are surprisingly tasty, especially when accompanied by a pint of Smithwick's Irish ale. Tuna, basted with a teriyaki-lime mixture, was fresh and arrived as rare as I ordered it, with a side of wild rice and sautéed vegetables. Though the menu specified "roasted" vegetables, at $10.50 this was a good deal regardless.

The popular Irish stew and shepherd's pie entrées were likewise satisfying. For the stew, lamb is simmered in a stock spiked with Guinness stout and Jameson's Irish whiskey till it really does melt in your mouth. The pie was composed of a thick slab of moist, flavorful meat loaf, layered with a thick spread of garlic mashed potatoes and then doused with a mushroom-sherry sauce.

Service, though, was hit-and-miss. An order of white chili was a no-show, as was a scoop of ice cream that had been requested with the strawberry-cherry cobbler (which was too sweet and had too much filling for its thin crust).

Of course, it's the CWE location that causes most Llywelyn's regulars to wax misty-eyed, even after the restaurant expanded into the antique store next door and the apartment upstairs. Out back there's now a cozy beer garden (if you're in an outdoor-dining mood but would prefer not to dine amid the street traffic at one of the tables on the sidewalk out front). Gone are the large booths and the banquettes, making for a more open space -- or losing its dark, dirty charm, depending on your perspective.

Despite the disappointing rarebit of my first visit, subsequent meals were fine. My friend Nancy swears that for as long as she's frequented this place, she's never ordered anything but the Llywelyn's chicken sandwich. And for good reason: A hoagie roll stuffed with sliced grilled chicken breast covered with pepper cheese sauce and fried onions makes for one addictive combination. Fish and chips is another good choice: two thick pieces of cod coated in a light yeasty batter and served with those delicious thin-sliced chips. The fish invariably arrives with a soggy bottom, but it's from the juices, not from grease. A chicken in cranberry sauce special ($9.95), a recipe ostensibly passed down through the chef's family, proved tasty but would have been better were a roasted half chicken substituted for the single grilled breast. (A side note: Both here and in Webster, a kid's menu is offered.)

At any of Llywelyn's locations, it's worth bellying up to the bar and working your way through the extensive beer list: eighteen brews on tap, including Fullers, Tennents and a host of American microbrews. Plus 22 bottled beers and a brief wine list of four inexpensive whites and reds.

For all its casual charm, Llywelyn's suffers from some irritating problems, some long-standing (unpredictable and sometimes surly or absentminded service), some new (chips arriving cool more often than they do hot; the unpredictable quality of the rarebit). And what's with the all the TV sets? Westport has four and Webster has five, all tuned to competing channels. It interferes with the piped-in music, let alone the conversation. But then you run into a server like Kristen in the West End -- friendly, knowledgeable and attentive -- who makes it all worthwhile.

Llywelyn's is named for Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, the last independent prince of Wales. Family dysfunction being what it is, Llywelyn's father, Gruffydd ap Llywelyn, fell to his death back in the mid-thirteenth century while trying to escape from the Tower of London, having been set up by his half-brother Dafydd, who was then prince of Wales.

Dafydd died childless, leaving Gruffydd's three sons, Owain, Dafydd and Llywelyn, in line to be prince. Llywelyn brushed aside his brothers and got King Henry III of England to recognize him as Prince of Wales, then commenced to piss off Henry's successor, Edward I. In 1282, his brother Dafydd launched an unprovoked attack on Hawarden Castle, then held by the English. Llywelyn had to make a choice: Capitulate to the English or side with his brother and countrymen. He opted for the latter, and died with his boots on (and his head cut off).

Llywelyn's owners might ponder the prince's fate, should they ever consider further expansion.

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