Best Of 2004

The place: A 24-hour greasy spoon, so narrow it contains only a classic countertop with vinyl-topped stools to the left, and to the right, a pinball machine, a cigarette machine, a few video games and a poster of Johnny Cash flipping the bird. An old TV hangs from the ceiling, broadcasting game shows. The time: Friday, 12:45 p.m. The lunch rush -- that is, if a place like this could ever feel rushed. The characters: Jean, matronly despite her take-no-shit attitude, is the sole employee on deck, marching to and fro behind the counter as she jots down orders, fixes sandwiches and breakfast plates and soaks used plastic dishes; two grungy early-twentysomethings, flirting over smokes and a copy of Anne Lamott's Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith; a man who could be a truck driver or a serial killer dining alone on the farthest stool; a senior citizen scarfing down a plate of unidentifiable meat, reminiscent of every old man who eats by himself at a restaurant. The scene: A no-frills diner that couldn't care less about the downtown Maplewood dining renaissance taking place outside its doors, Tiffany's serves up a straightforward menu of hot cakes (no, not "pancakes"), hash browns, burgers, tuna melts, BLTs, cole slaw, pie, etc. The average price of a meal is about six bucks; the only thing that costs more than $10 is the twelve-ounce T-bone, which comes with either a side of fries or two eggs. Wheat and white are the only breads on the premises. And if you feel like the most white-bread customer on the premises, just sit down, shut up, and take it all in.
When the ladies who lunch go shopping, the Zodiac at Neiman Marcus is where they lunch. With good reason: linen tablecloths, weighty silverware, courteous, attentive table service, chic white-on-white décor -- oh, and the food's topnotch. The lunch-only seasonal menu might feature a velvety bisque, a decadent chocolate soufflé cake or the lobster cobb salad, a vertically presented triumph in classy Atkins cuisine, which of course made it a runaway hit here last summer. (Shopping makes for great cardio, but a gal needs all the waistline-trimming help she can get.) It's pricey, yes, with many main courses up in the teens -- but then again, it is the Plaza.
Every morning, before opening up his storefront barbecue joint for the day, Byron Mischeaux hits the Safeway on Broadway's north side and picks up 50 pounds of ground beef. By lunch he'll have hand-sculpted that haul into 30 shot put-size, heavier-than-a-pound mounds of carnal excess -- the best burgers in St. Louis, by far. And by dinner he'll have made at least one more run to the supermarket to keep up with customer demand. On an average day, Mischeaux goes through about 200 pounds of meat; selling it off one $2.50 hamburger or $2.75 cheeseburger at a time, he'll likely turn a profit of about 40 bucks. If that sounds martyr-like, maybe that's because Mischeaux is a religious man, whose burgers taste like a (huge) chunk of heaven. What seasonings he uses, he likes to keep a (divine) mystery, but there seem to be whispers of garlic, paprika and onion. The whole thing is topped with a few thin slices of lettuce, tomato, onion and pickles, smeared with mayonnaise and anchored by two pieces of Wonder brand Texas toast. Though he's been in the barbecue business since 1995, Mischeaux only started making burgers about two years ago. That menu addition was a move both benevolent and all-business. On the one hand, he wanted to create a burger that could inexpensively feed more than one person. On the other, he realized he needed something to lure in the locals come summer, when everybody and their mama whips up their own barbecue outside. What he came up with -- this make-a-grown-man-cry meal-and-a-half -- ranks as a small miracle.
But it's a bowling alley. No, it isn't, any more than Blueberry Hill down the street (also owned by Joe Edwards) is an amusement park. Yes, there are bowling lanes at Pin-Up Bowl, but that's just one slice of the pie. There's the awesome retro décor supplied by Kiku Obata & Co., featuring an Art Deco look and red walls plastered in Vargas girls. (Some of the babes were commissioned by Edwards and come courtesy of artist and sometime RFT illustrator Joe Keylon.) There's the drinks, from designer martinis to bottles of Bud. Heck, there's even the overpriced food -- which you should be thankful for, seeing as how you're gonna be drinking till 3 a.m. You wanna bowl? Go nuts. Try to beat the high score, a 257 ostensibly held by local hero Nelly. But if the lanes are full (and they almost always are), don't fret. You can while away many an entertaining hour at Pin-Up without knocking over a single pin.
Years ago, when Eric Brenner was just another lifer working the line at one of the eateries on the Hill, slinging scampis and toasted ravs for the hoi polloi, he thought to himself: Why can't we do high-end food at a place like this? Later, when he transferred to a country-club kitchen, making marvelous food for the awfully wealthy, he wondered: Why can't my friends go out and eat this good? In January he answered both of his own questions and opened Moxy, the white-hot, blue-toned bistro that's cool but welcoming, hip but substantive, smart and warm and daring. Yet all that we rave about -- dishes like seared duck breast in concord grape reduction, short ribs braised in red wine, pecan-crusted pork chop with apple compote -- was actually built on a dorky-sounding, old-fashioned premise: Give the customer value. There's not one dinner entrée priced over $20, and this past summer, wanting his clientele to become more adventurous oenophiles, Brenner actually lowered his wine prices. He works the line himself and also assigns himself votive-lighting duty come dusk, the better to put him out on the floor nightly, talking up the customers. His embraceable staff follows his cue, and the result is that Moxy runs like a well-oiled, witty and wonderful machine.
Just like bar patrons, all bars start to look alike after 1:30 a.m. The patrons become sexier and blurrier. The bars become smokier, more crowded and louder. It's the loud part that sets the Rocket Bar apart. While other bars are willing to let canned music serve as the soundtrack to late-night debauchery, the Rocket Bar uses its glorious jukebox. Watch as cross-eyed indie rockers argue over which My Bloody Valentine track to play while you down one last Pabst (well, okay, two more, but that's it, we swear). Where else are you going to hear Built to Spill or the Pixies at full volume while you mortar in the final brick of tomorrow's hangover?
Some trace the origin of the hamburger to the St. Louis World's Fair of 1904. Would we be spoilsports to point out that others date the delicacy all the way back to ancient Rome, and beyond? As edifying as it may be to read accounts of Tartar warriors toting filets off to battle under the saddles of their horses -- aiming to nosh later on the raw, tenderized result (voilà, steak tartare!) -- it all comes down to drawing a line at how you define. Which brings us to the newer and more generic term, burger, about which our trusty Amercian Heritage Dictionary has this to say: "n. Informal. 1. A hamburger. 2. A sandwich similar to a hamburger but with a nonbeef filling: a crab burger." For our $10, no local beefless burger tops the Cajun crab cake sandwich served at Brandt's Cafe in the U. City Loop. The fixings are basic: a modestly seasoned crab burger, heavy on the crab and light on the filler; lettuce, tomato, red onion and a bun. And, to top it off, a generous squiggle of spicy aioli. Now that's tasty!
How do we love George? Let us count the ways. We love that he's known to greet parties out in the parking lot -- umbrella at the ready when it's raining -- and escort them to their tables. We love that he remembers names after one visit. We love how he keeps patrons laughing throughout the meal (sometimes at their own expense; George is a born kidder). We love how he reminds us that fancy dinners don't necessarily mean stuffy attitudes. We love how he knows JaBoni's menu and wine list backward and frontward. We love asking him to decide our order for us. We love George so much that, when we make reservations at JaBoni's, we ask for him by name.
Back in the day, between 1960 and 1996, you didn't go to Cyrano's just for dessert. You went to Cyrano's to impress your date, to feel cosmopolitan, to practice being romantic and/or to hang with friends. Cyrano's combined the charm of a cozy atmosphere, small plates of food and big, decadent desserts that made most people swoon (before they lapsed into a sugar coma). The resurrection of Cyrano's is a call to once again wallow in the massive mounds of whipped cream that top the Cleopatra, to ogle wide-eyed the towering flames shooting from chafing dishes of cherries jubilee, to relish the thick meringue of baked Alaska -- all in a coolly retro yet contemporary atmosphere. The beautifully renovated new space in Webster Groves (a former DeSoto dealership) is big but still cozy. The "real food" menu is smart and trendy but designed to help you save room for dessert, whether it be an old standby like the World's Fair Eclair or a new addition, like apple tarte tatin or blackberry financier. Go ahead, we dare you: Eat dessert first.
Ah, O'Connell's: lit low, as if it were one of Stanley Kubrick's candlelight scenes in Barry Lyndon, lovely exposed brick on the south wall, and the booths' dark wood paneling. Foursquare, reliable as rain in the springtime. An umber state of mind. O'Connell's doesn't need to serve food to maintain its lock on top-drawer-saloon status; that it does only enhances its claim to greatness. Of course it's the fabled O'Connell's hamburger that rightly garners the highest praise, but the burger's natural side dish is equally aces here. O'Connell's' fries are perfectly rendered -- never greasy, never fried in old oil, never one left on the plate when you leave.
We go to lounges for many reasons: to listen to music, to sip bright-hued cocktails, to chat with friends. To step out, and then to sit down. To lounge. And when we seek the Platonic ideal of loungin' in the Lou, we head to the Delmar. Looking for all the world like a collaborative design effort between Raymond Chandler and Quentin Tarantino, the Delmar exudes noir cool. The deep red booths, the mirrored bar, the banquettes and abstract art in the back room: There's not a bad seat in the house. And once you find your seat, plan on keeping it awhile. Order a libation, whether it's a martini (a steal at $5), a cold Schlafly draught or a selection from the extensive wine list. Parse the menu and realize that the term "bar food" would be blasphemy here: Instead of going the wings-and-nachos route, the Delmar offers, among other things, steak-and-blue-cheese-stuffed quesadillas and a sublime dish of portobello ravioli. After dinner stay planted in your seat and listen to live music. The Delmar expanded its musical frontiers in 2004, augmenting an already solid jazz lineup. Now you can catch Alexis Tucci and the Hot House Sessions' sizzling world music/DJ/ jazz fusion on Fridays and DJ C-Beyond's mix mastery on Saturday nights. Drink. Eat. Listen. Chilling out never felt so cool.