Crossings Taverne & Grille seems to come out of a different decade -- and that's a good thing

Crossings Taverne & Grille

35 N. Gore Avenue, Webster Groves

Salmon cakes $7.75
Sesame-seared tuna $19
Steak and Gorgonzola salad $13
Caramel cheesecake $5

314-968-6440. Hours: lunch daily 11 a.m.-2 p.m.; dinner daily 5-10 p.m. (open till 11 p.m. Fri.-Sat.).

When I was growing up in New Jersey, "fancy" meant Saturday-night dinner at the Wedgewood Cafeteria. This was an old, high-ceilinged restaurant a few (wealthier) towns away, and to a kid it looked like the embodiment of all things fine and regal. I remember dark, patterned carpeting and matching curtains made of heavy fabric; captain's chairs positioned at glossy tables; meticulous rows of silverware placed at each setting. It was always a dimly lighted space, and we three kids were always the youngest people in there by at least a generation (in fact, our parents were probably the second-youngest people in there). When my brother and I were done eating -- always before my parents, who were still spoon-feeding my sister -- we'd excuse ourselves from the table and go play a two-person game of duck-duck-goose in the middle of the room or hide-and-seek among the other tables. The elderly crowd ate it up. They just loved it, and rather than being reprimanded for inappropriate behavior, we were often rewarded for our playful spirits with whatever candies they had at the bottom of their purses.

There is something about Crossings Taverne & Grille that takes me back to the (long since closed) Wedgewood. It's got the same dark carpet and curtains I remember so well, and during a weekend dinner rush, the same old-folk contingency at its tables. I wouldn't call Crossings fancy -- the silverware comes wrapped in paper napkins, and the staff dresses casually in polo shirts and khakis -- but for a restaurant that's only about fifteen months old (it took over the former Two Nice Guys space in the summer of 2002), it feels a bit old-fashioned -- in a pleasant, nostalgia-inspiring sort of way.

Owner Terry Mercurio has his own reasons for looking to remedy that and take a few years off the feel of the place. For one thing, he's got new competition in Webster Groves now -- namely the reopened café Cyrano's on East Lockwood Avenue, Webster's main drag, and the newest outpost of Llywelyn's Pub just around the corner from Crossings on Moody Avenue.

Phase One of Crossings' ongoing revamp is the recently rolled-out café room, adjacent to the main dining room. What was once a pizza room at Two Nice Guys, then a deli space for Crossings, has been renovated yet again. A cute bar has been installed at the back of the room, and the straight-backed booths have been replaced by square four-tops and handsome wooden chairs. Requisite French posters adorn the white walls. While nobody will confuse Crossings' café for a spot along the Place Saint-Germain-des-Prés, it's certainly pleasant, unfussy and charming. It offers what any worthwhile café should: a place where one can eat lunch or linger over a cup of coffee with maybe only a book for company -- and feel relaxed and happy doing so.

The café's sandwich menu, meanwhile, gives the Saint Louis Bread Co. a run for its money. The ten choices here are more inventive without veering into cutesiness, a tad bigger, and damn tasty. The Big Bend sandwich marvelously matches up turkey breast, smoked Gruyère cheese, alfalfa sprouts and avocado (can you imagine smoked Gruyère at Bread Co.?), and even though I'm not a fan of nasal-clearing foods, I ravished my Kirkham Road, a heaping mound of pastrami and Swiss topped with a gob of sauerkraut and a smear of horseradish sauce, barely contained by two slices of marble rye.

While the café menu is limited in scope but high in caliber, the main dining room's menu runs amok with choices but isn't all-around outstanding. Among ten appetizers, for instance, three rank above the rest: simple and pungent salmon cakes (the same in texture as a crab cake but different enough in flavor to prove a nice surprise), a basil pesto bruschetta with fresh mozzarella and roma tomatoes (juicy, sweet, ravishing) and an array of crunchy-shelled chicken spring rolls hopped up on notes of orange, ginger and horseradish. The other seven, disappointingly, ain't much more than your average chicken wings, potato skins, cheese-filled breadsticks and toasted ravioli. They're filling bar food and not much more.

Beyond starters, Crossings' menu reads as never-ending: four house salads sized only for second-course consumption; about a half-dozen pasta dishes, plus a create-your-own-pasta mix-and-match; about eight pizzas (available in ten-, twelve-, or fourteen-inch diameters), plus a create-your-own-pizza mix-and-match; sandwiches and burgers; a quartet of dinner-size salads; steak, chicken, and seafood entrées...and then, if you're still hungry, there's dessert and Sunday brunch. It's one of the biggest bills of fare I've ever seen outside a cafeteria setting; my printer ran out of toner churning it all out.

Is it all good? I can't say; I've only one digestive system. Did I eat well? Mostly, yes. I think the kitchen can fire up a piece of meat damn well, whether it's a New York strip steak, good and bloody, a sweet and tantalizing sesame-seared tuna ordered a notch below medium rare, or the shiitake-encrusted roasted chicken that well deserves its status as a customers' favorite.

The dinner salads, the other category I got to know better than the rest, waver more. Steak and Gorgonzola salad surely isn't everybody's thing, but it's done proud here, with generous helpings of both headlining ingredients plus plenty of field greens, tomato slices and red onion. Sadly, the Shrimp on Spinach (SOS, says the menu -- but why would you order a salad crying out for help?) contains a paltry few spinach leaves interspersed among an overdose of "spring mix," which is almost entirely chopped iceberg lettuce. I'm not that offended by the misleading name of the salad, or by the fact that iceberg is considered the most down-market of the leafy greens. (Actually, for no particular reason, I've been lusting lately for a cold, crisp wedge of iceberg generously ladled with buttermilk dressing.) What disappoints me about the SOS is that spinach's slight bitterness would provide a satisfying contrast to shrimp meat, and iceberg does not. For what it's worth, though, the main-course salads (also a chicken Caesar and a chicken Oriental) are gigantic and can last you a week.

For dessert, seven slices of cake and pie, plus a mound of Bailey's Cream mousse encased in a pliant chocolate coating, all rank as quite creamy, though the caramel cheesecake and the Bailey's mousse proved the most crowd-pleasing.

Phase Two of Crossings' crossing-over, expected to debut next month, is to jazz up the main menu, offering patrons the option of ordering a meal as a series of small plates instead of the typical one appetizer, one entrée -- in other words, a tapas style of dining. Mercurio reports that new items on a forthcoming Crossings menu will include skewered shrimp, quesadillas and a tomato and mozzarella plate, plus expanded options in the pasta and pizza departments, and he's hoping the recent successes of local tapas newcomers Bastante and BARcelona can translate into an American setting serving American cuisine. Considering that he's already found a way to turn an American-style deli into a nice approximation of a French café, it'll be interesting to see what he comes up with in the kitchen.

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