Hangin' Out

Revisiting the '70s at South County's Note Bar

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Return with us now to those directionally and dictionally challenged days when Dana Bwown sold coffee by extolling the unmatched taste of the game fish "bweem," the submarine officer-turned-president couldn't pronounce "nuclear," and people actually made significant money writing and singing songs like "Boogie Oogie Oogie."

If this is your idea of the good ol' days, you'll find a home at the Note Bar, a mixture of roughly one part '70s fern bar, two parts music club, one part game room, one part music-themed menu and two parts reasonably competent Cajun specialties. The physical space of the restaurant — located on Gravois between Lindbergh and I-270 — complements the rambling motif, with a bar and main stage at its center, a glassed-in dining area up front, a secondary stage and dining area to one side and a patio in back. There's eye candy everywhere, ranging from one of Bwana Dana's stuffed lions, to a photo of Elvis and Muhammad Ali, to past and recent Soulard Mardi Gras posters, to a Red Schoendienst Cardinals jersey.

We visited on two separate weekend nights, both times with early entertainment by the duet of Athena Chappell and Mike Klick, cranking out the soft-rock hits of the '70s with sufficient proficiency that they had drawn a whole roomful of KEZK's primary target demographic. (In fairness, Chappell also does a mean Sheryl Crow.) On one trip, we sat at one of the tables in front of the side stage, and the volume was low enough and the pace sufficiently leisurely that it was easy enough to hold a conversation during the meal, although a Steely Dan tune did cause a few of the other couples to revert to their past lives and break into the facsimile of rhythmic motion that has substituted for dancing ever since "Stairway to Heaven" and "Free Bird" became prom staples.

The waitresses seemed used to adapting to aisles blocked by such behavior, though, and service was quite prompt on that trip, although on our second visit we were briefly abandoned until a backup waitress commandeered our fare and announced that "somebody would have to be spanked" for leaving us alone for the first few minutes we had been there. We thought of putting in a request for some Devo but settled for just getting on with our meals.

On the Cajun front, both the jambalaya ($9.95) and the blackened-tuna ($10.95) entrees were sufficiently fiery to merit the label of authentic Cajun-ness, with a smattering of shrimp but plenty of sausage in the jambalaya — served over mixed rice but, oddly, with potato and carrot on the side. The tuna was a decent substitute for the classic blackening choice of redfish, which was way too popular in the '70s and '80s, to the point where the species was vastly depleted. Instead of featuring seared-on spices, however, this preparation was more of a sauté, with pepper-infused oil lightly coating the moist fish.

The most satisfying of all the Cajun variations we tried, though, was a gumbo that was certainly the best possible of the "soup or salad?" choices. The thin broth was bursting with spice and seafood flavor, influenced in large part by the generous chunks of shrimp, crayfish and sausage lurking about the bottom of the cup.

The other stuff we sampled ranged from basic (peel-and-eat shrimp at $6.25 for a half-pound or $10.95 for a full pound, which we gave good marks for using nicely sized, about-30-count shrimp), to pseudo-Cajun ("N'Awlins Skins," five halved russets for $5.95, transforming the bar-food standard through the addition of andouille sausage to the ubiquitous Provel filling), to slightly overcute (the "Crash and Burn" entree, at a menu-topping $15.95, included a very good 6-ounce fillet, but the three accompanying coconut shrimp were a little overwhelmed by the coconut hush puppies that had been baked around them).

The dessert list is short, and we tried only the strawberry shortcake ($2.95), which really should have used fresh strawberries.

The Note Bar occupies a space formerly known as Turtles, a name shared by a restaurant/bar down in Imperial, Mo. Owner Daniel Francis operates both spots but chose to give the Note Bar an identity of its own, jumping gingerly among all the categories (club, Cajun restaurant, etc.) listed above. Among other things, he ought to get some credit for providing a steady gig for one of the nicest folks in all of St. Louis musicdom, former Rod Stewart guitarist Billy Peek, whom we saw schlepping and setting up his own equipment one Thursday evening when we visited. You'll get hit with a couple-buck cover when Peek plays (and on various other band nights), but it's well worth it, especially if you like your Cajun with a healthy side of electric funk.

Glen Richards and Valerie Radake put together the whimsical menu, and although there's better Cajun to be found in Soulard and Maplewood, the stuff at the Note Bar holds its own. Any place that can serve up a good meal and provide a steady job for a bunch of local musicians is OK in my book. The '70s weren't exactly a golden era for anything in particular, but given that the decade's music has become something of the soundtrack for the '90s, the band(s) might as well play on.

NOTE BAR, 11750 Gravois Ave. (Sunset Hills), 849-3230. Hours: 4 p.m.-1 a.m. Tues.-Sat. Entrees: $7.95-$15.95.

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