Perfection Is Possible

At Tony's, it doesn't matter what you choose -- everything is stellar

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410 Market Street

Wild-mushroom soup $5.50
Asparagus salad $9
Mussels "our style" $10
Linguine with lobster, shrimp and crab $26.75
Grilled prime sirloin $32
Pumpkin torte (oh yeah) $7.50

314-231-7007. Hours: 5-10:30 p.m. Mon.-Thu., 5-11:30 p.m. Fri.-Sat.

One of the many hilarious consequences of writing about eating out is that people tend to make screwy food-related assumptions about you.

One such assumption is that you are a glutton. This is mostly true, especially insofar as it relates to punishment.

Another, based on your identification of Imo's pizza as something the Egyptians were too kind to have fed the children of Israel, is that you are a food snob. Forgotten are the times you've openly praised the comic qualities of aerosol cheese; your friends stop inviting you over. They're afraid you'll pour gourmet scorn on their store-bought hummus.

Some people mistake the restaurant writer for a consumer advocate. You try to explain that there's no moral imperative requiring that you advise your readers in making life-or-death restaurant decisions. In fact, your only duty is to eat out and write 1,000 words about it. You turn your palms up and say, "What am I, Zagat?"

The Zagat assumption -- that you are a searchable database of dining in human shape, is dangerous. Although you have always maintained that restaurant selection is an art too important to be left to the professionals, you're always asked for recommendations based on loony criteria, and then you have to duck when it doesn't work out. It seems that even more so than their expectations of restaurant writers, people have unrealistic expectations of restaurants. To wit:

Q: Where can I take a straight girl on a romantic first date for $20?

A: The same universe where cigarettes are good for you (you cheap putz).

Q: What's the best brunch?

A: The one you avoid eating altogether. "Best brunch" is an oxymoron. As pottymouth chef-turned-auteur Anthony Bourdain shockingly (if imprecisely) declares, "Hollandaise is a veritable Petri dish of biohazards."

Q: What is the best restaurant in St. Louis?

A: Tony's


Naturally this last answer fails to satisfy the postnuclear American craving for constant novelty. But it's the only suggestion that cannot disappoint. For roughly eleven centuries, Tony's has been regarded by you, by me, by authorities in charge of awarding stars, even by people who have never been there, as the best restaurant in St. Louis.

It is not a fatuous assertion. The food at Tony's is always above average, frequently superb and often embodies the Platonic ideal.

But why bring food into it? We don't need another gushing essay on Tony's luminous risotto. Let's talk about restaurants, and why Tony's stands alone, and why you should either eat there or take the 80 bucks you were gonna blow on the hackneyed artfood at one of these pestoriffic bistros, hie to the Wine and Cheese Place, buy a bottle of Stag's Leap cab and a hunk of something stinky and enjoy it at home with a couple of ripe pears.

Because let's face it: The minute you decide to put dinner into the hands of strangers, your earthly happiness for the next three hours is a crapshoot. Say you traipse along to Café Pretensio, young, gay and full of hope. You expect delicious food, cooked just the way you like it, delivered by psychics. But inevitably you are stricken, as the poet said, with the sickening pang of hope deferred. Even if the food doesn't suck outright, at least two of the following calamities are certainties: The waiter makes you reuse your appetizer fork for the entrée. There are drunken hoosiers at the next table. The swordfish is dry. The sauce is bland. Your plate is crusty. People keep bumping your chair on the way to the bathroom. Everything comes on a bed of "smashed" potatoes. The salad never arrives. Your table is under an AC vent. The napkins are made of maroon polyester. The ladies' is out of TP.

Thus dreams are dashed. Bubbles are burst. Servers are stiffed.

But not at Tony's.

Nothing bad ever happens at Tony's. It's brilliant. It's the patriarchy's single greatest contribution to Western civilization. At Tony's, your girlfriend could admit she's been cheating on you for a year and you'd say, "Yeah, bummer, I think I'll have the lobster in mustard sauce. You?"

As you saunter through the impeccable dining room with your chums, sparkling in your jaunty raiment, the lighting, the sleek appointments, the muted hues all make you look fabulous. Your table is set invitingly with glittering glass chargers that look as if they were carved out of ice. When the gorgeous tuxedoed staff effervesces out of nowhere to slip you into a chair and drape you with linen, it's the last you'll see of your free will for several hours. You give it a merry wave goodbye. You won't be needing it for anything.

I mean, it doesn't matter what you order. Close your eyes and point. Whatever you end up with, it will be pretty much the most you can expect from a plate of food.

Even more astonishing, and what makes Tony's the ne plus ultra of St. Louis fine dining, is the service. It's positively feudal.

The Tony's waiters are polished, gracious and sexy, exhibiting precisely the right amount of hauteur. You hadn't thought such men existed in St. Louis. In fact, they aren't men. They are a fantastic, specialized breed of wraith, imbued with the ability to be everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Shimmering in and out of existence, bearing sumptuous morsels and intoxicants, they are virtuosic figments dedicated to your high-end decadence. It's uncanny. Drop your napkin and here's a chap at your elbow, offering you a fresh one. Come back from the loo, and a fellow has glided in ahead of you to slide out your chair. Your attempt to make a grab for the wine bottle is foiled. If the ice so much as melts in your water glass, it is whisked away and replaced.

These maneuvers really cannot be explained by natural laws.

The hushed pageantry swells to a fragrant climax as the victuals are made manifest. Waiters again materialize en masse and swirl around the table. They finish everything tableside over a réchaud, expertly serving from polished copper pans. This divertissement is at once showy, aromatic and practical. You are teased into a fervor in the time it takes your wild-mushroom soup to be painstakingly ladled out in front of you. Your steak -- the best you've ever eaten -- arrives in a perfect state. As a bonus, the spooning of sauces tableside ensures that you will not have to endure the abstract-expressionist results of that vulgar plague the squeeze bottle.

Dining out is an enterprise fraught with spiritual peril. You may eat your fill of Café Po-Mo's Chilean sea bass in saffron broth, but as with the torment of Tantalus, a hunger remains. You yearn for the beau ideal, the sublimation of artifice to art. You've peered into the abyss and made a wild assumption: that perfection is possible.

It is. You have only to go to Tony's.

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