Pop the Top

This south-side spot proves you can go home again (and drink Dad's beer while you're there)

Jun 1, 2005 at 4:00 am
Mike Headrick was the first person I ever met in St. Louis. He was bartending at Llywelyn's in the Central West End on the night in November 2001 that my friend Jen and I drove into town during our weeklong scouting of Midwestern universities. She was applying to a bunch of master's programs; I was along for the ride. We were a couple of car-lagged East Coast chicks who were falling in love with St. Louis by the minute, enraptured as much by the candelabra streetlamps and splendid brick mansions of Euclid Avenue as we had been a half-hour earlier by our first-ever sighting of the Arch. Mike was clearly too hot to talk to us, even though the bar was dead that Sunday night and it was his job to do so.

I don't remember how we initially broke the ice with Mike, but our conversation with him that night and the following -- we decided we'd rather go back and see him a second time than go explore a different watering hole -- was probably 60 percent of the reason that, less than ten months later, both Jen and I were living here. We figured if there were a few more folks in town as personable, smart, laid-back and easy on the eyes as he was, then St. Louis must be a pretty sweet set-up.

Turns out that about the same time Jen and I were dreaming up our new lives in the Lou, Mike was beginning to conjure his own big move. Tired of pulling $5.25 imperial pints of Guinness, he envisioned a place that, as he explains it today, "offers the kind of cheap canned beer you used to steal from your dad's garage," with a menu to match: "What we grew up eating as kids -- float-trip food, backyard-barbecue food, stuff you eat outside with your family at a block party."

The Tin Can Tavern & Grille, the physical manifestation of Headrick's dream, opened in March along the gentrifying strip of Morganford a few blocks south of Tower Grove Park, with Headrick at the helm alongside fellow Llywelyn's alums Josh Alt and Rob Burke. They serve 50 kinds of beer -- in pop-tops. It's a spectacularly curated list, a smile-inducing, suds-sucker's delight that skips unashamedly from buck-fifty bilge most often ordered for irony's sake (Beast, Olympia, Schlitz), through standards like Amstel, Corona, PBR and Heineken, to Foster's oil cans and top-shelf brands like Bitburger Pilsner ($4.50) and Young's Oatmeal Stout ($4.75).

Everything else about the Tin Can follows the beer list's lead. Eats are self-consciously low-rent and gastronomically solid. The red-painted, split-level interior is outfitted with red vinyl and chrome stools and chairs (if the Delmar Lounge had a basement space, this is what it would look like). Red foam beer cozies line the walls, personalized by patrons who scrawled nicknames like "Big Dave" and "Colon Blow" across them with thick, black markers. This place is personable, smart, laid-back and easy on the eyes -- for those who appreciate south-side livin', a pretty sweet set-up. When, after my second of three visits, I discovered that Headrick and company were behind the business, it all made sense.

Though all three owners grew up around here, and a couple of their parents' home-cooking recipes have found their way onto the menu (the meat loaf, the green beans), this really isn't la basse cuisine de Saint Louis. There's no toasted ravioli, no slingers, no thin-crust, Provel-topped pizza, no gooey butter cake. The Tin Can's closest culinary cousin may be Iron Barley, the two-year-old Carondelet restaurant that defined the concept of haute hoosier with its barley paella, Monte Cristo dog (two franks topped with melted Swiss and strawberry jam), Ballistic Elvis Sammiche (grilled cheese with jam, sliced bananas, peanut butter and red pepper flakes) and Blender Blaster pies.

The Tin Can flaunts the Pot and Kettle, a heaping helping of homestyle goodness: pot roast and mashed potatoes piled upon Texas toast, ladled with a brown, creamy, unexpectedly rosemary-spiked gravy. That's just one of a handful of signature items that rank the Tin Can as not just a bar, but a full-on restaurant, with food that sidles right up to a Stroh's or a Stag. A pair of crab cakes dubbed Southside Seafood Cakes are prepared not in lumps but thin, like pancakes -- yet as any crab cakes worth their (house-made) tartar sauce, they hold together without breading or over-frying, rendering them firm and luscious all at once. Similarly delicious are Low Country Meat Pies, two puffy, flaky pastry shells filled with sautéed ground beef, onions, peppers and chopped pork steak -- which does well here, but served intact as part of an open-faced Backyard Bomber sandwich, was tough, and wasn't helped by a blunt, uninteresting barbecue sauce. Those meat pies, though, could pass for beef Wellington, or something similarly gluttonous and gourmet.

The grilled cheese sandwich, which stacks American, Cheddar, Swiss and provolone between slices of Texas toast, is the best this side of Mom's. An accompanying tomato bisque offset with chunks of tomato started off great but turned inexplicably salty toward the bottom of the cup.

The Tin Can's kitchen is teensy, with barely any room for storage. That can be a good thing: Pretty much everything is made daily, from scratch, because there isn't freezer space to serve up-from-frozen foodstuffs. The seafood cakes contain no crabstick. The chicken tenders, a froz-food gimme if ever there was one, are dredged by hand in buttermilk, sliced almonds and honest-to-goodness corn flakes. The mac-and-cheese is triumphant, mixing cheddar, Velveeta (for smoothness), a little bit of corn flakes (for bite), a little bit of half-and-half (yet more smoothness), hot sauce and brown sugar, the last two ingredients imparting a nicely calibrated sweetness on the palate, followed by a superb spicy afterburn.

The small, rotating list of desserts -- German chocolate cake, brownie à la mode, red velvet cake -- come from La Dolce Via, the near-legendary Forest Park Southeast bakery that supplies breads and sweets to dozens of local eateries. (La Dolce Via owner Marcia Sindel was a regular customer at Llywelyn's.) The quality of La Dolce Via products is unimpeachable, but in keeping with the Tin Can's blue-collar aesthetic, I was hoping to find desserts whipped up in that wee kitchen from Duncan Hines boxes purchased at the 7-Eleven across the street. (Cross that way yourself after dinner, though, and you can enjoy a frosty treat from Snow Cones Galore, a seasonal shack adjacent to the 7-Eleven parking lot that offers a few dozen flavors, including chocolate, wedding cake, lots of fruit stuff and tiger's blood.)

When I ordered the grilled cheese on my second visit, I did something I never, ever do in public. I doused that baby with ketchup -- my own nostalgic habit. Once more, Headrick had made me feel right at home.