Djordje "George" Korac, owner of Tip Top Food & Spirits in Soulard, sits at a table on the restaurant's covered patio and lights a cigarette. Ceiling fans whir overhead. A boom box blasts Night Ranger's "Sister Christian." A patron's dog with a stump for a tail stands and wags its butt.
The restaurant biz is never easy, and these days it's especially cruel: The economy is tanking, food costs are rising and this week everyone is worried about contaminated tomatoes. But permit Korac a moment's personal frustration. He wasted five hours today driving to Jefferson City and back thanks to a bureaucrat's paperwork snafu.
Still, Korac can manage a smile. "It was a beautiful drive."
Tip Top opened late last year, but it looks and feels lived-in. In the building's roughly 120-year history, it has been home to everything from an auto-repair shop to, most recently, the restaurant Lagniappe's. Being a simple bar and grill suits it. The small dining room is simply adorned, with the specials written on a chalkboard and a single TV, neither flat-screen nor high-def, above the bar. The most distinctive touch is the wall clock behind the bar, which features "Tip Top" spelled in neon letters.
(Smoking is allowed, and given the tight confines, even a single cigarette is noticeable. During clement weather, there is both the aforementioned covered patio and a second, larger open-air patio.)
Korac's own roots in the St. Louis scene go back to his uncle, who owned the original Tip Top. Korac himself ran the Shenandoah Bar & Grill in the spot last occupied by the late Tanner B's.
Korac notices that my friend has ordered a shish kebab, two skewers of steak served atop grilled pita bread, with red pepper, feta cheese and chopped onion on the side. There is usually tomato, too, he says. We nod. Many restaurants have stopped serving tomatoes, owing to the salmonella outbreak. But that's not the problem. His tomatoes are from a state that has been declared free from contamination. No — the tomatoes he had were no good.
Would slices from a fresh, ripe tomato help this shish kebab? It wouldn't hurt, but I like it as it is. The steak isn't the greatest cut in the world — it's chewy, and one or two pieces have a thread of gristle — but it's flavorful, having been basted with a smoky, mildly sweet sauce.
The shish kebab is one of a few Serbian dishes on Tip Top's menu. If you're familiar with Bosnian cuisine, then you've had a decent introduction to the cuisine of its fellow former Yugoslav state. You will experience both the light touch of Mediterranean fare and the heavy hand of Eastern European dishes, often in the same dish. (That shish kebab, for example.)
At the beginning of Serbia's turbulent 20th century, it was still part of the far-flung Ottoman Empire. Not surprising, then, that Tip Top offers an appetizer of hummus, thick and very tart with lemon. The hummus and, in a separate crock, a sharply flavored red-pepper sauce, are served with wedges of grilled, butter-slicked pita.
Cevapcici are Serbian sausages. A small order buys five of them, each about half as long as the average hot dog. (A large order brings nine, or you can opt for the "Serbian Combo," which includes five cevapcici and two shish kebabs.) Like the shish kebab, the cevapcici are served over grilled pita bread, with roasted red pepper, onion, feta cheese and, under ordinary circumstances, tomato.
Is it proper to tear off a piece of pita bread and make pigs-in-a-blanket with the sausages? I don't know, but the results are damn tasty. As far as sausages go, cevapcici have a flavor more meaty than spicy; they pair especially well with the piquant, salty feta.
The majority of Tip Top's menu features standard bar-and-grill fare: Hot wings. T-ravs and jalapeño poppers. Burgers and sandwiches. Steaks. Fried chicken is a standout. Humbly tagged on the menu as "world famous," the fried-chicken dinner nets four pieces of tender chicken — breast, thigh, wing, leg — in a thin, crisp, peppery breading. I prefer a thicker breading with a more pronounced crunch, but I like how Tip Top's fried chicken is moist without being too greasy.
The "Tip Topper" burger is something like a patty melt by way of Belgrade: a half-pound of ground beef topped with grilled onions, a "Serbian" slaw (very tart, but otherwise not that different from run-of-the-mill coleslaw) and the aioli-like house sauce, sandwiched between two thick slices of Texas toast. I like the concept, but my burger was cooked past the medium temperature I requested, and there was too much house sauce. The sauce, along with the burger's grease, manages the remarkable feat of turning Texas toast to mush.
Appetizers range from beer-friendly snacks to such guilty pleasures as — God help me, but I ate more than my fair share — jalapeño poppers. Best are the housemade potato chips, cut on the thick side and fried to a deep golden brown. According to the menu, these are served with a cheese sauce for dipping, but when I ordered them, the server told me the sauce has changed. (She seemed uncertain whether this is permanent or a one-off situation.) The new sauce had a yogurt-like texture and an overpowering dill flavor. I dislike few foods in their unadulterated form as much as I dislike dill, so I abandoned this.
Steak fries are crisp on the outside, soft as a cloud inside, and while their dominant flavor is salt, this isn't such a bad thing when you and a friend are enjoying a cold beer outdoors on an unexpectedly pleasant June evening. Tip Top offers a full bar, though it's the sort of place where I only ever want to order a shot and a beer. Only two beers are on tap, but to my surprise, considering that Tip Top sits in the shadow of A-B headquarters, both are from Schlafly.
Like the Serbian dishes or the refusal to serve subpar tomatoes, it's a little detail that elevates Tip Top above your average hole-in-the-wall bar and grill. And if that sounds like a backhanded compliment, then you've clearly never experienced the sublime beauty of a cold beer on a warm evening with "Sister Christian" playing in the background.
And don't tell me you don't love Night Ranger.