I was a thorny, beer-swilling English rose. I had raven hair from a tube, ponged of Chanel No. 19 and flourished best in London weather — cloudy, drizzled, nipped by a mean little wind.
I certainly wasn't ready for a St. Louis summer. After growing up in London and the south of England, I didn't really know what A/C was or appreciate how hot brick — or I — could get without it. Where I was staying — in my boyfriend's tumbledown World's Fair house in the Central West End — the only cool came from a half-arsed, avocado-colored ice box. I never left its side. Unless it was time for my daily burger.
We couldn't go far for it. His ink-blue, bench-seat jalopy could barely make it down the block. So — reluctantly and to the curdling scream of cicadas — we'd walk: six houses east to Kingshighway, across to McPherson, left on Euclid, past Balaban's and into the blissful Arctic chill of Dressel's.
To be completely honest, when someone told me there was a Welsh restaurant in this midwestern American town (let alone two!) I nearly choked on my humbug. It made no sense to me at all.
"So, what? They serve gristly pies? Peas in thin, greasy gravy? Is that what they serve there?!"
But sometimes, we receive our messages — our lessons — from unlikely places. And a neighborhood Welsh restaurant in an American city — miles from anywhere I'd heard of back home — set me straight; it taught my prickly, cynical, slightly plump, 19-year-old self a thing or two about the gastronomic possibility of what I'd assumed was a backwater.
And, guess what, it's still teaching me. Three decades later, after a three-year, post-COVID rethink, Dressel's Pub (419 North Euclid Avenue, 314-361-1060) reopened last summer, and that old haunt is new again. It has fresh things to tell. And not just about food and drink.
Once snug and pubby, the new space feels mod and roomy, in line with current trends. And to a large degree, owner Ben Dressel has been thoughtful with his upgrades, considering the beauty potential of repurposed materials and working with existing trappings to creative ends.
In addition to the framed literati of yore, the walls are now hung with panels from the old bench seats, and the glossy new bar is cobbled from the old floorboards. (The tipsy ghosts who once walked these floors now get to dance on its tables.)
"What's old is new again" applies to me as well. I did end up marrying that boyfriend of mine, and after a year in St. Louis, we moved to Washington, D.C. There, for six years, I worked at the Washington Post, writing about restaurants and food for the website.
I've been living in St. Louis for a while now, working as a freelance writer, but it's only this month that I'm assuming the role of food critic and full-time food writer for the Riverfront Times and Sauce Magazine, and seeing my old haunt with fresh eyes.
And so: the new Dressel's. If I had a water pistol to my temple, I probably couldn't say succinctly what a Welsh rarebit is. I might have a picture of it in mind — a pale, gluey goo dribbling over a bit of bread. But that would be my baggage. So: Teach me, Dressel's! I thought as I entered this Dressel's and cast an eye, as I always did, to the north wall for Dylan Thomas. He wasn't there; he's now back by the toilets, loving the proximity to the gleaming drums which sit below ground and soon will be brewing beer — gutsy British-style ales and lagers. His favorite.
The Wiki definition of rarebit is "cheese sauce on toast" (say less!) and it's linked to something called caws pobi which was "baked cheese" enjoyed in Wales in the 1500s. (FYI, it's also related, somehow, to rabbits and an intriguing American dish called Hot Brown. I didn't read on.)
At Dressel's, it simply refers to some sauce that comes in a cup either with Bavarian-style chips (Chips & Bit) or a big pretzel. Certainly get the pretzel. It may remind you of the best pull-apart dinner roll you've ever had. Buttery and tender with just the right amount of chew (and sprinkled — not dumped — with salt), it's hard to match. The sauce is nice, not a thousand miles from Cheez Whiz, and definitely much better as a thing to be dipped into rather than slathered over. There's mustard in it and maybe some Worcestershire, but a tiny tang of something like beer would have helped it down from the supermarket shelf.
Of course we also ordered the fish and chips, even though the haddock wasn't from the chilly waters sloshing around the U.K. but the chillier waters of Norway. Perhaps those seas are what account for this blisteringly clean, snowy flesh. Or maybe it's the preparation — the right oil, the right heat and someone's deft hand with the fry basket to yield batter that is delicately crisp, not too oily.
But in a departure from its cultural heritage — its beginnings in some Llandudno chippy — this fish dish is tidy-looking, gourmet. For one thing, it comes on a plate (not bandaged in greasy paper), but — oh, darn — there's no pickled egg.
Dressel's offers other delights, though. It's true, we Brits are nuts for jam. Not only on toast, in cookies and cakes, or rolled in pastry and served with custard. But we like it with our meat. It's technically a "chutney" then, and we have the Indians to thank. It was their genius, back in the late 1800s, for pairing sweet, pickley "compotes" with savory foodstuffs and giving us colonialists the daring to branch our culinary know-how beyond porridge. We've been lashing Smucker's over our chops ever since.
And so I hardly have to tell you I was beyond giddy to find a lamb burger (still) on the menu. And bonkers at the mention of apricot chutney and whipped goat cheese atop it.
Tender and farmyardy, and sweetly/jammily zinged, it is — in my opinionated, British-person opinion — beyond sublime.
We had some good old American food for supper, as well: The grilled chicken sandwich well-meaningly conceived with pepper jack, avocado and bacon; and a flat heap of Mojo Street Fries. Lavished with tender-as-the-night mojo-braised pork, a blend of cheeses and lime crema, they were soggy beyond our wildest dreams.
We wished those silvery drums were pumping. We wished it was two in the morning and we were back "there" again — three decades back, last-ordering some chips to go, and stumbling in beer goggles for home.
I'm glad to be here.
Dressel's is open Tues.-Thurs. 4-9 p.m., Fri.-Sat., 12-9 p.m., Sun. 12-6 p.m. (Closed Mon.)
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