Back on Tip Top

Tanner B's is a worthy heir to the cozy tavern on Shenandoah

First, a confession: I really miss the Shenandoah Bar and Grill, that veritable hole-in-the-wall tavern in Fox Park that served up homemade Serbian sausages, kebabs and the best fried chicken in town. It was a welcoming spot with a gruff teddy bear of an owner, a place where about 25 of us from the Tower Grove South neighborhood met every Thursday night to eat plates of fried chicken, to drink pitchers (and more pitchers) of Schlafly Pale Ale and to sing along with Journey and Kansas on the jukebox. We even named our softball team the Drumsticks, just to drive home whatever point we were trying to make. When it closed in January 2002, after being open since 1996, we held a raucous going-away party at the Shenandoah. To wax nostalgic, that corner bar and grill was a home of sorts.

We heard that an out-of-towner bought the building and was remodeling the Shenandoah into an "upscale" restaurant. And for the next year and a half, we waited. We drove by, slowly, to get a look at the renovation. We snagged workers leaving the building and peppered them with questions. When word got out that the restaurant-to-be had a name and a Web site and was already selling T-shirts and caps online, we worried that some type of chain eatery was moving in. The last thing we wanted was an Applebee's wannabe in this neighborhood.

All of which is to say that it was with some trepidation that I entered Tanner B's, the new (non-chain) neighborhood bar and restaurant (or "food and spirits," as the sign says) open since October in the old Shenandoah space on the corner of Shenandoah and Nebraska avenues. Would it be yuppified? Would the inviting smell of stale beer and grease be scrubbed clean from the air? And what had become of the Playboy pinball machine?

If you were familiar with the Shenandoah, stepping into Tanner B's will be shocking, like seeing your scruffy old uncle after his year in rehab -- spruced up with a new attitude and looking a lot more respectable. Gone are the Formica tables, the linoleum floor and the smoky-stinky Hamm's beer window curtains (which we bought and fashioned into bowling shirts). The salacious posters in the men's room are history, and the bathrooms have been remodeled. (Each, finally, has its own sink -- no more co-ed hand-washing.) The jukebox has been replaced with a sound system and nifty little speakers mounted all around the place.

But let's step back for a moment. The exterior of the building sets a new tone. Owner Dan Brown, a recent transplant from Austin, Texas, where he toiled for the Eddie V's Edgewater Grille restaurant chain, has a flair for creating a space that manages to be contemporary and warm without getting lost in overwrought fussiness. Brown redid the sidewalks for outdoor dining, refashioned the windows to their original (bigger) size, replaced the old glass-and-aluminum entry and the squeaky storm door with a beautiful wood-and-glass setup and restored the green neon Tip Top sign that sits atop the covered entryway (until 1986 the location was known as the Tip Top Tavern). It all makes for an inviting radiance, especially at twilight when the Tip Top and Tanner B's signs are glowing and the flicker of the tabletop votive candles filters through the oversize windows.

Brown's sense of design carries through inside, where he smartly installed a half-height partition to separate the dining area from the bar, with red carpet in the former and new wood flooring in the latter. Nine booths (hampered by limited leg room and a lot of knee banging with those across from you) line the wall; another five (with wider tabletops) are arrayed along the windows. Brown knows how to create a mood just by lighting: mauve-colored walls with kaleidoscopic images projected on them, hanging globe lights, soft accent lighting from strategically placed table lamps, and those flickering candles. It may indeed seem yuppified, but it strikes a very comfortable and friendly feel -- one that sets Tanner B's apart from not only most neighborhood joints but the generic "upscale casual" restaurants that have become popular.

The comfort extends to the ambitious menu, which Brown labels "Eclectic American Home Cooking." Entrées such as meat loaf (two slices of moist and meaty goodness), pot roast (three slices, drenched with a flavorful brown gravy) and a rib-eye steak with tarragon butter (a ten-ounce cut, nicely grilled, but a little steeply priced at nearly $16) deliver on that homespun promise. The meat loaf and pot roast come with a healthy mound of real garlic mashed potatoes and your choice of an additional side dish from a selection that's truly something to consider: a cold and crunchy seaweed salad (good, but not the best pairing with the pot roast), baked cavatappi with smoked Gouda (delicious and creamy -- think homemade mac 'n' cheese with more zing), horseradish potato pancakes (homemade and pan-fried), sautéed portobello mushrooms and onions (excellent with the rib eye) and a selection of vegetables, freshly cut and sautéed. Among the entrées there's also lasagna, a grilled chicken breast, a pasta dish with shrimp and -- the epitome of non-bar food -- an Asian stir fry with mixed vegetables and a chili garlic sauce, served over chow mein noodles. Most of the dishes come with a choice of two sides. (With the meat loaf and the pot roast, you've already got the mashed potatoes on your plate.)

Small plates abound as well, and it's worth piecing together several to share. Of particular note were the fried won tons stuffed with green chilies and mild, white cheese and served with a tame yet flavorful wasabi-ranch dipping sauce. Then, of course, there are soups, salads, burgers and unusual offerings like a twice-baked sweet potato, a grilled portobello mushroom sandwich and spicy sautéed chicken slices wrapped in lettuce leaves.

A few nightly specials are offered. I tried the small plate special of oysters Tanner ($7.32) -- six Fanny Bay (California) oysters on the half-shell, topped with a spinach, onion and cheese mixture and baked. The topping didn't interfere with the fresh-tasting oysters and proved a good start to the meal. Continuing in the seafood theme, broiled scallops ($14.53, with a choice of two sides) were cooked perfectly and arrived swimming in a shallow dish of melted garlic butter with fresh basil. Only one shortcoming here: The scallops weren't served hot enough. That and the oddball prices, a gimmick that falls flat.

Only two desserts are listed -- raspberry white chocolate cheesecake ($4.86) and tiramisu ($5.56) -- and after all that meat loaf and pot roast, we opted out. Tanner B's booze offerings make the grade for a neighborhood restaurant: four microbrews on tap (and no Bud Light); three dozen wines, about half of which are available by the glass; and an assortment of fancy martinis and other cocktails. When the bar area fills up, a convivial atmosphere circulates throughout the room, but not so much as to distract diners on the other side of the partition. Any true neighborhood hangout must have a couple of big television sets; Tanner B's has them, including a 50-inch high-definition set atop the back bar.

Brown has hit upon a good concept for this rebounding area: Take the neighborhood bar-and-grill idea and tweak it, offer a variety of food and drink at moderate prices, provide a comfortable atmosphere and serve the 'hood. But I'm still looking for that Playboy pinball machine.