One recurring theme in the phone calls and e-mails I get about restaurants is this: Where can we take the kids? Believe it or not, a lot of parents are considerate of their fellow diners and recognize that the inability to snag a babysitter is not a sufficient condition for imposing their little darlings on a roomful of fellow diners.
To the list of family-friendly prospects, we respectfully submit Big Bear Grill, which punctuates the fact that it's located in the diminishing wilds of Wildwood with a "great outdoors" theme, complete with lodgelike walls, plaid carpeting, various game-trophy mountings, shuffleboard accoutrements and (my personal favorite) a big carved-wood bear bidding you welcome in the foyer.
Much like the Yellowstone Café, which we visited in this column about a year ago (it's unrelated but shares a similar motif), Big Bear Grill is a "20-minute-radius" type of place, which means that it's a fine alternative if you happen to live within a 20-minute drive but not the kind of place that merits a significant field trip. The restaurant's philosophy is stated right up top at the start of the menu: "We serve fresh, homemade food in great amounts because we want you to walk out of here knowing you got your money's worth. No pretense. Whether you require a doggie bag at the end of your meal depends upon how slowly you choose to walk."
In that regard, Big Bear Grill is similar to any number of Sunday-supper type of family places that go way back in St. Louis dining history (and many of which are still around in one form or another): Lemmon's, Hodak's, Medich's, Crusoe's. And in that context of restaurant, it does just fine.
The main dining room seats about 100, and overflow or those who, like Mr. Chance, "like to watch" during their meals can be seated at tables in the bar area. Kids get crayons and colorable placemats, and the kids' menu is a short list of $3.49 specials that can be supplemented by a sizeable $1 sundae.
Appetizers occupy a narrow, basic-bar-food spectrum (with the disclaimer "Sorry, no cutesy little fru-fru portions available") of wings, toasted ravs, dip, nachos and potato skins. The wings are the de rigueur fingers-stained-orange variety, nicely hot with crispy skins, and the potatoes are dubbed "bearskins," flavored with cheese and bacon and fresh scallions; even the small order of nachos, heavily dosed with sliced jalapenos, is enough to share among a standard family of Mom, Dad and 2.2 children.
Daily specials include a veritable who's-who of comfort food, and we enjoyed the meat loaf -- coarsely ground beef with a powerful brown gravy and a huge side of mashed potatoes -- but the so-called "best fried chicken dinner in town," with four pieces and a side, had good texture and a moist, juicy interior but very little flavor to its crust, and the collection of carrots, beans, broccoli and bell pepper on the side was almost an afterthought. The roast-beef "flat car," an open-faced sandwich that's one of Big Bear's signature dishes, was of the medium-well, gravy-soaked variety and probably could have used two or more slices of roast beef.
Those in search of full meals have a choice of two steaks, a full-pound pork chop and a salmon fillet. The steak was fine for its price ($14.95 for a 12-ouncer) -- especially given the minidome of tangy red-wine-and-shallot butter on top -- although not as knife-through-butter tender as you'd get (and pay a lot more for) at a full-fledged steakhouse.
The sweet-and-tart interplay of the homemade cranberry-apple crisp was fabulous, even more so when we got a blob of it virtually straight out of the oven, and the turtle sundae (and, for that matter, the cheapie kiddie sundaes) was also a great value as a finishing course. Four A-B products and four microbrews are available on tap, probably the most fitting hard beverage for these meals, but in a nice tie-in with the theme, the California blend Bearitage is one of the selections on the short wine list.
Even on a full-up Sunday evening, service was rapid and our servers doted on the kids, both important qualities when you drag the rugrats along. Chickens may not have lips, but the Big Bear does in fact sit in Wildwood, serving up food that provides "comfort" to the whole family.
BIG BEAR GRILL, 16524 Old Manchester Rd. (Wildwood), 405-1100. Entrees: $7.95-$15.95. Hours: 11 a.m.-midnight Mon.-Thu. (food until 10 p.m.), 11 a.m.-1 a.m. Fri.-Sat. (food until 11 p.m.), 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Sun.