"We will never open as a restaurant again," Bud Starr vehemently told Riverfront Times in February 2012, just after the demise of his latest restaurant venture, Root. "We were bleeding like a stuck pig."
And yet, here we are. The new restaurant occupying the dining space adjoining Starr's 34-year-old wine shop and market is Bud's Smokehouse & Grill. According to our count, this is Starr's seventh attempt. He originally built the space for events and private dinners, then for a few short months began using it as a nameless bistro serving weekend dinners. Next came Las Brisas; a Mexican restaurant, then Nosh, a venture with his daughter and his ex-wife. Finally there was Root, a venture with chef Brian Hardesty (now of the acclaimed Element and Guerrilla Street Food truck) that closed after only three weeks. Root was the most highly anticipated concept and the most infamous failure. Rumors about an epic fallout between chef and owner trickled out, and at this point, a reasonable person has to ask whether Starr can ever host a successful restaurant.
In its latest incarnation, the space has an old-fashioned bar-and-grill feel with dark wood, warm light fixtures and exposed brick. Bud's is a counter-service operation, and patrons order at a bar that looks suited for a craft cocktail lounge, with mirrored shelves, glassware, and a beer and wine display. It's a nice but very big space, and on our visits we were the only diners save for a trickle of carry-out customers.
According to Starr, this is the first time the concept has been all his own. In the past, he'd throw an ad on Craigslist and see who was interested in running a restaurant — a "stupid idea," he says now. Now, Bud's is inspired by Starr's love of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, and he teamed up with chef Treff Baker, a Tacoma, Washington, transplant formerly of SqWires and Saint Louis University's the Docket. Starr even sprang for his own top-of-the-line Ole Hickory smoker.
Despite the owner's eccentric reputation, Bud's barbecue is respectable, and sometimes downright delightful, standing up to the town's most famous names. The menu offers two types of pork ribs: regular and Missouri-raised. Both are generously treated with a mildly spicy rub that forms a nice crust on the moist and tender meat. Bud was working the room the night of our visit and began divulging secrets about injecting the ribs with wine — before Baker walked in and cut him off. "He's like the dog in the Bush's baked beans commercials," Baker laughed. "You leave him alone for five minutes and he tells our secrets."
The pulled pork was gently smoked, drawing out the meat's natural sweetness, and served on a fresh, housemade bun. Another sandwich, the brisket burger, was a fantastic behemoth of grass-fed beef and finely chopped smoked brisket, mixed together to form a patty that had the charcoal-grilled flavor of a backyard cookout. The burger was grilled to a perfectly pink medium and served on a magnificently buttery and fluffy onion roll (also housemade).
I'm not sure which was my favorite: the beef brisket or the smoked turkey breast. The brisket was different from any other I have had, taking on more of a pot-roast character. It was good and smokey, but its rub mingled with the natural juices and a veal demi-glace to form a light gravy. The meat was so tender that it took no more than a gentle prodding from my fork to pull it apart.
The smoked turkey breast was equally fork-tender, with a pronounced smoke flavor. We enjoyed it so much that I actually went back a few days after our visit to order two pounds for home. I also grabbed a half chicken. Unlike the other meats, the chicken was fried, tossed in Bud's original barbecue sauce and finished on the grill for a nice, caramely coating.
With the exception of the chicken, Bud's serves all of its meat without sauce and offers several bottled varieties. The "Bud's Original" is a good balance of sweet, tangy and spicy, with notes of thyme and cumin. The "Carolina Style" was similar but more vinegary, and an apple-chipotle sauce was the stickiest — and my favorite — of the three.
Side dishes were fair but unremarkable. The baked beans, the best of the sides we tried, were tangy and had a nice, firm texture. (Bud's obviously uses dried beans rather than canned.) The others, from mac & cheese to cole slaw to potato salad, were standard.
One perk of eating immediately next to a first-rate wine shop is that Starr allows diners to bring in bottles of wine from the market and waives the nominal corkage fee if the bottle costs more than $25.
Bud Starr is a character, but for all of his quirks, he is doing something right with Bud's Smokehouse & Grill. Maybe seven is his lucky number.