The bartender at Quincy Street Bistro has lost count of how many margaritas she has mixed for the mourners who've gathered at the restaurant after a funeral. A server brings her yet another bottle of Patrón in its display box. She mimes shock: "For me? You shouldn't have!" There is also a birthday among the mourners, she tells us. In a little while, in voices ragged but clear, comes a chorus of "Happy Birthday to You."
I sit at the bar, nursing a beer, watching on one of the flat-screen TV sets above the bar as the Cardinals thrash my beloved hometown Baltimore Orioles. My wife is running late for dinner, and my stomach is growling, so I order an appetizer, the baked buffalo-chicken dip.
Don't try to tell me you don't love buffalo-chicken dip, that molten stew of cheese and vinegar-laced hot sauce, the very few pieces of chicken suspended therein a seemingly incidental reminder of the dish's origin. OK, so, maybe you don't love buffalo-chicken dip, but if you do, Quincy Street turns out a pretty good rendition, a tad light on buffalo sauce, but soul-satisfyingly goopy with cheese. It takes the edge off my hunger and off another Orioles' loss.
There are other dishes here appropriate to the moment. The housemade potato chips are fried crisp but cut thick enough to still have some chew. They are served with a mildly punchy horseradish sauce for dipping. Onion rings, battered with panko breadcrumbs, have a pleasing crunch and aren't greasy in the least. These, too, come with a dipping sauce, which the menu describes simply as "tangy," which I can't dispute. If you've ever eaten a bloomin' onion, you know what this sauce tastes like.
If your favorite part of buffalo wings are the actual wings, Quincy Street gives you a choice of hot or "smokin' hot." I preferred the "Quincy Street Wings," which are slathered in a very sticky sauce that bears a generic (but not unpleasantly so) southeast Asian influence, a definite sweetness balanced out by chile heat.
Quincy Street calls itself a bistro. It isn't — even in the most generous definition of that overused and practically meaningless term — but Quincy Street Bistro sounds better than Quincy Street Neighborhood Bar & Grill, which it could call itself with pride. It sits at the corner of Gravois Avenue and its namesake street, in the Princeton Heights neighborhood of south city.
The address was the long-time home of Jimmie's Saloon, but owners Mike Enright and Kevin Winkler gave the space a gut rehab. The bar area is especially lovely: hardwood floors, exposed brick, a beautifully weathered bar. The bar area leads directly into a small dining room. This space looks newer, its walls finished and painted an inoffensive neutral green. (There is a second dining room upstairs; I didn't see it.)
Winkler's career as a chef extends back to such seminal St. Louis restaurants as the Jefferson Avenue Boarding House. At Quincy Street he and Enright have put together a lengthy selection of crowd-pleasing bar-and-grill fare, food that goes well with friends and cold beer (it'd go well with wine, too, if someone brought the brief wine list up to snuff) and a ball game on every last one of the TVs.
There are sandwiches and burgers, none more striking than the "Quincy Street Monster Dog." The size of this half-pound, all-beef hot dog is impressive, no doubt — few buns could accommodate this wiener — but even more impressive is the fact that it is deep-fried (just deep-fried, not battered and deep-fried) and not disgusting. In truth, thanks to the frying, the contrast between the snap of the casing and the almost molten interior is even more intense and enjoyable. The burgers, you will be pleased to hear, are not deep-fried, but grilled. These are solid burgers, juicy and beefy, though better dressed than naked. I like the "One-Eyed Jack," which tops the patty with a slice of smoked Gouda, fried onions and a tangy bourbon-barbecue sauce.
The pizza is St. Louis-style. Now, regular readers know how I feel about Provel, and I remain solidly in the opposing camp. That said, after struggling mightily to remove my blinders, I can say that this might be the best example of the style I've encountered, with a thin crust that's more crust- than cracker-like and a sauce that tastes of tomatoes more than sugar.
Reading through the starters, salads, sandwiches, burgers and pizzas takes you through most of the menu — yet the dinner entrées remain. These range from pasta to comfort food to steaks. Chicken-fried steak is terrific: The pounded chicken breast is tender inside its jacket of crisp batter and smothered with a mildly peppery white gravy. (This might seem like faint praise, but it's not: Quincy Street deep-fries really, really well.) The "Bistro Pork Chops" remain tender and juicy, though by default they are grilled to a temperature between medium-well and well done. The preparation is unnecessarily fussy, however: Two six-ounce chops are topped with apple slices that have been sautéed in a cinnamon-amaretto glaze. The glaze has an unpleasantly astringent quality that distracts from the pork.
If it seems unfair to criticize a dish for being too ambitious when I usually do the opposite, it's only because Quincy Street is appealing because it is the sort of place where people gather around food, not because of it. How many hours have I spent at places like this, snacking on food that I know is bad for me, drinking a beer too cold to taste, watching one of my teams fail, laughing at a bartender's quips? This ain't the life of a restaurant critic. It's life, period.