Stephen Morgan, chef at Pat's Bar and Grill, will be presented with the AgriMissouri Excellence bronze level Chef medal for the 2004 AgriMissouri recipe contest.... Sponsored by the Missouri Department of Agriculture, the program invited chefs, sous chefs and lead line cooks at Missouri restaurants, retailers, caterers and bed and breakfast organizations to enter signature recipes using Missouri-based ingredients."
It was a happy coincidence, and a bit of an eyebrow-raiser, when this press release crossed my desk a few weeks ago. I have wanted to investigate Pat's Bar and Grill for some time -- for personal booze-hounding as much as professional restaurant-reviewing reasons. For most of the time I've lived here, I'd known this place as "that bar across the street from Turtle Park," its handsome neon signage visible from Highway 40, looking like a Norman Rockwell take on what a neighborhood tavern should be: dark-brick exterior, modest little awning -- a freestanding, quaint structure nestled in a humble, residential part of town.
Then I went there for brunch a couple of months ago, bringing along a car full of friends who were visiting for the weekend, and I discovered that Pat's menu was hardly humble or modest for a bar. It's a large menu, for one thing, with so many kinds of chicken sandwiches (Buffalo chicken sandwich, fried or grilled; grilled chicken portobello; fried chicken Parmesan; grilled chicken with red onion; grilled chicken club) that they merited their own subheading. All that was separate from the fried-chicken grouping, plus the dinner entrées, burgers, side dishes (from serviceable French fries and vinegary, lip-smacking cole slaw to cucumber salad and broccoli with cheese and rice), pastas and -- the two most unlikely parts of a bar's culinary scope -- desserts and a children's menu. Also, Pat's serves frog's legs.
The other thing about the press release that caught my eye was not only that a bar laid claim to a chef (not just a cook, mind you) but that he'd actually come in third in this annual statewide contest. What's up with Pat's?
What's up with Pat's is that it's just as humble and modest as it looks from the outside, but it serves some yummy, homestyle food on the inside to a loyal, multigenerational, just-plain-folks clientele. It's probably the only bona fide bar I've ever been to, in St. Louis or anywhere, that provides high chairs and booster seats for its youngest customers, who often sit eating with their parents and siblings not five feet from the handful of septuagenarians drinking beer and watching the game at the weathered old bar on the other side of the room. In between, young couples start their nights over a couple of burgers, gaggles of twenty- and thirtysomethings down pitchers and tables of older ladies get together to gab and chain-smoke. Nobody's dressed up beyond jeans and sweaters, an aesthetic that's a perfect match to the bar's no-fuss décor: some straight-backed booths, plastic tablecloths stapled to the tables, a poster near the door illustrating the different family crests of Ireland and, above the mirror-backed bar, an Elmo doll ostensibly dressed up in a yellow-feathered Big Bird costume (Pluck Me Elmo?).
Pat's has been in business since 1942, when it was opened by County Galway immigrant Patrick Connolly. He sold it some twenty years later to his longtime bartender, Tom McDermott, who ran the business as McDermott's for another twenty-odd years before handing the reins back over to Connolly's daughter, Teresa, who then rechristened it Pat's. Completing the circle, another twenty or so years after that (we're now up to the turn of the century), Teresa sold the bar to her longtime bartender, Joe Finn. Finn brought in as the new bartender his friend Stephen Morgan, a Southern transplant, former architect and the son of a culinary-school graduate who was then working as the food- and-beverage director at a local golf course. Eventually, Morgan earned the now-standard bartender promotion -- except, instead of assuming the whole business, he inherited the run of the kitchen.
With such a colorful, storied history, it's little wonder that the establishment's menu reads like a patchwork of bygone influences, family-business quirks and Morgan's own sway. According to Morgan, nobody really knows how frog's legs -- or, for that matter, chicken livers and gizzards, available separately or together, as an appetizer or entrée -- wound up for sale at an Irish pub in Dogtown, but "we can't take them off the menu," he insists, "because people come in looking for them." As well they should. Served breaded and fried with a cup of cocktail sauce, the chicken livers (beefy and crumbly) and gizzards (clam-like and chewy) make for fine, if offbeat, beer-paired finger foods. The frog's legs, four hinds to a plate, taste a little like chicken but mostly like catfish, right down to their greasy-yet-flaky texture, the accompanying tartar sauce and their tiny bones that must be picked out while eating.
Like the livers and gizzards, the frog's legs are also breaded and fried. In fact, lots of stuff at Pat's is breaded and fried, including the cheesecake for dessert (served warm in a cinnamon-dusted shell and a surefire lead cause of diabetes in Dogtown). While many of these preparations are unorthodox (even Morgan says he prefers his chicken livers sautéed with a little sherry), they work. Rarely is an all-brown dinner this flavorful and enjoyable. The onion rings, for example, should be anointed the eighth wonder of the world, so humongous are they. The polar opposite of the typical fast-food ring -- no transparent wisp of barely there onion pleading uncle under the weight of all that oppressive breading -- these are clearly handmade, with such equal heft shared between the breading and the onion that the whole thing comes off like a liltingly sweet fried-onion sandwich. The whole-catfish entrée forsakes only the poor bastard's head before breading and frying the entire, intact body, which renders its appearance almost cartoonish. Inside, though, it's a fun, flaky, unctuous mess of catfish.
Morgan claims that "we get our feelings hurt when our fried chicken is never named number-one in town." Pat's half-chicken is breaded and cooked to order using canola oil (which in and of itself isn't properly touted for its low amount of saturated fat and its high contents of good-for-you monounsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids). Like the onion rings, the fried chicken plays nice with its breading, resulting in a terrifically cooked bird housed in a tasty coating without a drop of extra grease.
Pat's can also be proud of its house-named burger, ripe with a certain savoriness and so good I wanted another one as soon as I finished it, and its homemade meat loaf, a formidable brick of darkly browned meat given a little panache by the herbs mixed into the beef. Those herbs are grown on-site by Morgan and the owner's wife; the meat loaf recipe comes from her aunt. Various family and kitchen-staff members also contribute their own recipes for the rotating choice of soups, which include beef stew, broccoli cheese, "cheesy chicken," split pea (using both yellow and green peas), French onion, a well-stocked but thin-brothed and somewhat bland chicken minestrone and a cream-based chicken-pot-pie soup that's so thick it's like condensed soup without the water added in.
Homestyle cooking aside, Pat's is still a bar; as such, a couple of items do fall pitifully short. The all-iceberg dinner salad comes with a single, less-than-vibrant tomato slice and microscopic bits of carrot and cabbage, all of it shredded up and served on an undersize dinner plate, resulting in a lot of stabbing at greens that inevitably fall overboard onto the table. And the bad thing about just-like-Mom's cooking is that you must sometimes endure Mom's hopelessly bland and overboiled green beans.
But maternal instincts shine through in the service, which could not be warmer or friendlier, and in the portions (they really feed you here!). And just like Mom's, you want them to feed you again and again.