On a balmy evening in early May, I drive down South Broadway — south South Broadway: scrap yards to my left, ramshackle storefronts to my right, here and there a sliver of the swollen Mississippi visible between rooftops and storage tanks — and then hang a left on River City Casino Boulevard toward another world altogether. I don't mean the casino itself. Its smoky clamor will be familiar to hardcore gambler and curious punter alike. No, the name of this strange new world is The Beerhouse, one of the restaurants inside River City. (When the casino opened last year, this was called the 1904 Beerhouse; the 1904 designation now belongs to the casino's steak house.) A meal here might be the most surreal dining experience currently on offer in St. Louis.
It begins even before you step foot inside the restaurant proper. The hostess who greets you outside its entrance — there is no front door, but rather a ramp that leads up from the casino's south entryway; as seems typical in modern casino design, the feel inside River City is as much upscale shopping mall or airport terminal as den of sin — is dressed as a Bavarian barmaid, via the Disney Snow White, via the fecund imagination of a thirteen-year-old boy.
The waitresses all wear this costume, but unless you are that thirteen-year-old boy, you might lose such a detail amid the Beerhouse's sheer grandiosity. This is an Applebee's as conceived by mad King Ludwig II.
The bar is the focal point — and not because the restaurant has beer in its name and a hundred-odd brews available. This is, by far, the longest bar that I've ever seen. Is it 30 yards in length? 40? If the bartender wanders away, you need a megaphone and a flare gun to get his attention again. The bar itself is timeless, dark wood topped with stone, but the long, high wall behind it is a 21st-century multimedia eye-fuck — sports shown on flat-screen TV monitors, which are suspended in front of light panels that gradually shift from one color to another over the course of your meal.
This light display is intercut every now and again with wood posts on which authentic-seeming German beer steins are hung. Sadly, your beer is served in a regular glass or a cheap-looking "stein" on which the Beerhouse logo is emblazoned. The beer list ranges from popular macrobrews (Bud, Amstel, Stella) to classic European labels like Orval to American craft beers like the lip-smackingly hoppy IPA from Stone, a newcomer to the St. Louis market.
(Yes, you can order wine here. Whether you ought to is another matter.)
The décor and dazzle notwithstanding, only when you open the menu and consider what to eat do things get a little...odd. On first glance, the Beerhouse offers good ol' American bar fare: burgers, sandwiches, pizzas, wings, baby-back ribs, the token steak. Not the most compelling selection, I know, and in truth, when the restaurant opened last year, I gave the menu a cursory skim and then stuck it at the very end of the places-to-go queue.
Not that this food isn't without its charms. The burgers are decent, though the patties are suspiciously symmetrical in shape and of an even thickness (i.e., likely not hand-formed). You can dress up your burger in any number of ways. I went for the "Smoky BBQ" burger, a standard arrangement of applewood-smoked bacon, cheddar cheese, crisp onion "straws" and Jack Daniel's-flavored barbecue sauce. Yeah, this is a cliché, but a tasty one.
(I must mention that the Beerhouse has a "Double Bypass" and "Triple Bypass" burger: two or three patties, respectively, with bacon, three cheeses, onion straws, tomato, steak sauce and — because why the hell not? — mayonnaise.)
Less successful are the baby-back ribs: dry-rubbed and smoked, then drowned in a sweet, sweet barbecue sauce that annihilated the flavor of the dry rub, the flavor of the pork and the whorls of my fingers. Sauce notwithstanding, the meat is measly, sparse on the bone and not very tender.
At this point I'm ready to write off the Beerhouse for exactly the reasons I pushed it to the back of the review line in the first place: as an OK place to grab a bite to eat if you already happen to be at River City — for a fun take on the usual bar nosh, go for the crab fritters, like a deep-fried miniature crab cake, with a tart, spicy chipotle aioli on the side — but not inherently interesting.
And then I notice — I mean read, frown and then reread — what the menu calls "German Pot Roast." The proverbial Proustian light turned on in the German region of my mutt brain.
Now, on a previous visit I tried the dish called "German Spaghetti" — spaghetti with beef tenderloin tips, bacon, mushroom, onion and tomato in a lager-spiked cream sauce — and was underwhelmed. The whole dish needed seasoning. The bacon didn't provide the dominant flavor; it was practically the only flavor. The tenderloin tips proved why they are trimmed from the tenderloin to begin with, lacking the cut's tenderness or taste.
The pot roast, however, is terrific. The meat is tender, its natural savor complemented by a mouth-filling, tannic sourness and warm seasoning (clove, black pepper, perhaps juniper and ginger). This is served atop an excellent rendition of spaetzle, the simple flavor of the tiny little dough balls amped by the malty zing of beer, and red cabbage braised in apple-cider vinegar.
A delicious plate of sauerbraten? At a Disneyfied beer hall-slash-sports bar inside a casino? Sold to the people of St. Louis — a city with a proud German heritage — as "German Pot Roast"?
Where the hell am I?