When Riddle's Penultimate Café & Wine Bar closed last fall after 25 years in the hands of Andy Ayers and then his daughter, KT, it felt like the end of an era in the Delmar Loop. Gone was the restaurant that made "local" a watchword long before menus resembled farm-town phone books. Gone was the bar that remained a sanctuary for the elegant vices while the Loop remade itself into a family-friendly tourist destination. Gone — sigh — was the wine list unmatched in its balance of quality, variety and value.
For those of us who call the Loop a second home, whose office windows overlook the stretch of sidewalk where Riddle's patrons passed many a balmy evening waiting for the wine they'd ordered (nostalgia can cloud only so much; the service could be terrible), its potential replacement brought with it a dread of the seeming inevitable. It would become a chain restaurant or a "local" and "independent" restaurant aping a chain. Or maybe it would be subdivided. A space as large as Riddle's could accommodate two cell-phone stores!
Yes, we were cynical. We were also wrong.
Three Kings Public House opened to the public in May, following a considerable sprucing-up of the space that was long overdue. The trio of despots who give the restaurant its name — Derek Deaver, who owns Deaver's Restaurant & Sports Bar in Florissant; Derek Flieg, who was a manager at Riddle's; and Ryan Pinkston — wisely decided not to create Riddle's 2.0. Instead, they've created a hybrid restaurant: more sophisticated than a bar and grill, yet not quite a gastropub. The menu nods to local farmers, but on every table sits a bottle of restaurant-supply behemoth Sysco's "House Recipe" ketchup.
Three Kings' layout is more or less the same as Riddle's was: bar and booths in front, larger dining room in back, connected by a narrow passageway. Bands still play on a tiny stage in the front window. The look is Riddle's as re-imagined by a south-city rehabber. Exposed brick dominates the bar area, with large black-and-white photos of early twentieth-century University City providing a vintage feel while flat-screen TVs add a modern touch. And having been given a fresh coat of paint in a contemporary neutral shade, the dining room no longer screams down-at-the-heels French Quarter.
The bartop remains gorgeous, the wood buffed and polished into a second life. The effect is bittersweet — the single, crucial instance where Riddle's shadow still looms large. The wine selection is mediocre, and my heart sank to see among the liquor bottles a miniature fridge stocked with cans of Red Bull. The beer selection is decent, with craft brews from Boulevard and St. Louis' own Urban Chestnut Brewing sharing tap space with, of all things, Canadian macrobrew Labatts.
The menu ranges from hot wings and nachos to paella and filet mignon. There are hits and misses at both extremes. The wings, for example, are very good, breaded and fried to a perfect crisp, the traditional buffalo sauce piquant and fiery. Nachos, on the other hand, are a disaster. The menu refers to these as "Chorizo Nachos," but the bits of meat scattered over the chips lack the fiery flavor of Mexican chorizo and could easily be mistaken for ground beef. Likewise, the melted "queso blanco" had a generic taste and unctuous texture indistinguishable from processed cheese dip. The hummus is good (though served inconveniently, poured over a lettuce leaf), but the pulled-pork sliders are so "smothered" (as the menu has it) with cheddar cheese and barbecue sauce that the meat's own flavor is irrelevant.
The standout appetizer is that pub classic of housemade chips and rarebit — in this case a "fondue" made from Irish cheddar and Urban Chestnut's terrific Winged Nut ale. The chips — crisp, golden-brown, slightly chewy and brimming with potato flavor — are so good that Three Kings should offer them as a side with sandwiches and burgers, rather than the unremarkable French or sweet-potato fries.
The "All-American" burger is solid, a hand-formed patty of manageable size (one-third of a pound), topped with your choice of cheese and cooked to order. The "Three Kings" burger, with bacon, blue cheese and a balsamic-onion jam, is worth the extra buck; the "Southwest Chipotle" burger, surprisingly tame given its toppings of pico de gallo, pepper-jack cheese, guacamole and chipotle mayo, is not.
Beer-battered cod is available as a sandwich or an entrée. Though the crisped jacket of batter is done to a turn, the fish within is mild to a fault; thankfully, a tartar sauce spiked with lemon juice comes to the rescue, providing just the right spark. The paella entrée is nowhere near a true rendition of the Spanish classic, but as a seafood stew it's pretty tasty. Shrimp, cod and mussels, each cooked to the appropriate texture, swim with rice in a tomato-saffron broth, a rich, buttery concoction with a light ocean tang. The menu description includes sausage, but none was in evidence.
"Moroccan-spiced" pork shanks — three chicken leg-size pieces, served over couscous — were beautifully cooked, their browned exteriors yielding to tender meat within. But that meat was woefully underseasoned, leaving the sweet apricot-date chutney dolloped on top to carry the sole flavor burden. That said, the dish is intriguing as a concept — one rarely encounters "Moroccan-spiced" anything in St. Louis restaurants — and the kitchen seems to possess the chops to hone the recipe.
In fact, the pork shanks and their potential might embody Three Kings in a nutshell. The restaurant offers the basic pub grub to appeal to the Loop's increasingly mainstream dining clientele, yet here and there it shows glimmers of the sort of unique personality that made the Loop fascinating in the first place.