It seems incredible, but for a long, dark eternity, restaurants didn't exist (these were lean years for food writers, many of whom suffered nervous collapses when the town crier consistently ran out of breath before delivering their pronouncements on the local boardinghouse gruel). Food service as we know it, with à la carte menus, snooty waiters and private tables, has been around only since 1782, when the Comte de Provence's chef severed ties with the royal family just in time for the French Revolution and opened the swank Grand Tavern de Londres in Paris. Of course, his clientele was confined to big shots with wads of jack. Whither, you might wonder, did hie the hungry proletariat of yore?
Back in the day, it was to the tavern for whatever the publican's wife had chucked into the communal pot. In colonial America, primitive ale shacks were short on amenities -- no Megatouch for the conversationally challenged, no multiple televisions for the sports-minded. The food, consisting largely of unspeakable stews and porridgey things, was of tertiary importance as entertainment. After liquor, the big draw was lively discourse. Despite the adage that politics and bars don't mix nearly so well as Scotch and soda, the American Revolution would have been dead in the water without pubfuls of rowdy dissidents firing each other up at the cider keg. Word on the street is that Thomas Jefferson scribbled much of the Declaration of Independence while hoisting cups of wassail at a Philadelphia watering hole. Thus it came to pass that, until a Swiss sailor named Giovanni Del-Monico first sicced his French chefs on New York's nouveau riche yokels in 1831, the tavern, in one shape or another, was the primary form of public eating house in America.
Like other good ideas -- shoes, novels and indoor plumbing spring to mind -- the tavern has persisted into our own time, but the evolutionary tides have shifted; whereas it was once the other way around, Ye Olde Grog Shoppe's modern descendants now tend to emulate true restaurants. They've ditched the long communal table and the dubious practice of potluck. They employ waiters and admit women. Though the culinary focus still revolves around humble standards like burgers and fries, my recent pub crawl revealed that the postnuclear taverngoer enjoys choices galore when laying a sustaining foundation for a night of debauchery. To wit:
"We now have artichoke dip" proclaimed a flier on our table at K.C.'s Grill and Bar. I was stunned. Artichoke dip seemed an oddly effeminate foodstuff for this South City sports bar. My associate Col. Tex Trailer, who has a degree in tavernology, informed me that artichoke dip has been popping up on pub menus left and right lately. He sounded suspicious. I ordered it forthwith.
Tex has been coming to K.C.'s for years. He and his blushing bride-to-be, Babs, had their first date here. Like all good taverns, a hum of contentment buzzes in the air. The folks who work here treat you with a neighborly familiarity whether they know you or not. Budweiser paraphernalia and sports stuff crowd the walls. There's not a yuppie for miles. It's the sort of place to which the team repairs for pitchers after the softball game -- or, like Tex and Babs, for restorative bloody Marys and an inexpensive bite to eat on Sunday afternoons.
The bites to eat are good here. I could resist neither the Reuben sandwich nor the French onion soup. You know how sometimes you tuck into an improperly engineered Reuben and all its insides end up flapping in the breeze between your teeth? At K.C.'s, they know how to stack a Reuben. This sandwich, fat and sassy with just the right amount of kraut, scored big points when I was able to secure demure bites without embarrassment. And the soup -- a sturdy, uncomplicated representative of the species -- was hot, gloppy sustenance in a bowl.
The suspect artichoke dip mesmerized me. It arrived with piping-hot tortilla chips, addictive in their own right. The dip itself -- chunks of the thistle adrift in gooey white sauce -- was warm and tangy, if a bit difficult to scoop up, and a welcome change from prefab mozzarella sticks.
Tex having warned me of its proliferation, I was not surprised to encounter a similar dip across town at Hammerstone's. This specimen, augmented with spinach, also came with tortilla chips; though nothing fancy, it satisfactorily dispatched my craving for hot, goopy food.
Hammerstone's, occupying Ninth & Russell's former digs, emits the unmistakable venerated aroma of the classic Soulard tavern. A cozy room, there's lots of wood and exposed brick; they hawk Mardi Gras beads and T-shirts at the bar, and blues bands set up in the back on weekends. The cliquish Soulardian barflies can be, perhaps, a little haughty, but the bartender -- ever on the ball with refills -- is a sweetheart. Menuwise, Hammerstone's is heavy on low-priced pub food that cries out to be washed down with beer. The dishes I sampled were executed with some amount of finesse.
The one-third-pound burger, for example (it also comes in a half-pound version), raised no startled eyebrows, but the grilled bun was the kind of extra touch that never fails to engage the burger aficionado. I had mine with a bit of raw onion and was happy as a clam. Likewise, the fried batter-dipped onion straws, though probably of frozen origin, were crunchy, habit-forming little tidbits, especially when dipped in the ubiquitous honey-Dijon dressing.
Pub crawls can be enervating when you've got vegetarians in tow (especially when you're planning on eating), so I was pleased to find a couple of entertaining meatless dishes rounding out Hammerstone's menu. In the gooey vein (tavern food tends either toward the gooey or the crispy) was a nice Philly sandwich with sautéed bell pepper, onion and mushrooms. In the crispy vein: Babs' recommendation -- a taco salad in one of those giant fried tortilla bowls. Magnificent to behold, it was piled with tomato, black olive, bell pepper and cheddar cheese; seasoned sautéed mushrooms took the place of meat. The whole affair was crowned with massive dollops of mild salsa and sour cream and came with jalapenos on the side. It was weird, but it worked. Both dishes come in con carne versions.
A couple of miles west, I found the Black Thorn Pub, another place you can take your vegetarians. In the tradition of the taverns of old, the Black Thorn serves just one thing. Unlike the taverns of old, that one thing is pizza. But what a pizza it is. It comes in three incarnations: thin-crust, which is thick; thick-crust, which is downright chubby; and the epic Chicago, which is 4 inches high, bears two layers of crust and toppings, and weighs about 100 pounds.
A couple of blocks away is a Domino's. Why would anyone eat that flaccid cardboard when they could have this?
A distinguishing feature of the Black Thorn's pizza is the homemade sauce. Our bartender quoted her boss's assessment of his competitors' sauces: "They're just red." But this thick, richly seasoned stuff was the color of velvet curtains in a Gothic bordello and just as sumptuous on the tongue.
Another distinguishing feature is that this pizza is absolutely free on Monday nights between, the bartender thinks, the hours of 8 and 10. What began as a ploy to attract Monday-night-football fans has edged its way into the postseason, to the great benefit of us nonsportifs. I have sampled this free pizza. It is gorgeous stuff -- almost better, somehow, than the kind you pay for. I have yet to encounter a single person who denies loving this excellent pie.
The Black Thorn, a block east of the South Grand business district, is a true corner tavern. There are no frills or affected distractions: just a bar, some stools, some tables and a few arcade games. Utterly devoid of pretension, it's as comfortable as your living room and is adored by a loyal contingent of neighborhood revelers.
Go to a tavern -- either one of these or one you've sniffed out on your own. Taverns are the primordial soup from which the modern restaurant gurgled forth. If you live in the city, there's probably a good one less than a mile from your house. Sure, the food still takes a back burner to the ready availability of a pint of Guinness and a gang of reveling cronies to knock glasses with, but it's good and cheap. So is the beer. You can wear whatever you happen to have on (assuming you have anything on at all). They've got a jukebox playing corny songs. They're family-owned and exist about as far outside the cookie-cutter, air-conditioned mall aesthetic as is possible these days. And you can smoke all you want, right there at the table.
There is nothing glamorous or innovative about these places, but that's precisely what makes them so wonderful. Sometimes dinner is best when you don't have to think about it too hard.
HAMMERSTONE'S, 2028 S. Ninth St., 773-5565. Hours: 11 a.m.-1:30 a.m. Mon.-Sat., noon-midnight Sun. Entrees: $4.95-$12.95.
K.C.'S BAR AND GRILL. 4050 Bamberger Ave., 664-3035. Hours: 11 a.m.-1:30 a.m. Mon.-Sat., noon-midnight Sun. Entrees: $3.95-$9.95.
BLACK THORN PUB, 3735 Wyoming Ave., 776-0534. Hours: 6 p.m.-1:30 a.m. Mon.-Sat. Entrees: $5 (one person's worth of pizza, on average).