Here's why I love sports bars: A weekday afternoon in June. I'm sitting at the bar at Lester's Sports Bar & Grill in Ladue, nursing an iced tea I have to go back to work, damn it and nibbling on shoestring fries. Most of the approximately 2,572 flat-screen TVs are showing real, live baseball, but I'm fixated on the one broadcasting what must be the most boring sports-related event not involving stock cars: the Major League Baseball draft.
(Oh, wait. They broadcast the National Hockey League draft, don't they?)
This year my beloved Baltimore Orioles have the fifth selection overall. Thanks to the poor finances of the teams picking ahead of them and the fearsome reputation of super-agent Scott Boras, the draft's top hitting prospect is right there for the taking: Matt Wieters, catcher from Georgia Tech. Six-foot-five, 224 pounds. Bats right, throws right. By all accounts, the kid can rake.
If you follow baseball, you know the Orioles are suffering through an especially awful year. This is exactly the sort of opportunity the team would screw up. It's an agonizing few minutes. I start grabbing fries by the handful. Do I have barbecue sauce smeared all over my face?
I wouldn't notice.
But in a sports bar you don't have to be ashamed of your freakish devotion to a team even when that team is based in another city and you haven't seen it in person for years. Freakish devotion is the whole point of a sports bar. Freakish devotion, finger food and beer.
You'll find at least two of the three at Lester's. Drafts are relatively inexpensive, but the beer selection is unremarkable you will find Natural Light on tap, though, which is kinda cool. Those French fries are pretty good; the sweet potato fries are even better. And while the toasted ravioli might as well come from the central plant that I suspect manufactures T-ravs for every restaurant in town, a simple order of chips and salsa brings you a substantial mound of subtly spiced chips and a rich, smoky homemade salsa.
As for freakish devotion: Well, Cards fans haven't had much to cheer for this year. (Cheering whenever Kip Wells is pulled from a game doesn't count.) But if the Cards were winning more, you might feel a little self-conscious hootin' and hollerin' at Lester's.
This is no ordinary sports bar. This sports bar is owned by Lester Miller, multimillionaire businessman and proprietor of nearby Busch's Grove. While Lester's couldn't possibly match the glitz of that restaurant, it looks more or less exactly like what you'd expect a sports bar in Ladue to look like.
Lester's opened three months ago in the space formerly occupied by the Kitchen, set back from Clayton Road just east of where it dips beneath I-64/40. A bronze statue of Stan Musial stands outside the front door and numerous pieces of sports memorabilia grace the walls inside, but what you'll notice first, second and last is the incredible number of TV monitors. There aren't 2,572 of them, but there are more than I've ever seen in one restaurant. (Including flat-screens above the urinals.) I kept expecting a server to try to sell me one.
The large, bright kitchen is visible to the dining room through a glass (or maybe it's Plexiglas) partition. It's the sort of busy, gleaming, modern space you'd expect to find in one of the city's high-end restaurants. Its prominence at Lester's is puzzling, considering the house specialties are deli sandwiches and barbecue.
You can spend as much as $22.95 on a corned-beef or pastrami sandwich here. This will get you "Lester's Triple Decker Combo" more than a pound of meat on rye bread with a slice of Swiss cheese. The menu recommends this be shared, and many diners will struggle to finish even half of a regular-size sandwich. (The menu does offer half portions.)
Both the pastrami and the corned beef are cured in-house. I liked the pastrami, though I found the sandwich overwhelming, and not just on account of its size. It was, simply, a pastrami sandwich, a massive wedge of meat between slices of rye bread. The flavor was good, but not particularly complex; the strongest notes were salt and black pepper. More enjoyable was the Reuben: very good corned beef, a thin layer of sauerkraut, Swiss cheese and Thousand-Island dressing that a friend and I swore had some heat to it.
All sandwiches come with a pickle and a very small dish of "Lester's Famous Coleslaw," which didn't strike me as any different from Your Typical Creamy Cole Slaw. You can add fries for just a buck.
Barbecue is available as either a sandwich or a platter. Platters a half-slab of ribs and either the brisket, the pulled pork or smoked turkey include the "Famous" cole slaw, as well as potato salad and baked beans.
I tried both the pulled pork and the smoked beef brisket in sandwich form. Both were tender, the brisket especially so in fact, the brisket was my favorite dish at Lester's with a definite, but not overpowering, smoky flavor. Slices of raw red onion provided a nice accent to both sandwiches. A half-slab of ribs just missed my preferred balance of crisply charred exterior and just-about-falling-off-the-bone interior. I did like the flavor, though, which hinted at maple syrup or molasses.
For sandwiches and platters alike, you choose either spicy or sweet barbecue sauce though servers seem happy to bring you both. Neither is particularly compelling; the spicy sauce exhibits a note of sweetness that makes it the more flavorful of the two.
Whether you order a sandwich or barbecue, your food will arrive very quickly a testament to the kitchen's efficiency, but also to the advantages of serving food that's mostly finished cooking before you order it.
Given that impressive kitchen, it struck me as a bit of a shame that Lester's doesn't offer a larger menu or a few more ambitious dishes. A sports bar is a sports bar, of course, but Lester's does call itself a grill, too, and there are very few grilled dishes.
Still, as a sports bar Lester's is downright spectacular. I can't imagine anywhere else I'd want to relive that June afternoon, waiting for the Orioles to whiff on a sure thing.
Commissioner Bud Selig steps up to the podium to announce the Orioles' choice. There's no sound Lester's provides tabletop speakers that can tune to whichever TV you want, but not at the bar so I have to wait for ESPN to put the name on the screen.
(Softly, though. After all, this is Ladue.)