OK, let's set up what kind of place this St. Charles Locker and Restaurant is. Guy walks in, 40ish-50ish, by himself; waitress-doubling-as-hostess seats him; he tells her it's his first time there. She launches into the introductory spiel and gets into it so much that she sits right down at the table with him and chats for the better part of five minutes. (It's all right with us and the other patrons, because several other servers easily take up the slack.)
Meanwhile, a noise like pounding surf builds above our heads as a toy train starts up and does a of couple circuits on a ledge around the dining room before restationing itself and falling quiet.
If informality or whimsy interferes with your appetite, this may not be the place for you. But if you don't mind a little communality with your barbecue and hand-trimmed steaks, it's a nice bet, especially for families with kids, which seems to be the major demographic out in St. Chuck.
Although it's been in its current location in what was originally a Victoria's ice-cream parlor just south of the I-70/Highway 94 interchange for less than a year, the Locker has quite a history. The current owners -- Ed Vaclavik and sons Eddie and Michael -- have had the place for about 14 years; it formerly occupied a spot adjacent to the old state Capitol on St. Charles' Main Street. But the meat locker that gives the place its name goes back almost a whole century, having spawned a deli as well sometime before Ed the elder bought it in 1984.
The new location gave the family room to spread out, expanding from 35 seats to 135 and to seven days a week from three. And now you can have a drink with your meal -- pretty much anything you choose -- whereas before even the beer taps were dry.
The steaks ain't Morton's or Andria's, but they cost just $12-$17 and are more than adequate for hearty appetites or as remnants for a take-home meal for the next day. The porterhouse was somewhere between a half-inch and three-quarters of an inch thick; the large tenderloin was even thicker, nicely seared on the outside and well marbled within, with a minimum of fatty parts and tendons. Both were coated with a mild garlic butter, a recurring motif throughout our meals.
In addition to the cut-to-order steaks, the Vaclaviks prepare their own sausage and hickory-barbecue pork on a metal cart at the corner of the parking lot, with the resulting flames and aromas serving as something of a beacon for passers-by. We tested the barbecue by way of the $11.95 sampler plate and the sliced pork tenderloin. The latter was a true elevation of the griller's art, with close to a pound of a small cylinder of tenderloin cut into thin slices and arranged all the way around the edge of an oval plate. Toast triangles, a helix-sliced orange and steak fries added to the already large meal size. The meat was fork-tender and richly flavored, primarily with a deep smokiness.
This same integral smoky flavor was apparent in the ribs and porksteak on the sampler platter; the accompanying sausage was not so smoky and mild on the spices. One minor nit I must pick concerns the barbecue sauce, which is of the tomatoey, slightly sweet, slightly viscous St. Louis style, already smeared on the meat when it was served, with no other choice offered to us. It isn't bad, but some folks simply prefer other styles -- for instance, the spicier Kansas City approach or the more vinegary Carolina sauce.
The appetizers are primarily basic bar food, although the nachos are better than most owing to the use of freshly ground, freshly sautéed beef, and the mushroom caps are stuffed with a tasty sausage mixture. There's also a baconless clam chowder that's kosher for Lenten observance -- as are a couple of added fish entrees. (Other specials include a once-a-month pig roast in the warmer months; the next is scheduled for Saturday, March 25.)
Desserts are primarily the standard, outsourced cheesecake and stuff, but special praise goes to the homemade milkshakes as a fitting alternative.
Decor is straightforward, with -- in addition to Ed Sr.'s train display -- high-gloss hardwood floors and wallpaper that actually matches the menu covers. And the familiar style of the service is supplemented by a swarming team approach when the meals come out. On one visit, we watched as a large group of parents and children had their meals served almost all simultaneously by at least five staff members from both the dining room and the kitchen.
Memo to the St. Charles crowd: Next time you're aimed at one of the cookie-cutter family chains that could just as well be in Anywhere, U.S.A., give more than a passing thought to supporting this place and others like it, which are owned by folks who are also likely to be your neighbors. It's always nice to keep the mom-and-pops running for as many generations as possible.
ST. CHARLES LOCKER & RESTAURANT, 2244 First Capitol Dr., St. Charles, 636-947-4799. Entrees: $8.95-$16.95. Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. daily.