Maybe the Robert E. Lee is best viewed through the eyes of youth.
At fortysomething, I'm probably romanticizing long-ago trips to "the boat" for special-occasion meals, just as I probably romanticize cruising on the Admiral, eating at another fine-dining riverboat called the Belle Angeline and even watching the kids get wide-eyed when we took them down to the riverboat McDonald's. Call me a hopeless romantic, but it's always seemed that a city that owes its very life to the river might have enough of a sense of its heritage to make its riverfront a worthwhile destination.
And now, eight years after the big flood and several years after plans for renovation were first announced, the Robert E. Lee is finally reopened, under the banner of Mesquite Charlie's Steaks, a Branson-based chain started in Pensacola, Fla., and soon to include locations in Springfield and Kansas City, Mo.
If you're strongly drawn by the romance of the Mississippi River -- in this case, complete with a fine selection of blues music piped in to serenade diners -- the attraction of the Robert E. Lee is the same as it ever was. The main dining room has been fully restored to all its replicated 19th-century splendor, with 12-globed chandeliers, ornate carpeting and blue leatherette banquettes lining huge windows that afford great views of the passing tows and barges, which sometimes impart a gentle sway with their wakes.
And if you have kids, Mesquite Charlie's will probably do a great job of imprinting on them the whole riverfront-romanticism thing. My 9-year-old was hooked immediately on getting out of the car by the giant chains and the cobblestones on the levee and grinning from ear to ear by the time she saw the snarling stuffed bear that welcomes patrons at the host's station. Seated at a corner of the boat that afforded a view of the Arch in one direction and the sweeping arcs of towboat searchlights in the other, she would have settled for liver and onions as long as she could watch all the wonderful sights.
However, if you're out for one of the best steaks downtown -- or even for one of the best steak values -- or for pampering and highly professional service, this isn't the place for you. Mesquite Charlie's is what it is (and, truthfully, doesn't pretend to be otherwise) -- a tourist-class, high-volume steak joint heavy on shtick and atmosphere.
Beef choices start at $12 for "Mesquite-Broiled Cowboy Steaks" and run to $25, excluding a specialty item called the Riverboss, a Homeresque 30-ounce porterhouse that sells for $33. Five fish items, mainly fried, make up the "River Crossing Specialties" and, in a nod to local favorites, St. Louis-style ribs are included among the "Sidewinder Specialties" of pork and chicken. An under-$6 kids' menu and four mix-and-match (steak plus pork ribs, etc.) items round out the selections.
We tried stuff from both the low and high ends, with the best results coming from the Cowboy, a 20-ounce T-bone steak. Our success here was aided by our ordering it medium-rare, which gave us a nicely seared outside, warm and pink-to-red meat on the inside and a minimum of fattiness -- just enough to keep up the moisture and add flavor.
We went with medium-rare because, on a previous visit, we'd ordered the 8-ounce ribeye part of the surf-and-turf rare, and, in fairness, the menu does note that "rare" at Mesquite Charlie's means "cool center, red edge to edge." However, "red edge to edge" sounds kind of like "raw," and the small, thin piece of ribeye came out looking as if it had been very briefly introduced to the grill but had never caught its name. Such minimal cooking also left an overly salty flavor from the rubbing spices.
On the lower end of the price scale, the 10-ounce "choice strip" was poorly trimmed, with a thick strip of fat all the way along one side and intruding into the steak itself. The "tips kabob" was an OK alternative, 8 ounces of beefy chunks skewered with green peppers, onions and mushrooms.
Among the seafood, the Mississippi Seafood Platter was a basic fried-fish sampler, with a couple of scallops, several oysters and shrimp and a few pieces of catfish -- not bad, but also not terribly memorable.
Part of my perhaps improved-with-age memories of the old Robert E. Lee involves its bouillabaisse, which was among several seafood entrées that made the former incarnation of the boat (actually it's a barge, but we won't be picky) more than just a riverfront attraction. Thus I would have liked to have seen more specialty items such as that available in the new place, and, unfortunately, they really did have bouillabaisse offered as a special on one of our visits, but our inability to order it pointed up another shortcoming: The waitstaff is cutely attired in period garb, and even more cutely provided with nametags bearing pseudonyms such as "Johnny Ringo," "Lilly Langtry" and "Frank James," but despite the extensive efforts in getting the new restaurant up and running, the overall service we encountered was, at best, haphazard. On neither visit were we told the evening's specials, and each time, courses arrived before the earlier ones were finished; the table then stood uncleared at the end of the meal for an inordinate amount of time. On our first visit, we weren't served the huge dome of fresh bread that came to all the other tables, and, despite our being asked whether we wanted condiments, they never arrived.
Then, as seems inevitable in the city of St. Louis, there's the issue of parking. In the good old days, parking on the levee and on what we then called Wharf Street was free, and there was this interesting side effect that folks would park down there for work or events, then walk through downtown and back, creating an appearance of life, not to mention the frequent tendency to stop at a bar or restaurant along the way for an impromptu drink or bite to eat. Somewhere along the line (and this may have made some sense when there were multiple attractions), gates were put up and a charge imposed for parking. Now, one has to go through the shell game of paying for parking, having the attendant tell you to present your ticket at the end of the meal for a $3 discount and getting your rebate. It's really easy to forget this little flimflam over the couple of hours you spend inside, and on neither visit did our waiter ask whether we had a parking ticket to trade in.
Having noted all this, here are some ideas for fellow river rats who have been patiently waiting for the reborn opportunity to dine dockside. Lunch is served from 11 a.m.-3 p.m., and although the lunch menu comprises fewer than a dozen very simple items, they're generally about 8 bucks. Desserts are quite passable, including a frozen confection somewhere between chocolate pudding and mousse called Mississippi Mud and a dessert-burrito-like thing with cheesecake inside. You can also still sit in the bar on the lower deck and watch the driftwood float by.
And if you do have kids, by all means bring them down for a meal, maybe a root-beer float, and a unique opportunity to connect with the local heritage. As time passes, maybe they'll remember it as fondly as I do.