A proper history of South Side taverns would expand beyond the scope of this column, but the topography of such places can be mapped according to a few common landmarks: cheap beer, simple food, a jukebox playing corny songs you haven't heard in 15 years, the same wizened regular sitting on the same shabby barstool, and the general impression that more than a few of the dust motes stuck to quirky relics on the backbar hail from the Kennedy administration. Did I mention cheap beer?
Owing to a myriad of urban social disorders, the corner tavern as a species currently faces extinction; a meander through the back streets of South St. Louis reveals the gutted, boarded-up ghosts of multitudes of neighborhood watering holes. Those that survive are to be savored as national treasures, especially when cookie-cutter abominations like Applebee's, billed as "your neighborhood bar and grill," sprout like plastic parasites from every pestilential strip mall.
My trusty operatives, betrothed lovebirds Tex Trailer and Babs Woof, are lifelong aficionados of the working-class grog shop. It's next to impossible to find one whose stoop they have not darkened, so it was with a smirk of one-upsman's pleasure that I introduced them to the homespun ecstasies of the Shenandoah Bar and Grill. Known formerly as the Tip Top, the operation has stood sentinel over the intersection of Nebraska and Shenandoah avenues for more than 50 years. It enjoys further distinction as the only Serbian restaurant in town.
For the full Neighborhood Effect, we eschewed our automobile and strolled the two blocks from my house as generations have done before us. This leisurely saunter took only a little longer than the average hike from the parking lot to the lobby of a chain restaurant and was infinitely more rewarding. Along the way we dodged squealing kids on bikes, admired lawns like billiard tables in Compton Heights and patted an indolent dog.
Swinging through a venerable screen door, we spilled into a modestly appointed room that warmly embraced the traditional tavern floor plan: bar on one side, a dozen or so rickety tables on the other. Decorative touches ran to the beer-o-centric, including vintage curtains printed with the Hamm's logo and a poster of indeterminate origin reading "Beer: Helping Ugly People Have Sex Since 1862." Someone's tiny offspring were hurling darts more or less in the direction of an electronic board. Two televisions a big screen on the floor, another over the bar had the sound turned up even though they were tuned to different channels, which made for quite a jangle whenever the jukebox kicked in. I cast a questioning glance at connoisseurs Babs and Tex, which they returned with nods of approbation. So far, so good.
Owner Djordje Korac instantly manifested himself at our table and set about making us feel like his oldest chums. He grew up in this bar. His great-uncle, a Yugoslav immigrant, opened it in 1948, and Djordje (pronounced "George") started working here when he was 13. Eventually the building was sold, whereupon the Tip Top entered a sort of dark age, earning a reputation as a brawling redneck dive. When Korac reclaimed the family business last September, he was determined to restore it to the clean, well-lighted place he remembered as a kid. While his aunt and grandmother saw to the kitchen, Korac ousted the hooligans, ran off the crack dealers and lured in his affluent Compton Heights neighbors with Schlafly on tap and the promise of "good food and a good time."
After enriching our lives with pints of Schlafly Pale, Djordje waxed so poetic about the special 16-ounce pork chop that we had to order one. The disclaimer that it would take 20 minutes on the grill somehow added to its seductive allure. We were not disappointed. Our gargantuan chop arrived glazed with a mild barbecue sauce and flanked by a baked potato an uncluttered, satisfying combination with which no fault could be found.
The chop took a bit longer than 20 minutes, but this was no cause for alarm; the Serbian Combo kept us plenty busy in the meantime. I have about as much experience with Serbian cuisine as you do, but if you've ever eaten a gyro at the Olympia, you get the general idea. Five cevapcici (sausages) and a pair of foot-long pork kebabs were heaped atop a warm pita and surrounded with an abundance of cubed feta, chopped onion and seasoned tomatoes. For 10 bucks, you can't beat it. The fragrant sausages were from a family recipe, and glistening nuggets of skewered pork suggested real backyard barbecue. The garnishes were a meal in themselves: The imported feta had a flirty, subtle flavor unlike the salty, in-yer-face tang of grocery-store varieties. And the tomatoes! These vermillion beauties were surprisingly lush and sweet, rivaling the overpriced homegrowns proffered by the trendiest bistros.
The service here was actually better than that in the trendiest bistros. You know how in some of those places the servers either seem a little afraid of you or are over the top with affected congeniality? I submit that both are defense mechanisms engendered by the brutal incivilities they are often forced to endure at the hands of their ill-bred customers. No such hazards exist at the Shenandoah, where the clientele is held to a high standard of deportment. "I make them get along," states Djordje, adding, "If you wanna fight in my bar, you gotta fight me first." Djordje Korac, it should be noted, has the physique of a Frigidaire.
Though we had already fallen into raptures over the T-bone steak a sprawling sheaf of beef so tender it scarcely needed a knife we were unable to resist the siren call of the Shenandoah's fried-chicken dinner. On special that night for an astonishing $3.99, this specimen was strictly all-American: half a chicken was coated with a sandy breading, fried just until crunchy and placed on the traditional slice of white bread between mounds of fries and slaw. The primal simplicity of the dish lulled me into a reverie of contentment. But what did I know? I glanced at my experts, eager for their pronouncement. Tex was too enamored of a piece of chicken to respond, but Babs managed to tear herself away from a sausage. "This," she announced, her voice dripping with authority gleaned from years of research, "is good bar food."