What goes around, comes around. The more things change, the more they stay the same. History repeats itself. It's déjà vu all over again. Whatever your cliché, chances are it won't fit the changes at Anthony's Bar. Sure, the place has occupied the same tall, cubical space just inside the Equitable Building since 1972, when it served as the bar for the restaurant that shared its name across the lobby. Twenty years later, the restaurant -- run by Anthony Bommarito -- gave way when another Bommarito, Vince the Elder, moved his renowned Tony's restaurant to the location.
The bar was preserved, almost as if it were a time capsule placed in the cornerstone of the building, and V. Bommarito took over control of both operations while A. Bommarito moved into the wine business.
For the past dozen years Anthony's Bar has enjoyed a reputation as one of the best downtown lunch spots (if not the best), serving up impressive burgers, soups and a very popular Caesar salad and drawing the silk-stocking lunch crowd. In tapping Anthony's for Best Power Lunch in the 2004 "Best of St. Louis" issue, this very paper described "a lunch joint where attorneys, developers, bankers and media elite could be seen sharing bowls of potato chips in a noonday truce not unlike war-weary soldiers exchanging Christmas carols with their enemies."
Several months ago Vince Bommarito Sr. and Jr. teamed with Blake Brokaw, former owner of hipoisie haunts Tangerine, Hungry Buddha and the Chocolate Bar, among others; they expanded the menu and added dinner hours. While at first glance the names Bommarito and Brokaw may seem to have as much in common as Billy Joel and Kate Lee, bear in mind that the iconoclastic chef and restaurateur honed his skills in Tony's kitchen before launching his ill-fated empire.
In our Best Power Lunch item, we noted Anthony's "'70s-chic décor, accented by a brushed-metal bar where the solo diner can read the Wall Street Journal, sip a bloody and smoke a Pall Mall in relative peace and quiet." The new dinner menu will change some of that: Smoking is banned during dinner hours -- but not at lunch. But the décor remains a relic of another time, with its long, dark sheers draping the big windows, the sparkling stemware on glass shelves that rise up from the bar like a shimmering spacecraft and the big gold light fixtures hanging over each table. Piped-in "classic rock" doesn't budge much from the time warp, either.
But your first reaction upon entering the perfectly square room is likely to be: Whoa, this place is tall. As in two stories tall. That four-sided bar takes center stage, providing seating for about two dozen of those solo diners. There's table seating for twenty-eight more at eight tables around the bar's perimeter. Very cozy, in other words, in contrast to the cool ambiance.
Although Anthony's Bar is a separate business from Tony's, it shares much with its fancy cousin -- including a kitchen. Staffers dressed in starched white shirts and black pants run covered plates from the kitchen, through the lobby and into the bar; servers relay the dishes to your table with the same finesse and attention paid to diners across the hall. Heavily starched table linens convey formality but the soundless television set that hangs in a corner and the staff's low-key vibe quickly dissipate any sense of stuffiness.
Anthony's Bar is one part bistro, one part bar -- and two parts Tony's. One minute you're smacking your lips from the chili-garlic aioli you poured over a plump crab cake appetizer, the next you're wondering how a spinach-and-mushroom-stuffed tamale got on the menu, especially one with an avocado beurre blanc on the side. You can take advantage of Tony's famous soups (at $4.50 a buck cheaper than you pay at Tony's) and Tony's salad (at $7.50 this is 75 cents more in the bar -- go figure). The former was asparagus on one visit: pale green and delicious, simultaneously buoyed and given heft via a generous hand with the cream. Tony's salad and a balsamic Caesar salad were perfect examples of freshness, balance and presentation. For some reason the traditional anchovy-based Caesar dressing is only offered at lunchtime.
The entrée list is brief: six choices, plus a couple of specials that change from night to night. None breaks the $20 ceiling. The same goes for the wine list: two dozen, most priced between $20 and $45. Nine are offered by the glass, from $6 to $14 a pop. Bigger spenders may request Tony's storied wine list.
The short, stocky Bommarito Sr. makes the rounds, just as he does at Tony's. "Ah, the pappardelle, excellent choice," he said when I told him what I'd ordered. "House-made Italian sausage and noodles," he added matter-of-factly, then moved on to the next table. He neglected to mention the treasure trove of ricotta buried beneath the al dente noodles and the light, simple, chunky tomato sauce that accented the dish, as if added with a serving spoon rather than a ladle. The sausage was firm, not greasy, and full of fragrant herbs.
Another entrée, a thick cod loin pan-seared with a slice of prosciutto underneath, arrived moist and flaky, the mild fish soaking up the ham's saltiness and pungency. Grilled asparagus spears served alongside were topped with crisp bits of shiitake mushrooms and an unexpected but pleasant potato latke well stocked with onion and herbs. A two-inch pork chop encrusted with cornmeal was juicy, but there's only so much flavor in a chop that thick. Combining small, thin green beans with walnuts and Gorgonzola cheese added needed zip on the side, while a grilled risotto cake provided a surprising starch.
"Some people substitute sautéed spinach -- watching their carbs, you know," our server told us after describing the polenta that would underlay a special of braised short ribs. Whoever those people are, they should be banned from this restaurant. Nothing could come close to matching the simplicity of these beef ribs, braised until the meat slides off the bone in flavorful shreds, set atop creamy polenta that soaked up every drop of the meaty juices. It was the only dish that had us fighting for the last bite.
Well, that and a slice of serious-looking three-layer chocolate cake, interspersed with chocolate mousse and topped with ganache. Served with a big scoop of house-made banana ice cream on the side, Tony's signature dessert has earned the honorific. If you're getting in touch with your inner child, go for the soup and sandwich: a cup of warm dark-chocolate dipping sauce and a vanilla ice cream sandwich made with long, thin house-made chocolate cookies. Messy and fun. Rice pudding with dried cherries might tempt you. You might think the molten chocolate cake is just another dessert cliché, a holdover from a few years ago when every restaurant had to have the oozing chocolate lava confectionary. But keep in mind: Everything old is new again.