Restaurants can jump the shark too, you know. Just like great TV shows that sputter out artistically long before they're actually put out to pasture, restaurants that debuted to bellowing fanfare and standing-room-only crowds can all too easily slide backward into lameness, inconsistency or irrelevance.
Shows that have jumped the shark -- a Zeitgeist-y phrase coined in honor of a seminal Happy Days episode in which Fonzie literally hurdled a shark while waterskiing -- usually exhibit shared symptoms of sucking. There's the unplanned pregnancy to an over-the-hill and/or single mom (Growing Pains, Friends, Family Ties, Murphy Brown); a change in actors playing the same role (Dick York = Dick Sargent, Roseanne's Becky 1 and Becky 2); a graduation that often results in everybody matriculating next season at California U. (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Beverly Hills, 90210); or a computer-generated image of a dancing baby that haunts an emaciated neurotic lawyer (The A-Team, of course).
So many plot holes and potholes litter the path set before a TV series that you can count on one hand those that made it through unscathed. In my opinion, you can count them on three fingers: Mr. Belvedere, WKRP in Cincinnati and Cheers. Nitpick all you want about Rebecca replacing Diane, Woody replacing Coach, or Sam finally doing it with Diane and then with Rebecca, but tell me: Can you recall a single bad episode of Cheers? I rest my case.
Cardwell's at the Plaza is the Cheers of St. Louis dining. Since opening in 1994 -- epochs ago in restaurant years -- it has weathered a couple changes in ownership and a sea change in how the general public views food and fine dining, but it has never looked back. While longevity itself is often a major cause of restaurant shark-jumping -- eateries start to coast on reputation, let the dust bunnies accumulate in the corners, dish out tired rerun after tired rerun from the kitchen -- Cardwell's is the rare exception of a been-there-done-that restaurant that feels like it opened a year ago, tops.
Some restaurants jump the shark by sticking steadfast to the menu that made them famous, no matter what season it is or what year it is, as if the dang thing were etched in stone. (These places usually advertise with some bit of copy like, "Proudly Serving the Best Italian Food Since 1977.") Others jump when the midlife crisis hits, and they start acting insecure next to the newer kids on the block. ("Come try our new tapas menu!" "New late-night martini menu!")
Cardwell's has avoided these two pitfalls by jumping head-first into both: The first page of its lunch and dinner menus lists long-time-favorite starters, salads, pizzas and sweets, while the second page ticks off a daily-changing rotation of gumbo, seasonal salads, crab cakes, meats, seafood. There is a lot to choose from at Cardwell's, almost too much of a good thing.
The flash-fried calamari has been around since day one and will rightly stay until the end of time. Plump, fresh rings of mollusk meat receive only a light bread-crumbing and a quick fry, and are presented with Cardwell's famous chili-lime mayo for dipping. The appetizer is probably the best calamari in town, simple and delicious. Same goes for the impressive Southern-fried chicken drummies -- a.k.a. wings, which exhibit mouthfuls of real meat on the bones, a carefully considered amount of breading and sauce, and a flavor that doesn't get obliteratingly hot. The made-to-order, thick and creamy guacamole and the Mediterranean sampler -- a dreamy platter of feta cheese, dolmades, olives, eggplant relish and a beautiful bulb of roasted, softened, spreadable garlic -- exemplify Cardwell's less-is-more approach: Source the best ingredients you can get your hands on (which here often means organic and locally grown, bought directly from the farmer -- something Bill Cardwell was doing long before it became fashionable), then get out of their way.
Prince Edward Island mussels steamed in a tomato-saffron broth are light and almost fluffy. The pizzas that come forth from the wood-burning oven taste earthy and splendid, and are topped with some of the best stuff on the planet (ricotta, goat cheese, basil, spinach, balsamic vinegar, etc.). Red meats are ravishing, especially a juicy flank steak rubbed with a jalapeño-chili-cilantro combo and served with onion-watermelon relish. It's really hard to find a bad dish at Cardwell's; at worst, some plates are just less spirited than others. A "Portuguese style" seafood stew, for example, showcased oodles of lobster tail, shrimp, clams, calamari and mussels in a tomato-based broth, but it didn't coalesce into a great whole, like a cioppino. Instead, it came off more like fish standing naked in a bowl. Profiteroles are a fantastic dessert seen too rarely around these parts, but I wish Cardwell's stuffed theirs with classic vanilla ice cream. The cappuccino-coffee almond ice cream used instead muddles a bit too much with the chocolate sauce draped on top, resulting in a less sharp, more homogenous taste.
As good as Cardwell's is, it doesn't take itself too seriously. (ER, I'm looking in your direction.) It feels no shame in serving a scrumptious and half-silly "tostado tornado" salad, a vertically assembled lean-to of flash-fried shrimp (which, I must say, tasted more like chicken), daikon sprouts, leafy fronds of cilantro, and blue and yellow corn chips. A filet of wild Alaskan king salmon may be encrusted with cornmeal, as it was at dinner recently, then dressed up with a truffled chanterelle sauce. (Like the seafood stew, this entrée was all right, but didn't soar.)
In a nice, casual-but-not-too twist, eating at the horseshoe-shape bar is encouraged -- white linen napkins are set out like placemats. And to be honest, I found the service at the bar to be faster, more suave and more self-assured than that at the tables.
Some claim that a show can jump the shark with its very first episode, which is another way of saying, "I think this show blows." A restaurant situated in a mall should, by most estimations, blow from day one. But Cardwell's has managed to sidestep that hazard, too. The outdoor patio that abuts the parking lot is hedged in by handsome shrubbery, while the restaurant's mall-side entrance is obscured by a handful of floor-to-ceiling columns and brick pillars. Lots of different seating options, a few cozy nooks and crannies, and a textural interplay throughout the restaurant's décor -- those brick pillars, terra cotta tiles on the wall behind the bar, mottled yellow paint on other walls, woven leather chairs -- imbue the room with genuine coziness and warmth.
The Cardwell's in downtown Clayton was opened in 1987 by chef/owner Bill Cardwell and partner Rich Gorczyca. Seven years later, they opened Cardwell's at the Plaza, and three years after that, in 1997, they split up: Cardwell sold his interest in the original Cardwell's to Gorczyca, who in turn sold Cardwell his interest in the Frontenac Cardwell's. For many recent years, Dave Owens was the heralded executive chef (and a minor owner) of Cardwell's at the Plaza. He left in April to start up his own restaurant, Terrene, in the Central West End.
All these bend-over-backwards business machinations and staff changes read like your typical slapdash episode of Three's Company (which, let's face it, jumped the shark the moment Jenilee Harrison unpacked her bags), and all can be keen indicators that a restaurant is passing its prime. Cardwell's remains strong because, through it all, Bill Cardwell's hands have been writing the menu and working the line. He never fully turned over the reins in the kitchen to Owens or anybody else; he claims he's back there seven days a week, and that he currently has no plans to replace Owens because he doesn't need to.
Cardwell's can be all things to many comers. Showing up in khaki shorts feels just as right as showing up in a suit. (During the day, a few ladies-who-lunch come in their tennis outfits.) Ordering just a salad is as appropriate as opting for the filet mignon and a bottle of 2002 Caymus cab for $120. To such broad-based, timeless and topnotch appeal, I say: Cheers.