How did I end up at Dressel's, chowing down on housemade potato chips and rarebit for the who-knows-how-manyth time? Blame the headless babe.
A couple of weeks ago, I was subject to something rare here in sleepy ol' St. Louis: A full-on P.R. blitz. First came the phone calls, lengthy messages left on the paper's main line, my voicemail, my editor's voicemail. I think there might have been an e-mail as well. I'm not sure, though. The fog of war was thick. Then I received the press kit — a large cardboard box containing a glossy folder of promotional literature, a ball cap and (what I assume to be) a woman's tank top. (It might be unisex. I haven't tried it on.)
All of this to promote the first St. Louis-area location of a chain of Celtic-themed pubs. Of course, the Celtic-themed pub — or, rather, "pub" — is nothing new to our fair major metropolitan area. What makes this one different from all the others with Bud on draft and an electronic clock counting the minutes down till St. Patrick's Day next year?
I mean "hooters." Or, if you must, Hooters-by-way-of-Ireland. (Or Scotland. Or Wales. The menu includes a Philly cheesesteak and Buffalo wings, so the geography is a little vague.) The female staff wears tartan halter tops and short kilts. Frankly, the effect is more schoolgirl-ish than Celtic. So: Hooters-by-way-of-Ireland-by-way-of-Humbert-Humbert.
For emphasis, the inside cover of the pub's glossy folder includes a photo of a busty woman in the tartan getup cropped so that you can't see her head. Just hooters, bare tummy and kilt.
Folks, this ain't a pub. I hesitate to call it a bar, even. It's a stroke book with chicken fingers.
You want a real pub? Go to Dressel's.
Here you can wash the taste of retrograde sexuality and mozzarella sticks out of your mouth with potato chips, rarebit and a pint of O'Fallon's cask-conditioned ale, served at cellar temperature and packed with more hoppy flavor than a six-pack of most brews. Savor culture: the classical music, the poems of founder Jon Dressel, the portraits of famous writers and composers. Ogle the single-malt selection. Not your server.
I can't be entirely objective about Dressel's. Before I had this gig, my wife and I went there all the time. We loved the ambiance. We loved the food. We even loved the cigarette smoke and the incredibly scattered service. It was part of the charm.
Mostly, though, we loved the rarebit.
One of the very few drawbacks to my job is that I can't visit my favorites as often as I would like. I couldn't remember the last time I'd been to Dressel's, even for a beer. So happy was I to be back that at first I didn't notice how much had changed.
Benjamin Dressel bought the pub from his parents in 2004. Since then, Dressel's has expanded and renovated, adding a bigger kitchen, new bathrooms and a massive new dining space upstairs. Also, the upstairs bar — a.k.a. the "Pub Above" — now serves as a non-smoking section, a welcome change. Executive chef Joe Hemp has revamped the menu, too, putting Dressel's in line with the current trend toward gastropubs. (That is, pubs where the focus is on good food. Local examples include Wm. Shakespeare's in Grand Center and Newstead Tower Public House in Forest Park Southeast.)
In other words, yes, Dressel's now offers duck confit. The "Salt Duck" is a leg and thigh confit served with a cranberry-ginger chutney alongside a potato cake studded with scallions and bacon. The meat is tender, richly flavored and, as advertised, on the salty side. The chutney adds a tart counterpoint with just the right note of spice. This is listed with the appetizers, but by itself, maybe with a salad to start, would probably satisfy most diners as an entrée.
Another new dish I liked very much is a sandwich with thick, house-cured bacon, a fried egg, and both cheddar and Gorgonzola cheeses on toasted ciabatta. Who needs plain-Jane condiments or some frou-frou sauce when you have unctuous, golden egg yolk? (Careful, though: When I bit into this, hot yolk splattered everywhere.) The bacon is simply delicious, and the Gorgonzola gives the sandwich a little funk.
The entrées, grouped as "Public House Classics," are traditional hearty pub fare, with a twist here and there, like bangers (housemade sausages), served with the same potato cake as in the "Salt Duck" rather than the usual "mash." My favorite of these was the pulled-pork pasti, the sweet, smoky meat and root vegetables in gravy topped with light, golden-brown puff pastry. Shepherd's pie brought braised lamb in very thick gravy topped with gently browned swirls of a potato-turnip purée.
Oddly, dishes that I'd remembered fondly didn't fare as well at the "new" Dressel's. The fish in the fish and chips was tender but overwhelmed by bland batter. Likewise, I'd always considered Dressel's burger one of the city's best-kept secrets. (Or not so secret: Riverfront Times dubbed it Best Burger in 2005.) The burger now looks better, a hand-formed patty rather than what I recall as a uniform puck, but the seasoning is different — less pronounced. A good burger, but far from St. Louis' best.
The chips and rarebit, however, remain a winner. Though the kitchen still hasn't figured out how to keep a few chips in each batch from being undercooked.
Dressel's has always been a beer and single-malt kind of place. The cask-conditioned O'Fallon ale is enough to recommend the beer selection, and the single-malt menu is great for novices and connoisseurs alike, with examples of most varieties and helpful descriptions of each. The wine list is greatly improved, brief but with unique choices, most reasonably priced.
Service remains a crapshoot: On one visit I waited at least ten minutes between ordering a drink and ordering my meal. On another the waiter forgot to enter my lunch order, which no one realized until my wife's meal arrived but mine didn't.
Though I'm glad to see the upstairs go smoke-free, I still prefer the ambiance of the first floor. With a flat-screen TV set in one corner and noise from an adjacent pool room, the Pub Above lacks the same charm. Downstairs the music of choice is still classical — though now it comes from a satellite radio station instead of old cassette tapes. A bust of Beethoven is still perched above the bar.
If the Dressel family ever decides to sell this bust, I know a young woman in need of a head.