I have friends who prefer to eat their dinners while sitting at a bar instead of in a restaurant's dining room. While I agree that the bar is a terrific spot for a single diner — one never feels so obviously solo while perched on a bar stool — I'm more of a table-and-chair guy myself. Still, I must confess that I do enjoy eating in saloons no matter where I sit. I may not be stumbling woozily off bar stools anymore, but even as a nondrinker, I enjoy a bar's casual camaraderie, unpretentious and often comforting food, and generally low prices. "Show me some neon beer signs and a dirty ashtray," a friend of mine used to say, "and I'll show you the best hamburger in any town."
And not just the best burger, although that American icon seems to be the standard by which most bar food is judged. I love hamburgers, but there are saloons in town that serve fare that's downright glamorous — without a single fried jalapeño popper or a plate of nachos to be found. Sometimes I don't trust those highfalutin bistros that pass themselves off as upscale saloons, but one Westport joint walks that fine line between the hoity-toity and the earthy. One80 Lounge is a good-natured storefront taproom where chef Sean Leventhal aspires to culinary greatness.
I've never had a bad meal at One80 — or disappointing service. And that's saying a lot. You might raise an eyebrow (I did) at some of the more elegant offerings here: praline cheese truffles, artichoke bisque, five-cheese gnocchi. The fancy items are offered along with such bar grub as a great grilled patty melt, hand-cut fries and a Kansas City strip. I stopped in for a late lunch one afternoon, craving those One80 double-stacked black angus sliders on toasted English muffins, and was handed a smaller list of the daily specials. A brutal, icy wind was blowing around that day, and the soup du jour — old-fashioned beef and barley — caught my attention. My server assured me that it was terrific and soon presented me with a good-sized porcelain crock brimming with a fantastic soup, generous with fat, tender hunks of beef. That day's pasta special was equally wonderful: gnocchi in a blue-cheese cream sauce with beef tips. It cost a little more than I wanted to spend for lunch but was well worth it — pillows of potato dumplings smothered in the most ridiculously rich, luscious blend of thick cream and subtle blue cheese, with bite-sized pieces of filet. Both dreamy and comforting at once.
One80 has class, but it wouldn't pass muster as a bar and grill in the cinematic sense — you can't imagine Humphrey Bogart slicing into a T-bone there, for example. A little closer to the film noir sensibility of a saloon with food is Ernie's Steakhouse & Kross Lounge in Sugar Creek. It's a no-nonsense small-town bar with a tidy little dining room attached. Ernie Wells and Sam Cross opened the bar side of the building in 1945 (the same year that two movies about drinking joints, Duffy's Tavern and The Stork Club, were released); it's decorated with neon beer signs and a life-sized, inflatable Mizzou Tiger. You can eat at the bar — and still smoke! — but most customers prefer to make their way down into the dining room, wandering past the pool tables and the machine with the mechanical claw that halfheartedly swipes at stuffed animals.
"It used to be a grocery store a long time ago," our waitress told us. Later, Ernie bought out Sam's share of the bar and, in 1963, turned the building into Ernie's Steakhouse. My friend Bob's boss, Becky, insists that Ernie's has the best bar food on the east side of town. I might not go that far, but the joint does serve the biggest, meatiest and hottest chicken wings in the metro, hands down. Plump onion rings are great here, too, served with a horseradish-doused cocktail sauce. And I fell in love with a bizarre little starter called broccoli cheese puffs — kind of like broccoli cheese soup embedded in a deep-fried tater tot.