Review: Planter's House in St. Louis
1000 Mississippi Ave., St. Louis, 314.696.2603, plantershousestl.com
After drinking the Planter’s House Punch, I’ll never look at rum and cognac the same. Served at Lafayette Square’s newest bar and restaurant Planter’s House, this rich, citrusy punch is the type you’d imagine sunburned aristocrats sipping while fanning themselves on the long porch of a colonial home overlooking the Caribbean – or the Mississippi.
Planter’s Punch, the drink from which Planter’s House Punch is based, originated (debatably) in St. Louis’ historic Planter’s Hotel. The hotel, which was named The Planter’s House before being renamed Planter’s Hotel, claimed credit for inventing the punch because its head bartender, Jerry Thomas, authored the nation’s first bartender’s manual. Built in 1817 and considered palatial for its time, Planter’s Hotel rose to national prominence as a St. Louis landmark and chic rendezvous spot for the rich and famous. After a short sojourn at the opulent hotel, visiting writer Charles Dickens penned, “It is an excellent house, and the proprietors have the most bountiful notions of providing the creature comforts.”
Though Dickens wrote those words in 1842, the same language holds true about today's Planter’s House and its proprietors Ted Charak and Ted Kilgore. If you want to grab a quick drink and check out the latest on SportsCenter, don’t go to Planter’s House. If you want a solid cocktail in a beautiful homage to saloons of old, this is the place.
Between the soaring oaked ceiling and the all-star staff behind the stick, it’s hard not to feel like you’re in on a secret when you pull up a stool at Planter’s. To the side of the bar, through some sheer curtains and up a half-flight of stairs, you’ll feel even more like an insider. Here in the Bullock Room, Planter’s swanky side bar, a seat is hard to come by – even on a Wednesday night. There’s neither a TV in sight nor any discernible soundtrack, just the heavy din of a crowd lingering in this dimly lit, plush parlor.
Like Planter’s House, the Bullock Room also pays homage to bartending of a bygone era – this time to Tom Bullock, famed bartender of St. Louis Country Club and the first African American to write a cocktail book. With just 34 seats, this intimate saloon features an expanded cocktail menu heavy on classics that are shaken and stirred with as much painstaking care as the well-styled room itself. The bartenders pay attention to everything: proper glassware; cuts of ice specific for different drinks; fresh-made grenadines, cordials and liquors; carefully sliced garnishes; and gently frothed egg whites. Drinks are by no means huge, but the flavors are immense and the pours are not short. Standouts from the house cocktail menu include Smoking Apples, a must for fans of scotch, and Dutchtown Collins, a smooth, summery drink featuring Bols Genever that is made complete with long, custom-made rectangles of ice. Someone at my table described the Dutchtown as so dangerously good, she could drink it by the pitcher. Four cocktails are, indeed, available in large format. If your group thinks Planter’s House Punch sounds too sweet, opt for the bottled Manhattan, which has a serious kick from Old Fitzgerald bottled-in-bond bourbon laced with house-made sweet vermouth.
Reinforcing a menu of original concoctions is a list of more than 30 house favorites such as the mint julep, Sazerac and Hemingway daiquiri. There’s nothing quirky or over the top with these drinks, just honest classics shaken the way they should be. Another neat throwback is Beer & Bond, which pairs any 8-ounce draft (Almost all drafts are local brews.) with a shot of a bonded spirit.
Though food can be ordered in the Bullock Room, larger tables in the main dining area are better-suited for Planter’s House’s affordable yet upscale comfort fare. You won’t go wrong ordering an open-faced duck burger served on a crisp pumpernickel bun, or falling-off-the-bone, hay-roasted chicken wings smothered in a thick lemon-truffle sauce, or poutine made with fried fingerling potatoes showered with a red wine pork gravy and hunks of Gouda. While each of these is worthwhile, the best bang for your buck is, without a doubt, the lamb loin. The smoked potato salad paired with this luscious cut set this dish into a different stratosphere.
Like me, Ted Kilgore and his wife, Jamie, draw a paycheck from Sauce Magazine as spirit and cocktail writers. I know who they are, but they can’t say the same about me. I was even uninvited to the Sauce holiday party so our paths wouldn’t cross. Anonymity intact, on multiple visits to Planter’s, I was treated with stellar service. With this winning trifecta of drinks, food and service, it’s easy to call Planter’s House what it truly is: an instant classic.