Editor's note: A short time ago, Serious Eater Ann Lemons contacted me about contributing some burger intel to A Hamburger Today/Serious Eats. "Sure thing!" I said. Here's the result. For more on St. Louis–area food, check out Lemons's blog: St. Louis Eats and Drinks. Enjoy! Adam
Some fine hamburgers can be found in extremely humble surroundings. Others have emerged from surprisingly elegant environments, such as Palena in Washington, D.C. One of the nation's great burgers can be found in a near-perfect middle, O'Connell's Pub in St. Louis.
This is a fat hamburger, cooked over a flame and delivered, with a Bermuda onion slice and a pickle spear, on a thick, oval paper plate. Not surprisingly, they're cooked to order, and as big as these fellows are (10 ounces), this is not fast food.
The impatient may spend the waiting time with one of the housemade soups that change from day to day, and those who are burger-averse can consider the other specialty, a fine, freshly carved roast beef sandwich. O'Connell's isand always has beena place for eating and conversation. A TV set is used rarely except for the World Series. No music.
While the diner settles in with one of a large handful of draught beers, consider the saloon. Dark and atmospheric, with some real and some fictional Irish poets, patriots, and politicians watching from the walls, O'Connell's began, a half-century ago, in the long-gone nightclub district called Gaslight Square. Some of the furniture in the two rooms has been salvaged from old churches and other buildings. Some of it shows signs of a half-century in supporting roles. Both customers and employees have pasts to remember and stories to tell. The bartenders are capable of intellectual conversations; a couple of them, and a few of the deft waitresses, some of whom have a rather short fuse when it comes to suffering fools gladly, also go back to the Gaslight Square days. When owner Jack Parker, who also owns the antique store upstairs, turned out the saloon and neighborhood lights as the last owner to leave the square in 1972, a local newspaper columnist and regular patron predicted that the move to new quarters in a different neighborhood would be a disaster.
Reader, I married the columnist years later. And I watch as he and Jack laugh regularly about the subsequent years of prosperity that have brought new generations to chow down. Jack's nephew, Fred, took over active operation of O'Connell's a few years ago and pleased regulars by making no changes, but Jack is still around, selling antiques (furniture, not burgers) upstairs.
And while this is definitely an adult-oriented establishment, young ones are brought here to begin to learn the traditions of old-fashioned saloons where conversation provides the entertainment. En route to or from ball games or other events, it becomes deeply crowded, and as many as five different parties may be seated together at the long table in the second room. When it's quieter, one can find a reporter interviewing a famous author in a deep booth, or eavesdrop on a dating couple. Like the St. Louis Zoo, this is one of the city's great experiences-in-common, attracting a wide variety of visitors.
The burger arrives, served with a knife and fork for those who find the object too big to handle. The meat is superb, good enough that when it's served without the bun, it's as tasty as the ground beef steaks served at the most expensive steak houses in town. I opt for medium-rare, just like a steak; no guarantee of the juiciness if you have to have it well-done. The bun is large and toasted just a little. Cheese, grilled onions, you can get that sort of thing if you want it. To me, a little mustard, a slice of onion, and a shower of salt are where it's at. Fries and onion rings, and a number of other sandwiches, plus daily specials, are on hand. Beer, of course, and mixed drinks, but this is way not the sort of place where you'll find people drinking mojitos.
Travelers will be happy to learn that O'Connell's is a half-block from I-44; the eastbound exit is Kingshighway, and it's visible from the bottom of the exit ramp. Westbound, the exit is Vandeventer. To settle the hamburger, or to work up an appetite for it, the wonderful Missouri Botanical Garden is only three blocks east on Shaw Avenue.
Address: 4652 Shaw Avenue, St. Louis MO 63110 [map]
Notes: Lunch and dinner daily