Americans have long formed a ready market for new things made to look old. From suburban tracts full of “colonials” to the Ethan Allen furniture company, we love the feeling of historical things around us, as long as we don’t have to live with sketchy wiring, noisy heating systems and plumbing that requires frequent professional assistance.
But now and then something that was old becomes new again and it works just right. I submit in evidence St. Charles Exchange, the lovely, appealing dining room and watering hole that appeared last spring in one of the oldest buildings on West Main Street.
There’s no split-level vibe here, though, but a spacious dining room with an imposing, antique-style bar and comfortable banquettes that make the place look and feel very much like a classy hotel eatery and bar of the pre-Prohibition era a century ago.
Located in a long-vacant main floor section of a 180-year-old building that houses some of Brown-Forman’s offices and, just east of St. Charles, the Morton’s of Chicago chain, St. Charles Exchange arrives here as a sort of fraternal twin with Philadelphia’s Franklin Mortgage & Investment Co. bar and its restaurant, Supper.
Executive Chef Mitch Prensky, who came here from Supper, has set up an appealing, not overly long bill of fare that features modern takes on American and European standards. About 14 starters, including hors d’oeuvres , “larder” plates of cheese and charcuterie and such, and salads (billed as “firsts”), could easily serve as a base for an evening of small-plates grazing.
Ten main-dish plates range in price from $15 (for the St. Chuck lamb burger, which we tried on a previous visit and found compelling) to $29 (for line-caught market fish). The grilled beef filet is market price, and an intriguing set of sides are all $7.
The drinks program is generally exemplary, with short but well-chosen wine and beer lists, a 50-item bourbon list and an extensive cocktail selection.
Our fair-size group enjoyed flawless service, worked through a good swath of the menu, and everyone went home happy. Quickly told, the smoked tomato soup ($8) was rich, intense and smoky; the tiny popover stuffed with blue cheese garnish put it over the top.
Deviled eggs ($7), a trademark app, came perched in a row of wild colors and flavors: Fiery Sriracha, exotic mulligatawny, subtle herbs and aromatic truffle. We smiled but passed on Elvis on Horseback ($8), dates stuffed with peanut butter and wrapped in bacon.
Local mushroom risotto ($18), the sole meatless entree, was a good one, tender short-grain rice loaded with a variety of wild mushrooms,a fat spear of asparagus, sliced asparagus and fresh peas.
Half of a roast chicken ($22), was billed as “natural” which we hope meant it was free range, juicy and firm-fleshed, served atop a “blistered tomato” panzanella, Italian bread salad with crunchy crouton-like bread and an arugula salad.
Our friends gave glowing reports on the Scottish salmon ($28), duck diane ($27) and the grilled asparagus with lemon jam and a soft-boiled egg ($7).
Coffee and a pecan tart with sweet potato ice cream ($10) made a civilized finish to a first-rate meal.
Our share for two, including a tall Campari and soda over ice ($8) and a good-size glass of Row 11 Pinot Noir ($11) came to $77.38, and server Matt and his skillful team earned a $16 tip.
St. Charles Exchange
113 S. 7th St.