Suddenly, dive bars have become the in thing. Now understand that “dive bar” is like “martini;” the words (or word) mean something different from what it used to. We remember dive bars as being dark, with sticky floors, stale air and bad reputations, the sort of place you wouldn't want your mother to know you frequented.
But young hipsters have brought back snap brim fedoras and dive bars. (Are pocket protectors next?) Their dive bars, though, are nicer than the older versions. Thus we can say without hesitation that Cousin Hugo's, a Laclede Station Road watering hole for generations, is a dive bar. We rather like it. And it''s not just that Ann really did have a Cousin Hugo.
The interior is classic, knotty pine paneling and fake brick, a couple of fireplaces in the dining room. Lots of beer signs, both neon and printed, and captains' chairs probably a couple of decades or more old. Televisions, of course, in easy sight of every seat. But wait: there's a back porch with comfy-looking furniture. And the bar, which looks like it should be hazy from cigarette smoke, smells not at all, thanks to the new law and proprietors who obviously worked hard at obliterating any trace of tobacco. On a weeknight visit, our first in a long, long time, it was populated by adults and other un-hip people who spoke in their inside voices.
And so we began with a chicken and sausage gumbo, the soup of the day. Thick and chunky with lots of vegetables, it was a little spicy. The chicken had cooked to shreds, but we did find a couple of bits of sausage. The Cajun shrimp appetizer are lightly covered in a cornmeal batter that's spiced gently, good even without an accompanying red sauce. It seemed to be a standard cocktail sauce with horseradish that had been mixed with what seemed to be an Asian sweet chili sauce, bringing sweetness plus pepper. Good, but not necessary for enjoying the shrimp.
Of course it's vital to check out the hamburger; dive bars get more street cred if they have a good one. The cousin turns out one that is first-rate, juicy despite the menu's announcement that they come medium-well. The house standard is served with grilled onions, pickle, lettuce and tomato, and we particularly applaud the grilled onions, a topping that more folks need to be introduced to. A medium-thickness burger, 5 ounces before cooking, it's a good example of how burgers can be good even if they're not pink or more. The fish sandwich is cod in a cornmeal batter, although not the seasoned one that was on the shrimp, on a good-sized hoagie roll, the fish still juicy inside. While the french fries are thin and crisp, it's the onion rings that shine, also relatively thin, perfectly crunchy and un-greasy.
Locavore desserts: Hank's chesecake and cups of vanilla or chocolate Ted Drewes frozen custard. And the expected deeply casual service.
Cousin Hugo's Bar & Grill
3233 Laclede Station Rd., Maplewood
Lunch & Dinner daily
Wheelchair access: Fair
Credit cards: Yes