Back in the good old days of Prohibition, they called them "fronts." You know: some candy store, perfectly square-looking, with big glass jars of tooth-rotting goodness on the counters and the shelves groaning with suitcase-sized boxes of chocolate. Nothing to see here, officer. Push a button, though, a door opens up on a secret room, and it's Hootch-o-Rama.
In Arkansas, we've still got something like that: the Bar and Grill that's really - in its deep-down heart of hearts - a good ol' bar. There's a menu. There's silverware. There are bottles of ketchup on the tables, and little packets of Sweet-n-Low. You can get a glass of tea there, and a bowl of cheese dip.
But just sitting in a place like that, you kinda know that eating ain't why you're supposed to be here. Order food, and you can just imagine the waitress leaving your table, then walking up to some big bald guy sitting waaaaay at the end of the bar, drinking a cup of coffee and reading the Daily Racing Form.
"Lou," the waitress says, "We got an order."
"Damn," Lou says, smacks his Racing Form down, and then stalks off to the kitchen, grumbling, tying on his apron as he goes.
That's the feeling you get at Coconut Bay Cafe, especially if you go in after dark looking for anything more substantial than a plate of fries. Though we've come to be something of a fan of their big, cheap specials and burgers at lunch, Coconut Bay really gets its groove on at night, and down to what it does best: being a fine, upstanding member of the River Market bar scene as Club Coconuts.
As such, our trip there on a recent weeknight found us the only customers in sight who were indulging in anything more than what the old-timers optimistically called "Liquid Bread." Worse, being sans sitter, Companion and I had 5-year-old Junior in tow, which got us some funny looks from the revelers throwing down outside on Coconut's big and breezy patio.
The menu got a few dirty glances of our own. Compared even to a chain like Boscos down the street, Coconut Bay was expensive enough to drive anyone to drink (nearly $20 for their top-of-the-line steak, for example). Being that we were dining on our rich Uncle Max, however, we went all out. Well, not all out, but it sure felt that way - especially when dinner for two and a half (without tip, no drinks and skipping dessert) came to within two bits of $40.
In a carnivorous mood, I tried the T-bone steak ($16.95), which came with a side salad and baked potato. Companion, meanwhile, tried the pie: a 10-inch pizza, with mushrooms and pepperoni ($8.95). Given that there was no kiddie menu, Junior had the chicken strips appetizer ($8.95), which came with fries.
It's a good thing there is a tiny little television with cable hookup at every inside booth, a leftover from the previous and not lamented owner, Banana Joe's/Marita Mama's. While that's kind of distracting if you're there to chat, when you've got a kid in tow, Cartoon Network is a lifesaver.
It was especially so given how long we waited. And waited. And waited some more. Lou was definitely in the back somewhere, one hand over the griddle and the other screwed into his hip, telling that motherloving stove to come on and heat up, already, because he ain't getting no damn younger.
When our stuff finally got there, it wasn't half bad. The chicken strips were big and tasty (though with the definite whang of straight-from-the-bag goodness), and Companion said the pizza was good, with a tangy tomato sauce and a thin, crispy crust. As for the night's big-ticket item, the T-bone was thick and meaty, nicely done, though it tasted like Lou had used some kind of weird spice on it, one of those sweet spices that tastes like it's only supposed to be used in Indian cuisine, and then sparingly.
In the end, the message here is simple: While Coconut Bay/Club Coconuts is a nice place for a spot of lunch, and better than nice if you're looking for a relaxing drink with friends on their patio overlooking the river, there are better places in the River Market for dinner with a capital "D." That ain't all bad. There are times when a stiff drink beats a square meal any day.
Coconut Bay Cafe
Two and a half stars
300 President Clinton Ave.
The kitchen is open until 2 a.m., and our sojourns to Coconut Bay have found the Ol' Fashioned Chef Burger ($6.50) hits the spot late-night, when the liquid refreshments just ain't cutting it. For a place whose name conjures up thoughts of tropical islands, though, there isn't much in the way of island or Caribbean-style food. It's mostly American standards, suitable for a bar crowd.
11 a.m.-2 a.m. daily, including Sunday.
Moderate prices. All credit cards accepted. Full bar (diners are given a complementary membership to Club Coconuts, the companion private club to the restaurant).