The Root of the Problem

There’s a great idea bubbling behind Fitz’s Bottling Company, the restaurant and root beer “plant” on the lower level of Union Station. But an idea — even an inspired one — can fizzle out faster than a glass of warm soda if it’s not executed with some professionalism.

During four visits to Fitz’s I enjoyed the bottomless mug of root beer ($1.75), but my cup did not runneth over when it came to the rest of the experience.

The place is designed as an ersatz factory, built with industrial materials (gray concrete block walls, corrugated steel, low-hanging metal light fixtures) — it’s supposed to feel as if a busy bottling plant sits right behind those plateglass windows. But much of that action must take place during the lunch hour, because only once during my early evening outings was there any activity near the assembly line.

Happily for me, that was the visit I took with my two young goddaughters, who barely looked at the menu or their root-beer mugs as they waited breathlessly for something to happen behind the glass. Suddenly, a crew of three men began putting empty bottles on the line, playing with levers and buttons, and overseeing some bottle filling and label applying that lasted about 25 minutes. The little girls were mesmerized watching the bottles go rattling through the various stages of assembly, but they were most thrilled during the cleanup operation, when one of the workers splashed the window next to our booth with a spray of water.

The girls giggled, but their jaded mother rolled her eyes and said, “It’s like the opening sequence of Laverne & Shirley without the theme music. Or the humor.”

There was theme music, though. At that visit, the sound system was playing hits by ‘N Sync and Britney Spears. The little girls — ages 8 and 10 — sang along when they weren’t chomping on french fries or casting an evil eye at the restaurant’s not-especially kid-friendly macaroni and cheese.

But that was the same visit that our waitress forgot to bring my own order of macaroni. “Gee, I guess I forgot, huh?” she laughed by way of explanation. Earlier, when she’d brought the root-beer mugs to the table, she’d held them by the rim instead of the handle. If I thought it might have sunk in, I would have told her the same thing I’d told the vacant-eyed waitress who’d held the mugs that way on an earlier visit: Grubby fingers on the same area of glass where I was expected to drink was incredibly unsanitary and unprofessional. “When I was a waiter,” I’d said, “that would be grounds for dismissal.”

She’d looked at me as though I had caught her lying: “Oh, uh, yeah,” she mumbled and scurried off. I can’t blame the kid. On each visit, different servers brought out glasses the same way. Who’s training these bowling-shirt-clad postpubescents anyway?

It must be the same manager who informed us that the bottling machinery was turned off because “not many people come down here at night. They roll up the sidewalks at Union Station after 6 p.m.”

Fitz’s is infused with that kind of apathy. On my fourth visit, with customers at only two other tables, the waitress was eager for us to clear out so she could leave too. Even Fitz’s wonderful root beer was starting to leave a sour taste in my mouth.

The menu offers snazzy versions of the familiar stuff once served at old-fashioned root-beer stands (burgers, chili dogs, barbecue). There’s also hautier fare, such as the Asian Salmon Salad ($8.49), doused with a citrusy vinaigrette, and the Lemon Chicken Bowl ($8.99), where a grilled chicken breast sits on a bed of soft cellophane noodles, all swimming in a fragrant garlic and lemongrass broth (a grilled shrimp version goes for $12.99).

But icy root beer tastes better with less-exotic dishes. The meatloaf dinner ($8.99) is billed as “Grandpa’s favorite,” although my grandfather might have found the generous slice of baked ground beef to be overcooked and poorly seasoned. The barbecued ribs ($14.99) were basted in a mildly spiced sauce made with cane sugar. And the meat-filled toasted ravioli appetizer ($5.49) comes with a cup of marinara sauce that tastes as though there’s at least a spoonful of sugar in it, while the Texas Chili ($4.99 for a bowl) leaves a sweet aftertaste as well.

“But not sugar-sweet,” said Bob, who had the chili piled on his Coney Island chili dog ($5.99). “It tastes like some cinnamon sugar was mixed in.”

On another visit, my friend David ordered the same Coney Island Platter and was shocked to see the chili dog served on a hamburger bun. When he asked the waitress why, he got the same slackjawed response that arises with any kind of problem: “Oh, is that a hamburger bun? They were using hot-dog buns the other day.” She came back a few minutes later carrying a plastic pitcher of slightly warm root beer to refill our bottomless mugs and explained, “The manager said we’ve changed the concept from a hot-dog-bun concept to a hamburger-bun concept.”

Now there’s a concept! I did like the restaurant’s conceptual variation on macaroni and cheese, here dumbly misspelled as the Mac & Cheeez Bowl ($6.99). But my goddaughters snubbed it; the jumbo tubes of curly pasta smothered in a Velveeta-style sauce and topped with crumbled potato chips didn’t look like the cheap, orange packaged mix they’re used to. If you pay an extra buck, you can get bacon crumbles on the macaroni, but when I ordered it that way Fitz’s took off the potato chips, which I found to be stingy.

And I wondered whether David’s wife, Lisa, encountered some kind of omen in a wedge of my Voodoo Pizza ($8.99). It was made with spicy andouille sausage and a blanket of melted cheese — and a tiny bone.

“Maybe it’s a wishbone,” I said. “After all, it is a Voodoo Pizza.”

She was not amused. I tried to cheer her up by offering to buy her one of the restaurant’s greatest treats, a lusciously rich root-beer milkshake ($3.99), served in a chilled glass with a swirl of real whipped cream and a cherry. I had fallen passionately in love with this menu item. But Lisa was content with her root beer, a nice, zippy accessory to her bland chicken chimichangas ($8.99), which looked like giant chicken egg rolls on a platter piled with black beans, rice, and a puddle of melted cheese sauce.

Those milkshakes come in five flavors, and with seven kinds of ice-cream-float drinks and something called an Orange Freezee, it makes sense that the dessert list is short. The vanilla custard ($3.99) was more like vanilla pudding, served parfait-style in a glass with crushed vanilla wafers. And a Molten Chocolate Cake ($3.99) looked and tasted like an un-iced, packaged snack cake, its gooey “molten” center barely lukewarm. Much better was Mrs. Fitzgerald’s Spiced Apple Pie ($3.99), a square of warm, cinnamon-flavored pastry filled with tender baked apples and topped with a scoop of ice cream. Even after I’d downed mugs and mugs of root beer, this comforting dessert wasn’t teeth-grindingly candied, but hearty and just right.

The apple pie was worth waiting for, even though our server had asked, “Who’s ready for dessert?” when we were barely halfway through our dinner.

“What’s her rush?” griped Bob. “Is she trying to shoo us out of here?”

If the service gets any sloppier at Fitz’s, that won’t be a problem in the future. It’s just not enough that Fitz’s St. Louis-based co-owners can serve up a frosty mug of excellent root beer if the staff can’t even bring a glass to the table correctly.

Categories: Food & Drink, Restaurant Reviews