On our trip between Memphis and St. Louis a few weeks ago, we had contemplated staying the night in Cape Girardeau having a nice dinner for an anniversary we were having and then heading back to Iowa the next morning. However, we found that many of the nice "fine dining" restaurants in the town were out of business. We decided to head up to St. Louis for the evening. But it wasn't before we stopped at a place in downtown Cape Girardeau for lunch - Port Cape Girardeau Restaurant and Lounge.
Port Cape, as it's known to the locals, celebrated their 40th anniversary this year. The building that houses the restaurant dates back to the 1830's making it one of the oldest buildings still standing west of the Mississippi. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant used the building as an office during the Civil War. During Prohibition, it housed a bootlegging operation and was basically abandoned in the early 60's.
Missouri native David Knight came back to his home state after graduating college in Arkansas and teaching at a college in Alabama. Upset that the old structure was sitting empty for so long and in such a state of disrepair, Knight bought the building along the riverfront in Cape Girardeau with the idea of putting in a restaurant with an emphasis on barbecue. Along with his sister and brother-in-law who went in on the venture with him, Port Cape opened in 1974.
Knight grew up in Poplar Bluff and one of his best friends, Dale Pruitt, worked in the Pruitt family's barbecue place. When Knight opened his place in Cape Girardeau, he asked Pruitt to come to work for him at his new restaurant. Pruitt eventually worked at Port Cape for 38 years - becoming the honorary mayor of Water Street - before he passed away in 2012.
Dave Knight and his brother built a large brick barbecue pit in the restaurant. He was able to control the temperature by opening or closing a damper in the flue. The problem was that the flue went three stories up and there were times when the fire would flare up and cause problems. After the third time the fire department had to come and douse the fire in the pit, Knight decided that he had to build a better smoker. Out of that came another company that grew into one of the most popular commercial grade smokers on the market today - Ole Hickory Pits wood burning smokers.
With the success of Ole Hickory Pits, Knight decided to sell Port Cape to someone who could spend more time running the business. In 1988, Dennis "Doc" Cain bought the restaurant and bar. Cain's son, James, had a degree in culinary arts and had moved back to Cape Girardeau to run two fine dining restaurants - both of which sadly failed soon after they opened. In 2012, James Cain joined his father in Port Cape as the head chef. Earlier this year, the Cain's opened CQ (the Captain's Quarters) in what was the banquet facility of the building. It features more of an upscale menu than what is offered at Port Cape. As I said, Cape Girardeau used to have some fine dining restaurants in the 80's and 90's when I first began to travel there for work. But they're all closed up. I'm hoping that the old "third time's a charm" works for James Cain with CQ.
We found a parking spot on Water Street in front of Port Cape (see map) and walked into the first door we found. It turned out that we had walked into the lounge area of the restaurant.
The bar, itself, wasn't large, but had a nice back bar filled with liquor. The lounge had a nautical theme including a large ship's wheel on the wall. It was just a bartender and a man sitting at the bar and I asked if this was where we could get something to eat. The bartender pointed us down a hallway toward the dining room.
We went down the hall, past a number of articles on Port Cape that were hanging on the wall, and found the dining room to the place. There were only a couple other people in the dining area so the server who greeted us said we pretty much had our choice of where we wanted to sit.
The dining room was spacious and featured long rows of tables with sturdy wooden chairs. Antique fixtures and artifacts were hung on the wall or sitting on shelves. The original brick walls dating back to the mid 19th century gave the room an old time feel.
Along the south side of the dining room was what amounted to an ice cream parlor. Rows of ice cream in tubs were in the glass enclosed counter. We were told that the ice cream part of Port Cape is a popular place in the evening.
Our server dropped off menus for us and I immediately ordered a Deschutes Inversion IPA. My initial reaction was that I was impressed that the place had a good beer like Deschutes (out of Oregon) available on tap.
The menu was slanted toward barbecue, but they also had a number of appetizers and salads, as well as burgers and sandwiches. Dinner entrees included a charbroiled filet steak, fried catfish, grilled salmon and a smoked rib-eye steak that actually sounded sort of intriguing.
After thinking about getting a burger, I ended up getting the brisket and pimento cheese sandwich. It was served on toasted Texas toast and came with an ample side of what they called steak fries, but were nothing more than hand-cut fries. A small amount of a smokey and sweet barbecue sauce came with the sandwich.
The sandwich was filled with thin cuts of the smoked brisket and topped with pimento cheese. Quite actually, the brisket was very good and the combination of the taste of the pimento cheese with the brisket was a great combination. The fries were basically a throwaway for me. It was like they had been made a half hour earlier and put into a warming bin. But the sandwich - especially the brisket - was very good.
Cindy ended up getting the Gala apple salad with marinated grilled chicken. The salad featured sliced Gala apples with chopped walnuts and shaved red onions on a bed of spinach and topped with chunks of gorgonzola cheese and a citrus vinaigrette. Cindy's been on some spinach kick recently, trying to eat better or something like that, and as soon as she saw the spinach salad with the Gala apples she went for that. She said she was very happy with her choice, but she was having a tough time finishing the salad.
My dealer in Cape Girardeau just semi-retired and closed his doors after over 30 years in business so I probably won't be getting back to "Cape" anytime soon. But if I do, I think I'd like to come back to Port Cape and give the barbecue a try. With what I experienced with the brisket and pimento cheese sandwich, I'm somewhat intrigued by what else they may have in terms of barbecue. Port Cape was a nice little stop for a late lunch and we were both happy with what we got.