“The revolutionary war that led to the creation of our country was hashed out in taverns.” - Steve Smith
Not many places have been featured in the RFT
’s lists of best neighborhood bars and
best cocktail bars, but the Royale (3132 South Kingshighway Boulevard, 314-772-3600)
has mastered an unusual alchemy.
Its intoxicating mix of high-low is not the only thing that makes this watering hole a south city institution: It’s also become a southside political juggernaut. As owner Steven Fitzpatrick Smith explains it, that’s been less a calculated business plan and more the natural outgrowth of his own passions. And while it hasn’t always been good for business (more on that in a minute), it’s given the Royale an identity and a purpose.
Smith first opened the bar in 2005, the height of George W. Bush’s presidency and a time when Democrats surely felt as beleaguered as, well, today. The Royale soon became a safe space for liberals who wanted to watch the State of the Union address with, as Smith puts it, “people of the same ilk.” After Smith threw his support behind a young senator named Barack Obama a few years later, the bar also began hosting debate watch parties, simply because Smith himself wanted to tune in. He explains, “I’d invite a few friends, and then I realized, ‘Hey, I own a bar. There’s a volume on the TV. Let’s turn it up’ Then 35 people showed up.”
Things only grew from there. Eventually, the Royale ended up hosting debates of its own — not goofy “arguments and grievances,” à la Brennan’s, but rather forums and roundtables that take seriously both the candidates and the issues they’re addressing.
For Smith, who ran the college radio station as an undergraduate at Saint Louis University, The Royale Political Wire is a chance to produce a podcast that just so happens to be recorded live before a crowd of rapt bar patrons. Michael Allen serves as his usual co-host, with Smith himself running the board. Guests have included everyone from Mayor Lyda Krewson to Post-Dispatch columnist Tony Messenger to Heather Taylor, president of the police union representing black officers. Smith is looking for a good conversation, yes, but he doesn’t just stack the deck with his friends or neighbors; he also wants to educate his audience when he can. Of bringing in north city Alderman Brandon Bosley in for a panel, along with Dogtown’s former alderman Scott Ogilvie, he says, “People need to hear more from these guys, not just what’s happening in Tower Grove South and in Shaw.”
In a deep blue city, Smith seldom hears from people vowing never to darken the Royale’s doorstep over its outspokenly liberal leanings. Even so, he doubts its political identity has increased its bottom line; the bar may be packed during Political Wire events, but a hot discussion tends to slow the demand for drinks, not add to it. In terms of total number of patrons, he says, “the numbers are comparable,” Smith says. But during events, “There’s a lot more standing around.”
Even if it cost him money, though, the Royale’s owner would be all in. Noting that his bar was once called Columbo’s, and owned by the late state representative Fred Columbo, he believes he’s part of a noble lineage. “Bars have always been a place where people can talk and plot and think,” he says. “The revolutionary war that led to the creation of our country was hashed out in taverns.”
This review is part of our 2019 Bar Guide. Find out our other favorite St. Louis bars here.
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