Selecting Riverfront Times' Best of St. Louis 2011 was no picnic. Choosing the winner meant several worthy candidates would go unmentioned -- until now. In this RFT Music series, we're beeboping and scattin' our way through notable runners up in a number of categories.
Whether for a quick unwind on the way home from work or a long-haul with friends, the neighborhood bar is the backbone of many a social circle. But how to pick among the hundreds peppering every nook and cranny of our fair city? We've narrowed it down to ten. Note that this is just within the city limits -- we'll weigh in on the surrounding areas soon.
See also: the Ten Best 3 a.m. bars in St. Louis.
Riley's Pub Tower Grove East is practically a no-fly zone for bars, but nestled on the corner of Arsenal Street and Arkansas Avenue is this 'hood's saving grace -- and we reckon one of the best little Irish bars this side of the Emerald Isle. Riley's only has one flat-screen, which is positively Paleolithic by today's standards, and good golly do we appreciate that. The high-backed booths are perfect for a private conversations with a handful of pals or penning a novel, should you be afflicted with that Joyce-ian curse. This bar's carefully curated jukebox (Peggy Lee to Tom Waits) is highly decorated -- it won honors as this paper's Best Jukebox in 2006 and 2011.
The Silverleaf Lounge Only in St. Louis can you walk into a teeny corner bar and find out two drinks in that the bartender went to high school with your dad -- in another state. You'll drive by this place more times that you'll find it -- it's just that inconspicuous - but once inside, you'll curse yourself for all those nights you spent cheating on your new love with those other bars. With a handful of barstools and even fewer tables, this Southwest Garden gem is strewn with pro-America memorabilia yellowed by the smoke of a million cigarettes. This place is untouched by time, from the ashtrays lining the bar to the golden soul and and oldies tunes oozing from the jukebox.
Babe's How can you not love a bar named Babe's? Whether you're nostalgic for the 1995 cinematic masterpiece starring a plucky young pig, or just have girls on the brain, Babe's is just one of the cutest darn bars we've ever set foot in. It is teensy-tiny, full of lively chatter from the folks holding down the barstools, and it even comes with its own resident crazy person! (Just ask the bartender.) Same goes for most neighborhood bars in St. Louis, but come early or not at all on Friday and Saturdays, or else be prepared to throw elbows for a seat.
Friendly's Sports Bar and Grill Oh, Friendly's. How many nights your free popcorn and huge well drinks have acted as a balm to our weary souls. In your hallowed games of Skee-Ball, pool and Big Buck Hunter, the cares of the world seem to melt away, even more so after a few of those well drinks. We can't say it enough: You won't get a dinky plastic cup of tonic with a thimble measure of gin. They serve pint glasses of your particular poison, and then ask for a paltry $2 in return. This Tower Grove South sports bar is the place to be for Cardinals games, but whether it's Game 6 or just on a plain ol' Saturday night, it's damn near impossible not to have a great time at Friendly's.
Slo Tom's Lounge If we got paid to speculate on the next hip 'hood, all of our money would be on South Broadway. The industrial stretch between Jefferson Avenue and Interstate 55 makes us feel like we're in a movie, and when David Lynch calls looking for a place to shoot a cerebral, gritty thriller where things are too real to be believed, this is where we're sending him. Slo Tom's Lounge was immortalized by local legends the Bottle Rockets, and the group wasn't wrong when they said it's where you go when you've got nothing -- or no one -- to do. It's one of the oldest bars in this historic area, and you'll make fast friends with the folks who've been regulars for decades.
Sasha's on Shaw When you think about a neighborhood bar in St. Louis, generally the first thing that comes to mind is a tiny, weathered tavern, virtually untouched since the mid-'80s. A bar bar, if you will. Sasha's doesn't reside in the same proverbial hemisphere as your local tavern, though, because down Shaw way they're classy like that. Sasha's is warm and beautiful, but you'll barely notice as you flip through its drink list and devour the downright sensual descriptions of its wines. Whether you're in the mood for a $9 glpass of Pinot Noir or a $295 chrome-coated bottle of Dionysus Downfall (not its real name), Sasha's is where oenophiles want to go when they die.
The Royale Bars are like people -- some you can see weekly for years and never get enough, and others you can know intimately inside of fifteen minutes. But the Royale is an instant classic; we could visit once a day and never tire of the joint. In fact, since it opened in 2005, we've been dropping in every week, if only to keep our "haven't been to the Royale" dermatitis at bay. Though South Kingshighway proper is only a neighborhood in the loosest sense of the word, the Royale rests at the confluence of too many hip nabes to be overlooked. It's a hop and two skips from Shaw, a leisurely stroll from Southwest Garden and just down the way from Tower Grove South. It hosts a number of must-do events, from the yearly Kentucky Derby party where folks don their best hats and Gatsby-esque glad rags for the races, to Cocktail Museum Sundays, when the nimble-minded barkeeps delve into the past and mix up obsolete quaffs that'll have you rethinking your old standby.
Rosie's Place While the well-heeled boys and the girls in stilettos do battle down at Euclid and Maryland avenues, we're down the street marinating in the unmistakeable Budweiser and stale-cigarette aroma at Rosie's. Situated on the southerly side of the West End, the neighborhood's penchant for pretension melts away inside this delightful dive. While some CWE spots offer sumptuous seating and a little thing called ambiance, we'd rather park it on a cracked vinyl barstool and squander our bullion buying shots for the house and putting "Gimme Shelter" on the jukebox just one more time.
J and A's We're almost scared to mention this recession-friendly watering hole, but we've never been one to bogart the good stuff, and Jimmy and Andy's certainly qualifies. You can get two pints here for less than it costs to buy one gallon of premium gasoline, and God knows which one will last you longer. Rumor has it J and A's once functioned as a speakeasy, and it may or may not be one of the oldest bars in St. Louis. Anywhere you can get liquored up and walk out with package booze and Lotto tickets qualifies as one of the best bars ever, not just in River City.
And the best neighborhood bar in the city of St. Louis...
Harlem Tap Room Painted across the brick exterior of Harlem Tap Room are the words, "Every Goodbye Ain't Gone." As translated by Keith Green, the third generation of the Nance family to run this bar in the Ville, the motto reminds people that leaving isn't the same thing as never coming back. And Green should know: A native St. Louisan, he moved to Atlanta for several years, but felt the pull back toward home -- and toward the watering hole his grandfather, Ezell Nance Jr., founded in 1946. Green opens his doors by seven every morning (but Sunday) for thirsty third-shifters from the post office and Barnes-Jewish Hospital. But the place really gets boisterous on weekend nights, when folks start dancing (and singing along with) a soul-packed jukebox, all while swilling beer, wine or spirits. Many regulars live nearby, but customers hail from the county as well as across the river. Everyone's made to feel welcome, and every goodbye ain't gone.