With a stiff enough cocktail, an evening of imbibing can take you places you've never even dreamed of. A truly transportive experience, however? That is an art form, crafted by skilled bar owners who use everything from design to drinks to music to create a mood that takes you on a journey without leaving your barstool.
The following bars do just that — they embody the spirit of another place in every last detail, taking their guests on a trip around the world. These are not caricatures, but authentic homages to the watering holes you'd find in the countries they represent. In fact, most of the bars listed below are owned by expats on a mission to create a nostalgic slice of home, no matter how far away that may be. From Brazil to South Korea, from Nigeria to the Netherlands, a trip overseas is closer than you think if you can slow down for a moment and allow yourself to get carried away. A few caipirinhas don't hurt either.
Nigeria (and Jamaica)
African Palace (4005 Seven Hills Drive, Florissant; 314-921-4600) is not just north county's bastion of authentic West African cuisine. On Friday and Saturday nights, the place is converted into a soundstage for Caribbean and African beats. Known for its regular "Reggae Fridays," African Palace hosts the area's top reggae DJs — a must-visit for an enthusiast of the genre looking for the sort of club experience you'd get in Kingston. Saturdays are dedicated to Afrobeat, with a little hip-hop thrown into the mix, for a nod to owners Kike and Koffo Osun's Nigerian heritage. Such an authentic slice of Africa may seem unexpected coming from a tucked-away spot in a Florissant strip mall, but once you step foot inside, the transportive experience will persuade you that you are, in fact, in one of the city's most exciting international watering holes.
Step into Brasilia (3212 South Grand Boulevard, 314-322-1034), and the hustle and bustle of South Grand give way to the soothing sounds of bossa nova, "the Girl from Ipanema" gently cooing from the speakers roughly every third track. Jorge Carvalho, who owns the restaurant and bar with his wife, Rachel, wanted to create a space that brought him back to his native Brazil — not the samba-inflected Rio de Janeiro that typifies the South American country to outsiders, but the tranquil, pastoral villages of his youth. In these places, he says, you can relax at a casual bar, tossing back caipirinhas as acoustic guitar and gentle percussion encourage you to laze away the day. He's captured that scene perfectly some 4,600 miles from home, with a low-key vibe brought to life by palm tree murals, fresh citrus on the bar, and candlelight that dances from the windows and glassware. The scene makes you exhale just a little deeper when you sink into your seat — and transports you a million miles away.
- MICAH USHER
- Scottish Arms.
When Scotland native Alastair Nisbet opened the Scottish Arms (8 South Sarah Street, 314-535-0551) in 2005, he wanted to create a home away from home. More than a decade later, he hasn't just succeeded in that goal — he's made all of us feel like Scots in the process. As the area's most authentic Scottish bar, Scottish Arms naturally has the city's best Scotch selection. What's more noteworthy, however, is what comes with that extensive list: warm ambience, a knowledgeable staff and genuine hospitality. And yes, you will most likely see some tartan and hear some bagpipes during your visit, but the Scottish Arms is not at all a cliche. If you see someone in a kilt, chances are it's a true Scotsman who will be more than happy to spend as much time as you like talking about tasting notes. It might even be Nisbet himself, hanging out in his home away from home and helping you make it yours as well.
No, it's not the jumbo-sized margaritas playing tricks on you. Indeed, across the bar, that's a black lava rock cauldron, bubbling over with chicken, shrimp, chorizo, steak and cactus that some lucky patron is tearing into as if his life depended on it. If there is an award for the craziest, most over-the-top bar food, Mi Lindo Michoacan (4534 Gravois Avenue; 314-224-5495) takes the prize for its molcajete, a traditional Mexican dish named for traditional stone dish it's served out of, which keeps the contents piping hot. However, there is more to this Bevo Mill neighborhood watering hole than the food coming out of its kitchen. The massive, circular brick bar in the center of the space provides the ideal vantage point for taking in the live music that is a regular draw on the weekends — and of course, the lively patrons who, intoxicated by the tunes (or perhaps micheladas), hop off their stools and dance. Mi Lindo Michoacan is not a caricature of a Mexican bar, but rather a bar that's authentic enough to garner support from the area's growing Latin community — and a place not to be missed if you want a glimpse of the new Bevo.
- TOM HELLAUER
If you want to down shots of soju and make an idiot out of yourself singing "Baby One More Time" to a bar full of complete strangers, you can do that at Koreana (13457 Olive Boulevard, Chesterfield; 314-323-6610). However, if you prefer to bring out your inner songstress in the privacy of your own room, surrounded by only close family and friends, the west county karaoke bar has you covered, too. Known for its private rooms, outfitted with comfy couches and big screen televisions, Koreana offers the sort of authentic karaoke experience you'd get at a lounge in Seoul. The songbook spans ten languages, and if you aren't entertained by the music, you surely will be by the quirky videos that accompany the selections. The experience is like having friends over in the comfort of your own home — only with a full bar, wait staff and delicious potstickers for snacking. But don't fret; if exhibitionism is part of karaoke's allure for you, you can still get down at the bar. It just takes a little more liquid courage.
Don't let the name — or the espresso machine slow-pouring shots of coffee at the crack of dawn — fool you. Vivid Café (6025 Gravois Avenue, 314-835-7573) is much more than a coffee shop. A watering hole for the Bosnians who have called the Bevo Mill neighborhood home since the 1990s, Vivid boasts a cohort of regulars who might raise an eyebrow when someone not known around the neighborhood (in other words, someone who's not Bosnian) walks through the door. That, of course, assumes they can see you through the cloud of smoke that perpetually hangs in the air. It's not that the bar is unwelcoming — it's that it is so authentic and caters to the locals so well that you might feel as if you have stepped through a wormhole into Sarajevo. This may seem intimidating at first, the way it would be intimidating to walk into a bar in another country and order a drink. But in some ways, that's precisely what Vivid Café is: a true Bosnian bar that happens to be in the middle of south city, no passport required.
- MABEL SUEN
- Das Bevo.
There is a nasty rumor going around that the flip of a simple light switch cranks the Bevo Mill into action. The suggestion makes sense, but if you've spent any amount of time at Das Bevo (4749 Gravois Avenue, 314-832-2251), anything short of a clan of lederhosen-clad Bavarians hand cranking the windmill while guzzling steins of doppelbock would seem anticlimactic. The iconic restaurant, event space, bar and biergarten was a spectacle even before its stunning rehab in 2017, but now it is bigger and better than ever, offering a nonstop German-inspired party that makes every day seem like Oktoberfest. Inside is a bierhall straight out of the old country — soaring ceilings, wooden rafters, a massive stone fireplace and enough antlers to make it seem like Gaston could walk through the doors any minute. The outdoor biergarten is equally impressive, providing a spot for throwing back liters of beer while listening to live music (and not necessarily an oompah band, either). It's a raucous time, but don't get too wild and climb aboard the vintage firetruck that's parked on the patio. They don't want you to get that crazy here — or do they?
Every four years, we out-of-touch Americans feel compelled to get with the program and pretend to care about what we insist on calling "soccer." If you head over to Amsterdam Tavern (3175 Morganford Road, 314-772-8224), however, you'd think the World Cup is every day. As St. Louis' undisputed football bar, the raucous Amsterdam Tavern makes you feel as if you have stepped into the eponymous Dutch city — or any other European capital, for that matter — where all eyes are glued to matches lighting up the bar's many television screens. Now in its tenth year, the Tower Grove South bar has made a name for itself not just as a place to watch the game, but as the place for football fans to gather with a community of like-minded individuals — people willing to get up at the crack of dawn to cheer on their team either inside or on the bar's massive outdoor patio. Forget baseball; from the screams, cheers, tears and general tomfoolery here, you just might be convinced that St. Louis is a soccer town after all.
- FLICKR/PAUL SABLEMAN
Growing up in Moscow, Tatyana Telnikova was constantly inundated with negative messaging about the West. After moving to St. Louis at the age of sixteen, she found the tables turned, her homeland vilified even after the Cold War came to a close. That push-and-pull of persuasive messaging inspires her Cherokee Street bar, Propaganda (2732 Cherokee Street, 314-769-9696), where Telnikova is on a mission to use drink to tear down those walls. Outfitted in nostalgic Russian-inflected décor — red walls, Soviet-era posters and artwork — Propaganda aims to be less a bar and more a communal drinking experience, an aspiration embodied in the group vodka toasts the bartenders facilitate every night at 10 p.m. Now that's Russian interference we can get behind.
Your status as a regular at Milo's Tavern (5201 Wilson Avenue, 314-776-0468) boils down to one simple thing: Do you know how to pronounce the name of the game being bowled out back? Call it "botch-ee," and the staff will smile politely with the knowledge that you are clearly a first-timer. Refer to the quintessential Italian pastime by its true pronunciation, "boe-chee," and you'll get a nod to proceed to the courts out back. They are serious about their bocce ball around these parts, not that you'd expect anything less from a lively watering hole smack-dab in the middle of the Hill. It's not that Milo's is simply a bar on the Hill — it's the bar on the Hill, a drinking establishment that has been catering to the area's Italian-American community for more than a century. It's seen many changes over those years; in fact, the bocce courts weren't even put in until the late '80s. But one thing has remained constant: Milo's is a warm, neighborhood sort of place, a bar you visit not to get drunk, but to unwind amongst three generations of patrons — the sort of place where, even though they'll notice, they don't actually care if you mispronounce the game. They're just happy you came.
- JENNIFER SILVERBERG
- Bar Les Freres.
Close your eyes and picture what the finest drinking salon in the 7th arrondissement should look like: sumptuous, velveteen couches, luxe paintings in gilded frames, rich red walls, ornate candelabras and a chandelier that would make Marie Antoinette envious. Now imagine that the bar is not in the center of Paris, but on Wydown Boulevard, right in the middle of Clayton. Leave it to restaurateur extraordinaire Zoe Robinson, whose penchant for design is rivaled only by her talented kitchen staff, to take a storefront in the middle of the heartland and turn it into an establishment more Parisian than Paris. Bar Les Freres (7637 Wydown Boulevard, Clayton; 314-725-8880) oozes elegance and sophistication, the undisputed place in St. Louis to stop for a Champagne nightcap if you are feeling especially sultry. Robinson once said her goal is to make Bar Les Freres a place where the evening will end in an amorous encounter for its patrons. If you get through your digestif without the tingle of anticipation, you should check your pulse.
Guinness is flowing, hands are clapping to the sound of the fiddle and the scent of corned beef fills the air. It's an intoxicating scene, enough to make you wonder whether you've hit your head and somehow woken up in Galway. In fact, you are in the middle of St. Louis' quintessential Irish pub. For 40 years, John D. McGurk's Irish Pub and Garden (1200 Russell Boulevard, 314-776-8309) has been giving local bar-goers an authentic taste of Ireland, even though it sits in the midst of St. Louis' French quarter. Dimly lit and filled with exposed brick and dark wood, McGurk's sprawling interior offers the preeminent place to experience a pint this side of the Emerald Isle — unless it's a lovely autumn day, in which case you should enjoy that pint next to the fountain on McGurk's stunning courtyard. It's no wonder Esquire named this icon of the St. Louis bar scene one of the best bars in America. Plunk it down in the middle of Dublin, and we'd probably be calling it one of the best bars in Ireland.