Come summer, you pack away the wool pants and the parkas, and you break out your warm-weather wardrobe. You don't plan ski weekends; you go floating. If you've got a ragtop, you roll that baby down. And if you're serious about your drinking, you change what you quaff when it's hot outside.
Think about it: a pint of Guinness when the mercury's about to burst out of the thermometer? That's like wearing a sweater to a Cardinals double-header on the Fourth of July.
Lucky for us, lots of local watering holes know that when you think locally ("Hmm...it's 92 degrees out, and I'd like to take the edge off with a cocktail...."), you should sip seasonally ("Maybe I'll skip the glass of Burgundy and order a gin and tonic instead"). Better still are places that provide fun and picturesque seating al fresco, where you can while away the hot, humid hours and enjoy the great outdoors.
Prime example: Yemanja Brasil (2900 Missouri Avenue; 314-771-7457), the Benton Park Brazilian restaurant where drinking a caipirinha on the maze-like wooden deck out back (painted in the colors of the Brazilian flag) is practically a St. Louis summertime rite of passage. The caipirinha is the house cocktail of this postage stamp-size establishment -- and of the entire nation of Brazil. The drink starts with crushed limes muddled in sugar. Over the limes is poured a shot and a half of cachaça, a Brazilian rum distilled from sugar cane (other rums are distilled from molasses) and aged in barrels made of freijo, a wood indigenous to the motherland. Then the whole thing is stirred over ice. Perhaps the closest stateside equivalent is a lime rickey -- but truly, the caipirinha's a one-of-a-kind cocktail in these parts, introduced to St. Louis when owner Lemya Sidki opened Yemanja in 1995.
"When we first started, we couldn't find a single Missouri liquor distributor that even sold cachaça," says Sidki. "Now not only do local distributors carry it, but we go through a case and a half of it every week." On an average Saturday night in the summer, Yemanja's bartenders will mix up a couple hundred of the $6 cocktails for the deck clientele alone. Sidki will also occasionally offer fruity tweaks on the signature tipple, but it's that lime tartness, cutting through the thick summer air like a knife, that keeps customers coming back for the signature refreshment. Says Sidki: "I have one regular who tells me he wakes up thinking about them."
Just as Yemanja Brasil put caipirinhas on the map here, pan-Latin tapas restaurant Mirasol (6144 Delmar Boulevard; 314-721-6909) accomplished the same notoriety with the mojito, Cuba's cocktail of choice, when it debuted on the eastern end of the Loop last year. "It's our best-selling cocktail by far," says co-owner Brendan Marsden, who estimates Mirasol sells about 150 mojitos (at $8 a pop, $6 during happy hours) on warm-weather weekends -- most of them out on the sidewalk patio, where umbrella-topped tables provide a perfect place to people-watch.
"I would guess we go through more Bacardi than any other bar in St. Louis because of [the mojitos]," says Marsden. As with the caipirinha, limes play a key role in the mojito, but here they're muddled in a cocktail shaker with fresh mint leaves and simple syrup (a sugar-and-water solution cooked over a low heat, then boiled for about a minute). Bacardi and ice are added. Then the whole thing is shaken, poured into a glass and topped with club soda.
Mirasol's staff will sometimes incorporate fresh fruits and purees, like strawberry or mango, into their most-ordered drink. (The best-selling variation on the best seller? That would be the off-menu lemongrass mojito.) But the standard recipe has proven such a hit that it led Mirasol's owners to change the way they mixed the mojitos at their other St. Louis establishment, Modesto, the primarily Spanish tapas restaurant on the Hill.
Astute mixologists may note that the mojito reads like a cross between a caipirinha and a mint julep, a drink famously served in an iced silver mug at the annual running of the Kentucky Derby (and also at many bars and restaurants in New Orleans). While the mint julep's origins stem from a place much closer to St. Louis than Cuba, virtually no bar in town offered juleps. That all changed recently, when The Royale Food & Spirits (3132 South Kingshighway; 314-772-3600) took over the old south-city digs of the Real Bar and hosted its first Kentucky Derby party -- complete with juleps. The Royale plans to serve mint juleps throughout the season, and bartender Tim O'Connell (who has whipped up juleps at home for years) notes that it's a mission the management isn't taking lightly.
"It's daunting to serve mint juleps," O'Connell admits. "It may well be that the best mint julep in the world is served up by some ancient graybeard in Kentucky who makes it with well water, some special batch of bourbon and mint sprigs that have been growing by a stream for a couple centuries."
While the Royale would like to serve juleps all summer long -- and boasts a huge, fenced-off, grassy backyard patio for enjoying them -- O'Connell cautions that there will be a limited-edition aspect to the drink. "We're not gonna serve it up half-ass. We're not gonna serve up some crème de menthe monstrosity. It took me several years of experimentation to get this drink the way I want it, so we'll do it as long as we have the fresh mint and the prep time to get it right."
Momos (630 North and South Boulevard, University City; 314-863-3511) is another local spot that knows about meeting customer demand for a good drink. Since the Greek restaurant opened over the winter, its "Momos mead" -- a highly unorthodox version of sangria -- has proven so popular that bartenders mix it in 50-gallon batches and have had it installed on draught.
While the recipe's exact measurements are a house secret, manager Matt McMullin will admit to using "at least 25 liters of red wine, a little bit of grain alcohol to give it a bit more kick, a fortified honey wine that's like a honey liqueur, a lot of chopped-up fruit and a whole list of spices that I'm not allowed to reveal." Whatever the ingredients, the end results taste like a terrific spiked punch, sold either by the glass ($4, $2 at happy hour) or liter-size carafe ($16). When the weather's nice, it's best to get to Momos early to snag a seat on the small deck or at one of the sidewalk tables.
The margarita recipe at family-owned Chuy Arzola's (6405 Clayton Road; 314-644-4430) is also a secret one, known only by the family itself. Says manager Chris Ybarra: "The recipe is not anything I can address." The clientele couldn't care less -- they're just happy to slurp through some ten gallons of the stuff on summertime Saturdays -- and it's evident from one sip that Chuy's isn't cutting corners, as the fresh-lime taste practically smacks you across the mouth. Pitchers of margarita cost $19.75; by the glass, it's $5.75 (two-for-one during weekday happy hours).
But many customers like to call their favorite top-shelf tequilas with their order, and considering that Ybarra deems Jose Cuervo "just a standby," it's obvious that Chuy's has some of the best tequilas in town (the restaurant's dozen premium brands include Patron and Sauza Tres Generaciones). And how popular is Chuy's adjacent patio? Reports Ybarra: "We haven't closed it for a day in two years." When it's chilly out, a plastic awning is put up and heaters are turned on -- like an endless summer.
A few more spots for getting your summer sip on:
Bar Italia (13 Maryland Plaza; 314-361-7010): Save on airfare to Florence -- Bar Italia's lush, ornate side patio is as lovely as any bit of Renaissance architecture you'll find on the other side of the pond. Instead, splurge on a bottle of sweet and fruity Barbera d'Asti or enjoy a few rounds of kir royale.
Nachomama's (9643 Manchester Road, Rock Hill; 314-961-9110): At this, perhaps the best fast-food joint around, you'll find stellar Tex-Mex and some mighty fine margaritas to wash it all down. Eat outside and people-watch in the parking lot -- really.
Café Eau (212 North Kingshighway; 314-633-1000): The best thing about this super-swank Chase Park Plaza spot is the patio, where you can lounge and libate poolside while taking advantage of one of the hippest happy hours in the city.
Venice Café (1901 Pestalozzi Street; 314-772-5994): A huge and groovy stone-tiled terrace makes this funkadelic funhouse a regular stop on many a summer bar-hopping circuit. And there's lots of live blues inside, too.