A good bar is like its own small town, populated by essential archetypes. The owner or top bartender is your mayor (or sheriff, if it's that kind of place), establishing the cultural norms while managing the day-to-day. Tourists will pass through, but a citizenry of loyal patrons keeps the lights on. There will be a peacemaker and a wizened council. A village idiot or three is unavoidable.
It takes time to build these tiny, inebriated municipalities. Sadly, our nation is haunted by the ghosts of a million failed societies, the graves marked by Ruby Tuesdays and faux speakeasies.
St. Louis remains one of the last strongholds of the honest-to-God bar. We drink cans of Stag without irony and decorate our walls with dusty Budweiser neons. A strong pour from the bottom shelf is easily covered by a five spot. And it's this way in every neighborhood. Hidden between the brick bungalows of south city and burrowed into the side-street corners of north county, hundreds of bars provide a web of small towns with enough stools for each of us to find our true home.
Take a seat on the floral sectional below a Clydesdale poster that doubles as a window shade in the "VIP lounge" of the San Bar (9441 Lackland Road, Overland; 314-427-9750) and ask yourself whether a just society can co-exist in a world of Buffalo Wild Wings. Drink a $1.50 Natural Light draft in North Hampton's Silverleaf Lounge (3442 Hereford Street, 314-481-4080) while you eat beef jerky homemade by a retired cop and consider whether it's time to rise up with sharpened rakes against $12 muddled cocktails.
In another city, the sketchiness of One Nite Stand Dance Club (2800 Ohio Avenue, 314-776-0996) would be only a legend told by wrinkled barflies to incredulous youth. Developers would have ripped out its stripper pole, and there would be no need for Friday night pat-downs at the door — it would have been turned into a TD Bank long ago. Even the Central West End, the poshest neighborhood in the city, has Rosie's Place (4573 Laclede Avenue, 314-361-6423), a no-theme watering hole where you'll see suits slamming rail whiskey next to lunch pail regulars.
Only recently has the rest of America begun to understand what has been lost by killing the neighborhood bar. From Brooklyn to Los Angeles, a nostalgic generation has tried to recreate the dive, hauling in thrift store couches and vintage beer signs for a curated vibe. The difference in St. Louis is that our bars are the real thing, not a carefully engineered echo. If the furniture looks a little worn, a little dated, it's because it's been there five decades. The wood paneling on the walls and mostly working Budweiser lights of Iowa Buffet (2727 Winnebago Street, 314-776-8000) weren't installed because someone wanted it to feel retro. They're there because that's what was in style during that last remodel. Age makes the dive here, a place where "if it's not broke, don't fix it" feels like a commandment.
We are the keepers of the flame. Our elbows wear grooves in bar tops across the metro. It's our civic duty.