-- Ancient South Side proverb
YOU DON'T HAVE TO GO HOME: Inspirations this week come from print sources, one quite close to home. In fact, it's the RFT! Time for navel-gazing! Now containing more restaurant data than even the heftiest among us could use in a lifetime, the RFT gives plenty of ink to the eateries of Our Town. But what of the taverns? The lounges? The dives? The corner bars? Not as much -- let's rectify!
Mind you, these aren't just repositories of boozy sin. They are "third places," as the Post-Dispatch would hypothesize; places that aren't quite home, aren't quite work. "Third places," yes -- a handy buzzword. When you go to one of them, you don't souse. Rather, you connect with your community. You don't dull the edge of pain dealt to you by the workaday world. No, you reflect on where you've been and where you're going. They are not the entrance to a world of expanding waistlines. Instead, they're a return to the barstool civility of yore.
This week's format is as follows: A small crew of ale-house aficionados have been hopscotching the city in 1999 -- primarily the South Side, to date -- looking for establishments new or notable to them. Though the year is still young, many gin mills have been eyeballed, many cocktails have been consumed, many friends have been made in these wonderful "third places."
These places are generally filled with people of high character. If only the walls could talk! They would say things like: "Here many men were once intoxicated, together." Or: "Racial epithets and conspiracy politics were uttered in this room." And: "At one time, games of chance were played in this facility, until intercession from the local authorities caused our fraternal bonds to evaporate."
No more setup -- let's get down to business!
* The most memorable moment in this headlong rush into hedonism? There aren't contenders. There is simply a singular evening at the Manchester Pub (6653 Manchester). Let's sketch the scene: A surly ex-Marine saunters in, starts jawing. Has a drink. Continues to trash-talk. He's escorted to the street. Somehow he winds up in the street. Horizontal. Things get interesting; let's leave it at that. The moral of the story: If things are gettin' hectic at a bar, just keep your head -- look for cover, then return to your stool, noisily clinking your forefinger against your empty glass. Free refills will eventually come your way, even at last call. The Manchester Pub seems like a fine place; in fact, the Busch beer was as cold as a snow monkey's ear. But in a world of first impressions, this was a helluva howdy-do!
* The teeniest pub on the South Side would have to be Betty's (3170 Bent), which is curiously located in the back section of an apartment building. This tiny hole-in-the-wall features a jukebox untouched since the Ford administration. A nice black dog, patches of fur missing, made its way around the little horseshoe-shaped bar -- he/she was friendlier than the staff or patrons. Most Ladue basements are 20 times the size of this joint. Has it been mentioned that Betty's is small? (The runner-up in the "teeniest" category is the Silverleaf Lounge (3442 Hereford), but the reactionary wall coverings eliminate it from consideration -- most regrettable, for it is, indeed, teeny-tiny.)
* The least service-oriented tavern? Picture, if you will, two clean-cut young men sitting at a bar, sipping their 75-cent beakers of Busch Bavarian. Eventually, as is often true in life, the glasses run empty. Rather than offer affordable refills, two shaven-headed bartenders pass by the parched duo. Two times, four times, six times, with not so much as a simple, sidelong glance or nod. This is not fiction. This was a true-life moment at Garavaglia's Hill Top Inn (6902 Morganford), which otherwise seemed like a nice enough place. Perhaps one of those "Service Is Our Business" signs from Home Depot would pep up this pair of reluctant mixologists.
* The most specific audience award goes to the Ashau Valley (3457 Morganford). If you're not interested in every facet of POW culture, you'll probably not find your muse here.
* Remember those thick slabs of ice this past winter? Well, at Spirits on Gravois (6830 Gravois), the embracing arms of the bartender kept one lucky customer's heart warm despite the subzero cold outside. It's true -- no South Side bar is fully complete without some G'n'R and Rush on the jukebox. For some, this music is an anthemic, if campy, salute to youth. For others, it's a lovely, romantic soundtrack. Jerry Springer on the TV, two jabbering gents at the bar, a trio of beery newcomers, Geddy Lee's banshee wails coming through the PA ... all this and a bartender in the throes of passion. Wow! Let's call this one a bar for lovers.
* The something's-missing salute is given to Winfield's (3234 Morganford). This "third place" is remarkably clean, the floor glistening with a spit-and-polish glint. The service is fast and the specials solidly affordable. But an odd little touch is noticeable within a couple minutes: There are almost no womyn here. In some bars, that's explainable -- there's simply no one there: no men, no womyn, no dogs with patchy fur. But this place is packed. Even on Mondays, 40-50 guys knock back longnecks, with scarcely any womyn in sight. As if a neutron bomb for womyn hit the room. It's a nice bar, with Golden Tee '99, no less, but there just ain't no womyn here. Weird. Incidentally, one foul-mouthed companion called such a situation "a sausage factory." How cheeky! On the plus side, the Busch Bavarian is as icy as Andrew McCarthy's performance in Less Than Zero.
* Conversations? Oh, sure, there were a few. For example, a memorable exchange of words occurred at the Marble Stone (4140 Gravois), where an earnest young man -- let's call him Jeremiah -- spoke of his love for Jesus. After all, he was a "born-again Catholic," deep in wisdom of the Bible and committed to his faith through hours of intensive study, which he wishes to share with anyone who'll grant the time. Jeremiah spoke not only of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost but of the carload of gas thieves he chased from the 7-Eleven earlier in the evening. What did the bar look like? Well, like a bar. Jeremiah, though, is a character who will engage you, doggedly, in debate. Him you will remember.
* Speaking of conversations, let's drive down to South Grand and the Bull Tadpole (6312 Grand). Not only does this place have the best bar name, it has a mural on the wall that features (who would make this up?) large logos of the Blues, baseball Cardinals, football Cardinals and Steamers, for gosh sake. Let's call it the best bar mural! A well-versed fella named George also told highly entertaining stories about the old neighborhoods surrounding the tavern, which made the hours pass by as if a door had been opened to a hazy dreamworld. The delightfully frosty Busch Bavarians may have factored into that as well. They were as cold as a flagpole on Christmas day.
* Looking for ludicrous karaoke? Look no further than intriguingly named Dumbaby's (4701 Morganford). Seldom is a note hit in key, though the would-be warblers attack these notes with a real ... um, winning charm.
* Frankly, when you talk about notable exteriors, let's not even move past the amazing Captain's Table (1718 Olive). The outside of this drinks emporium suggests that a lifetime of muay thai kickboxing might not even be enough to keep you upright. Inside, though, the extreme collection of Barry White on the jukebox will set your mind in a free-falling bump-and-grind. At other times, the music is a deep-bass style of sound, featuring quickly flowing rhymes and a propulsive drumbeat. Apparently this "hip-hop" sound, which has not cracked many of the South Side's taverns, is quite popular. As for the drinks, well, the gin and tonics at the Captain's Table surely aren't made on the premises. Rather, they are shaken in heaven and sent to us by way of mystical means! Mmm! Gin and tonics of the gods!
* Best block of bars? Morganford, no question!
THE HIT PARADE TOP SEVEN, ER, 11: This week (in expanded form!) we look ahead, misty-eyed, to football season, with the top 11 things that make Dick Vermeil cry:
11. Running through linebacking schemes
with Brooks Parriot
10. Cutting the fifth-string tight end
9. The numbers 4 and 12, linked in that
8. Jack Snow's rendition of the Notre Dame fight song
7. Caesar's speech at the end of Conquest
of the Planet of the Apes
6. Long-distance, reduced-rate phone calls
from Lawrence Phillips
5. David Thompson's "upside"
4. One-on-one interviews with Skip Erwin
3. Baby zoo animals
2. The chalking of the Macomb practice
1. Mario Lanza
E-mail quips, tips and "shout-outs" to Thomas_Crone@rftstl.com.