Every city has its bars, but few cities have perfected the good old-fashioned neighborhood version quite so well as St. Louis. These bars are neither too fancy nor too frightening, too snazzy nor too sketchy. They're just right.
This year, we've picked dozens of our favorite spots, from St. Charles to Soulard. They're places where you can get a burger and a beer, catch the Cardinals on TV or just run into your friends and neighbors. And after months of research, we can state one thing with certainty: They're the true beating heart of this booze-loving city.Bar research and writeups by Cheryl Baehr, Sarah Fenske, Kevin Korinek, Jaime Lees, Doyle Murphy, Ellen Prinzi, Ben Westhoff and Danny Wicentowski
- SARAH FENSKE
- Rosie's Place.
One of the truly great gin joints in the city, Rosie's Place (4573 Laclede Avenue, 314-361-6423) has managed to weather not only great change in the Central West End but also the passage of the city's smoking ban, an achievement that surely felt unfathomable back when it was one of the smokiest spots in the central city. But this no-frills bar isn't just surviving, it's thriving, with hordes of fun lovers packing its narrow confines and, generally, drinking with the kind of enthusiastic devotion associated with a bygone era. You don't have to look far to figure out where the smokers went: Those big picnic tables just outside the front door fill up on warm nights, and you'll have to shoulder your way past a literal cloud of nicotine to go home. Why not stay and have a piping hot TJ's pizza and another beer instead?
It might seem a little too fancy to count as a true neighborhood bar, but Brennan's (4659 Maryland Avenue, 314-497-4449) is utterly at home within its cosmopolitan neighborhood — and for many denizens of the Central West End, this is indeed the place where everyone knows their name. Good enough for us. Kevin Brennan opened his storefront on Maryland fifteen years ago to sell wine, beer, liquor and cigars, but soon found the project morphing into a bar, one that also grew to include ping pong in the basement, a terrific assortment of sidewalk seating and a cigar club upstairs. Somehow, even with its enormous popularity and various expansions (a second outpost, a much different kind of project in Midtown involving coffee and coworking, is soon to open), Brennan's has kept a cozy feel, personalized service and a sense of a humor (witness the always changing and always pithy phrases behind the rows of Scotch and whiskey). Visit just one time on a laid-back weeknight, and you might find yourself contemplating the kind of move that would allow Brennan's to become your neighborhood bar, too.
- SARAH FENSKE
- Jack Patrick's.
Downtown's chillest bar, Jack Patrick's Bar & Grill (1000 Olive Street, 314-436-8879) is a surprisingly spacious spot to have a bite and play a game (darts, shuffleboard, Golden Tee), or just watch one. There's much to like about this low-lit spot, from the sign proclaiming Jägermeister the house wine to the cell phone booth that, we can only hope, shames people with business to conduct into doing it far, far from our whiskey. And did we mention the Clydesdales hanging in a glass globe over the shuffleboard table? They just don't make bars like this anymore. A warning to those who like one-stop shopping: While you order your drinks at the long bar anchoring the back of the room, you'll have to go to the little window to the left to take advantage of the food menu. It's worth it; the roster of options is seriously huge.
- BEN WESTHOFF
Speakeasy (5532 West Florissant Avenue, no phone number) lives up to its name via its irregular hours (closed Sundays and Tuesdays) and lack of an exterior marker bearing its name (just look for the old-school Budweiser sign). Inside, it's not much to look at, with wood-paneled walls and a backbar that's basically just bottles sitting on a table next to some chips. But the place has spirit. It hosts dart tournaments, boasts a kitchen serving everything from tacos to turkey burgers and plays music louder than any other bar we've visited. With a DJ spinning on a laptop on a recent Friday night, the decibel level was more akin to a nightclub. The patrons tended to be black women in their 30s, but everyone was getting in on the act. They put down their plastic shot glasses and belted out lyrics to an old-school Milira R&B jam: Why must I feel so lonely without you here? The bartender set down the knife she was using to cut limes and threw back her head: That's why I wanna go outside in the rain. A couple who had been annoying each other by flirting with others set aside their differences to sing in unison: So no one, no one, no one, knows that I'm crying. Celebrating life's sorrows together: That's the Speakeasy way.
Considering its broken front window has been repaired with duct tape, and considering that during off-hours the front door is padlocked from the outside, Waldorf's Lounge (3963 Delmar Boulevard, no phone number) looks abandoned. But when it's open — Thursday through Saturday nights — the place is often absolutely popping. Inside you'll find mood lighting, exposed brick, a snazzy, updated bar area, and grown-n-sexy hip-hop (think Juvenile and 50 Cent). Though it's just down the block from the Freedom Place apartment building, which houses formerly homeless veterans, the clientele doesn't tend toward down-on-their luck retired service men and women, but rather sharp-dressed African-Americans in their 30s and 40s. Even the drinks are well-adorned. When we were there a woman was selling, for $5 each, "drink covers": small doilies with beads and a hole for your straw. Don't let Waldorf's glum exterior scare you. Inside, it's got style to spare.
- STEVE TRUESDELL
- Zodiac Lounge.
Zodiac Lounge (3517 North Grand Boulevard, 314-535-9800) has long had the coolest marquee in town — a mystical-looking circle chart of the astrological signs, including horoscope glyphs. Now it also has a cool owner, former mayor Freeman Bosley Jr. "Life's a lot easier since politics," St. Louis' first black mayor tells us from behind the bar, adding that since he took over this spot not long ago they've repainted the interior (a cool, dark blue) but maintained the retro décor. There have been other upgrades as well; a customer shares that Zodiac is finally stocking olives, meaning he no longer has to bring his own from home for his nearly-all-vodka martinis, served with lots of ice in a rounded tumbler ($8). What hasn't changed is the community feel. Even on a weekday afternoon the spot is jammed, and a desperate addict who arrives hoping to sell a discarded picture frame with the text "now I lay me down to sleep" somehow finds a buyer, a nurse in scrubs just off her shift who's hoping to encourage her children to say their prayers at night. Word to the wise: If you want to drink here, you should be at least 35, and don't expect to use the jukebox. "Who the fuck put this on?" asks beloved, despotic bartender Miss Shirley, as Frank Sinatra interrupts her string of Erykah Badu jams. Even with a mayor for a boss, she does things her way.
Gregg's Bar & Grill
By the sweat of their brows. That's how most of the people in the industrial north riverfront get by. But when they get to Gregg's Bar and Grill (4400 North Broadway, 314-421-1152), the work stops, the dust on their boots settles and they'll settle in to partake of the fruits of that labor — except, of course, they're not ordering fruit at Gregg's. This is a realm of beer and burgers, of generous fish sandwiches and perfect onion rings. It's a place that attracts diverse characters and old friends, everyone from cops to construction workers to nearby neighborhood residents. Amid the area's industrial sprawl, some call this place an oasis, but the warmth within doesn't evoke a desert. There is a richness here, wealth measured in food and drink that remain consistent across years. It's more like a garden, an Eden where temptation comes from a bottle of whiskey — but the only sin is failing to partake.
- BEN WESTHOFF
- Palomino Lounge.
Fedora-wearing, '70s-Buick-driving, boxing-promoting St. Louis booster Steve Smith is best known for his South Kingshighway bar and restaurant the Royale. But while the Royale is something of a destination location — for political watch parties, sports viewing or community meetings — another establishment where Smith is a partner, Palomino Lounge (5876 Delmar Boulevard, 314-456-7890) is simply a classic neighborhood bar. Located at what might one day be described at the eastern end of the Loop (across from the Loop Trolley building), the 50-plus-year-old establishment was purchased by principal Rodney Smith (no relation), Steve Smith and two other partners about two years ago from its longtime proprietress, known simply as Miss Barbara. Hoping to unite North and South, black and white, the partners are certainly not the first St. Louisans with ambitions of creating city harmony, but if it's going to happen, it might as well be at a stylish spot with solid drinks. The woodwork and light fixtures surrounding the bar are vintage and lovingly maintained, while the house cocktails tend to be fresh twists on old standards. Smith and Co. are not reinventing the wheel, and they may not bring about racial unification, but their preservation of a classic old spot feels like a victory in itself.
See also: The RFT's 2018 Bar Guide: A Salute to Neighborhood Bars, and Much More