Posted On: 12/05/2001
The Venice Cafe has always held a special place in this reviewer's heart. It was the first bar I ever went to on my own, back in the late '80s. I still see poets and patrons on the St. Louis scene who were around during my first night of independent bar trolling.
The Venice, then and now, is popularly known as the "funky" bar in town. In many ways, it's anything but, but in others, it is everything that is bizarre.
The antiestablishment nature of the venerable establishment has its roots in an incident from the late 1980s. What is now The Venice was then owner Jeff Lockheed's personal home. The story goes that, somehow, Lockheed's straight-laced employers got word that the place was (you guessed it) just too funky to suit their corporate image. They fired him, and he opened his doors as The Venice Cafe, a coffee house he hoped would support him while he challenged his unfair firing in court.
The story has a double happy ending. Lockheed eventually prevailed in the legal arena and returned to work for his former employer. Here's the best part for the rest of us: Point made, Jeff quit his hard-won-back job after six weeks to devote full time to running his cafe. Since then, the business has expanded to include a full liquor license and food service during warmer months.
The Venice building is an old converted storefront in historic Benton Park, a neighborhood filled with antique, brick row houses. Located on corner of Lemp and Pestalozzi, it well situated to catch the wafting aroma of yeast from the Anheuser Busch Brewery. The decorative theme is fluid, with handmade ornate mosaics adorning everything from the unique, brick courtyard to the walls of the must-see bathrooms. The courtyard features faux Roman columns, set in a lush jungle of home-grown ivy and other exotic foliage, surrounded by wrought iron fences on the patio's perimeter. (The Venice patio is distinctive and wonderful. Only the courtyard of the defunct biker bar, The Golden Nugget, compared in any way with its decoration and character.)
The cozy interior of the cafe is all "crooks and nannies," with a second floor mezzanine that looks down on the first floor stage. The owner's sense of humor is evident in many places. (Don't miss the waterfall display in the chilly basement. But don't be surprised by the big Chewbacca action figure and scantily clad Barbie dolls posed as characters there. Or the mounted moose head, bejeweled with decorative glass pieces.)
In addition, the bar has wide renown, garnered from its ostentatious parade floats and the signature, artistic, hand-painted vehicles that are prominently stored in the small parking lot across the street.
Despite the large numbers of pressed shirts the place attracts on weekend evenings, the bar retains its "funky" street creed. The Venice is still home to edgier types, drawn by its eclectic, on-the-fringe music lineup ranging from Wave and experimental riffs from live bands, to off-beat drum performances, and record spins on the patio by Tom "Papa" Ray. Then there's the poetry and (on occasion) palm readings.
The unusual collection of people is part of the draw-- at least for those who don't take offense at the sticker displayed near the exit, reading, "Die Yuppie Scum."
The Venice trademark is its clash of cultures, audacious, yet cordial. Always, the fireworks and thunder of that clash are beautiful to the eye and ear.
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