Posted On: 09/18/2000
Saint Louis was built on immigrant communities. The cornerstone of these immigrant communities was just as often the neighborhood tavern as it was the family. The Irish and Germans who flooded Saint Louis during the last half of the 19th century made the tavern a neighborhood staple like butcher shops and corner stores. Breweries and bucket houses saturated Saint Louis like no other city in the US.
There are still remnants of this period all over Saint Louis. The mega-corporate Anheuser-Busch dominates not only Saint Louis, but also the world. Corner taverns and carry out liquor stores are still found all over the city. Bevo Mill still stands as an ominous landmark in a historically German area of South Saint Louis. But only some of the bars retain true ethnic identity outside of some decorative shamrocks or green beer on Saint Patrick's Day. However, there are some new immigrant bars like there once was in Saint Louis generations ago.
Sweet P's is a Bosnian-owned and -operated bar/restaurant located on Gravois in the Bevo neighborhood of South Saint Louis. There has been a large increase of Bosnian immigrants in South Saint Louis during the past five years. The influx of immigrants to Saint Louis is a result of political turmoil and war in the former country of Yugoslavia. Estimates have ranged as low as 12,000 and as many as 36,000 Bosnians primarily concentrated in South Saint Louis. Their cultural impact is evidenced by a plethora of Bosnian owned butcher shops, coffee houses, grocery stores, taverns, discos and restaurants that have recently opened on the south side.
Sweet P's has been around for years. In the past it was a rough pool hall tavern that was frequented by bikers. Recently it changed to a restaurant/bar that is now owned by Bosnians. The bar business primarily serves the large Bosnian community of South Saint Louis, but the business is not exclusively Bosnian. Many outside this ethnic community eat at the restaurant and will occasionally have a drink at the bar. Recently Sweet P's grabbed the headlines and was featured on the local news. A couple weeks back there was a nasty brawl that involved about 25 patrons and resulted in many arrests. The paper reported that they were all Bosnian, but I found out that there was one native born American involved. There was an uproar in Saint Louis about this incident. Many old time South Saint Louisans grew paranoid that the new Bosnian residents were getting out of control. What many of them have forgotten that there have always been a little, and sometimes a lot, of trouble in every community. The Irish, Sicilian and German communities had significant problems during the first generations of immigration. The only difference now is that after a few generations the problems, which still happen, are no longer identified with the ethnic communities.
Due to this rumble, Sweet P's voluntarily stopped serving all liquor for a month. No person, Bosnian or otherwise, is being served alcohol during this moratorium. I had been to Sweet P's about a year ago while it was under the Bosnian ownership. I recently visited again after this much-publicized fracas.
Upon entrance I noted that it was noticeably very well lit. The air was filled with cigarette smoke and the sounds of Eastern European pop music. There is a pool table in the front with a beautiful mirror-backed wood bar. Etched on to the mirror is the Sweet P's logo. Off to the side is the restaurant with tables where the pool tables had once been. The bar was filled almost exclusively with Bosnian men between the ages of 17 and 45. The bar was not serving liquor that evening, so the younger set was allowed to participate. There were only two young women present, one Bosnian and the other woman was an Asian-American who spoke some Bosnian. Most of the men were sipping espresso and smoking cigarettes. The bartender, whose name is pronounced Ah-sah-de (don't ask me to spell it), was generally forthcoming. Often when I walk into a bar where I clearly look out of place, the bartender will either shun me or is exceedingly polite. This bartender did cautiously look over my crew of thirsty compatriots, but he treated us fairly. He courteously explained, in broken English, about the no alcohol policy for the month. We decided to try what most of the patrons were drinking. Espresso. My compadre tried to order a regular coffee. After much confusing conversation he was served and "American coffee", which suspiciously looked like a large espresso. After further inspection, it was what is popularly called an "Americano", which is espresso with hot water added. The espresso and Americanos were only a dollar apiece. The bar snacks were not the typical peanuts or pretzels. On a plate next to the ashtray was a pile of meat that looked like bacon. It actually was strips of spiced beef that was very tasty. It would have tasted even better with a beer.
I looked over the restaurant menu at many different unusual Bosnian dishes. The fare offered was very meaty. Some of the entrees included: Teleca Snicla- Veal Steak, Mjesano Meso- a dish featuring different types of meat, and Zelijanica- rolled dough with spinach. The entree prices ranged between 6 and 10 dollars. The bartender said that they do a brisk lunch business and have a decent dinner crowd.
We struck up a game of pool with some younger patrons. They offered to play us in either American or Bosnian rules. We opted for the Bosnian rules. The friendly duo we played was a young Bosnian man and his young Asian-American girlfriend. I am still not exactly sure what the Bosnian rules are, but they would bank the ball off of the opponent’s ball and would inexplicably just physically pick up some of the balls and sink them. I am not sure who won, but it was a fun and interesting experience.
Two burly native born American men from the neighborhood came barging in the later in the evening and pulled directly up to the bar next to me while I was conversing with the barkeep. One of the men was wearing a Harley-Davidson ball cap and the other was wearing a sleeveless T-shirt. They had a pissed-off look in their eyes and their body language was indicated that they were looking for trouble. They were a big pair in their 30s and looked like they had been drinking. The man with the cap demanded a Budweiser from the bartender.
The bartender tried to explain about the liquor situation. This did not satisfy the men. The capped man remarked, "So you won't serve me! You people won't serve me?" Being proficient in English I tried to re-explain to the man about the situation with the liquor. I motioned to the bartender that I would try to talk some sense into the guy. He turned and pointed at me and said "You people come over here and won't even serve us. That is bulls**t!" I tried to explain to him that I was not Bosnian, and that the bar was not serving anyone liquor, Bosnian or American. I told him that they would be happy to serve him coffee. He then made another unusual remark to me: "I heard what happened here last week. We don't stand for that s**t! We don't want you here!"
The bartender almost seemed amused by this conversation. The patrons backed up a bit, expecting that something bad might happen. My drinking buddy, who was seated on the other side of me, watched closely by observing everything off the reflection in the bar mirror. I told the angry fellow that "my people" came here from Ireland and Germany over 100 years ago. I asked him where his "people" came from. I started to wonder if I was stirring the pot and causing a fight. I looked around at many nervous grins. The less belligerent of the pair started to look confused. I asked the pair if they were German, like so many are in Bevo. The less upset of the pair started to nod and say yes while trying to cool down his buddy. The angry fellow said "Hell yeah I'm German and my Uncle is Adolph Hitler. I know the b***h that owns this place and this is bulls**t that you won't serve me.”
At this point I responded, "Now that just doesn't make any sense at all. Your people came to the US and were new in this country at one time. I am Irish, not Bosnian. These people are Bosnian and these people are new right now, just like your great grandfather was at one time. I don't see what the problem is." At this point I figured that I really should keep quiet. The slightly calmer fellow seemed to realize that they were not going to be able to cause a decent fight, nor would they be able to win an argument. I asked the calmest of the twosome if his friend even understood what I was trying to explain. He softly said "No" and started to lead his buddy out. I looked over apologetically at the bartender who was as cool and composed as ever. He just stood there leaning forward on the bar, smoking a cigarette. On their way out, the loud guy screamed, "We'll be back next week with a hundred bikes out front!"
After the rowdy guys left I apologized to the bartender. He seemed unfazed by this. He said that this was not unusual. He did not seem upset with me at all. The men around the bar began to laugh out of relief that the incident was over. No one seemed to want any sort of brawl to happen. The bartender commented that he did not want any trouble. The brawl that happened last week was unwelcome. He said that the fight happened before he could do anything.
Overall this was a very friendly bar. They are very welcoming to newcomers, despite what people say. This is not unlike it once was in the taverns of the city. Taverns run by immigrants as an integral component of the life in the immigrant community. Make sure that you witness this first hand some time at Sweet P's.
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