Posted On: 06/09/2000
The Cloverleaf is quite possibly the finest bar in Saint Louis. No, it does not have the beautiful people like the high class Ritz or the ultra trendy Washington Avenue. It does have the atmosphere that these bars try oh-so-hard to create. Good atmosphere comes naturally. Atmosphere cannot be created with a dress code, expensive paintings or fancy cocktails. There are variables that go well beyond this.
The Cloverleaf is located on the north side of Delmar. This is the line too many people in this city will not cross. But if you cross over you will find untapped (by many) treasures. The tavern is at the intersection of Finney at the end of Lewis Place in the shadow of Ranken Technical College. It is just a few blocks north of Belle Avenue, which was where the African American elite resided before the days of desegregation. This is an avenue of beautiful and historic homes. Directly across from the bar is the beautiful 25-foot blond brick gate of Lewis Place. Up until the 1940s the property deeds of Lewis Place had restricted covenants barring those of African descent to purchase the property on this exclusive street. This was the direct cause of the landmark Supreme Court case of Shelly vs. Kraemer, which struck down covenants that restricted those of race. This had a direct impact not only the immediate neighborhood, but nationwide.
The same family has owned the Cloverleaf for over 51 years. The name may suggest that the bar is owned by Irish, but in fact it is owned by an African American family. Ethel is the matronly older woman who owns Cloverleaf and has worked at the bar since the first night it opened. Ethel now has problems with her hearing, but she loves to talk with her customers. The regular patrons will give signals to you if you need to speak up. Ethel will smile at you and tell you about the place when she was younger. There is a banner over the bar marking their 50th anniversary in business. There are old pictures of her brothers who ran the place when they were very young. There is also a picture of a strikingly beautiful younger Ethel that adorns the banner. Ethel remembers her customers and is genuinely happy to see them. She speaks softly and wisely, always with a warm smile on her face. She speaks fondly of her late brothers and conveys her deep feelings of affection in a way so that you understand her emotion. This will make you feel at home.
Inside the tavern, the bar itself is in the shape of half a Cloverleaf with upholstered sides. The barstools are sturdy and have comfortable padded vinyl bucket style seats. There are etched green clover leaves on the glass that backs the bar. Behind the bar is a raised stage that was built over forty years ago in anticipation of having live jazz combos. They never did wind up putting the combos behind the bar, instead opting to put them in the corner. There are cushy upholstered booths that line the walls, not unlike the fancy martini bars that have come and gone in this town. Even the phone booth has a padded door and is in a private room. The walls have a lime green color and this is accentuated by the green back lighting. This gives the bar a cool feel. It is obvious that this was considered one of the coolest bars in the city at one time.
Ethel takes great pride in her bar. She makes sure that it is clean. The regulars take their places on the barstools when the bar opens at about 2pm. Ethel will only keep the bar open as late as the last regular that is there, so it would be wise to go on the early side during the week. The liquor selection is old fashioned with most beer served in a can. The taps have long gone unused and are now really just decoration. The liquor selection is an odd mix. Often a small glass fifth is served instead of a poured shot for a mixed drink.
The crowd is older and African American. The handful of regulars are very friendly and many of the men are members of the Masons. They will often try to sell you tickets to a Whiskey Sip. This is a scholarship fundraiser for a neighborhood kid that involves eating and drinking at the lodge on Olive. One of the old men who I have seen at other neighborhood watering holes will often talk about his family. He will proudly tell you about his daughter who is finishing up her college career in California and is about to become an engineer. He will also tell you about his time in the service as an operator on a submarine. He is a relatively quiet, but very dignified man who likes his canned Busch beer in a glass.
At Cloverleaf's entrance a line of carry out liquors that are clearly no longer used meets you. Look closely and you will see some true vintage liquors. On the top shelf are a few dusty old bottles of Jameson Irish whiskey in bottles that had been discontinued long ago. In front of the carry out liquor is the best jukebox in town. It is a real record jukebox with the same music that had been played when this bar was in its hey day. The records are scratchy and real. The names are handwritten on the selection board because most of the titles are relatively obscure. On Saturday there is a DJ that plays jazz. Ethel said I would like Saturday nights.
After going to a bar like this, you begin to feel an attachment, but also urgency. The bar was the hippest kind in the day, but as the bar grew older, so did the loyal patrons. There is only so much time that bars like this will be around. Going to a bar like Cloverleaf is a lot like stepping back in time.
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