Posted On: 03/31/2006
If I had a dollar for every time one of my myopically drunk friends said, “Hey, why don’t we open a bar?” I’d have enough dough to open my own fleet of bars. Cocktails and dreams from Lemay to Ferguson, replete with flair bartending, Coughlin’s Laws and Elizabeth Shue (’85 or ’95 version). I’m wise, though. I know that being a bar owner means: I am ultimately responsible for everything – from drunken patrons to slicing limes to potentially huge financial risk. I want no part of it. Keep me in front of the bar. I’ll pay. Luckily for those who haunt South Grand, Nhat Nguyen is not me.
Nguyen entered the restaurant/bar business in his hometown, Pittsburgh, and honed his skills in Florida. After a potentially apocryphal industry tip – in St. Louis, it’s relatively easy and cheap to open your own place – he moved here in September ’04, working stints around town until debuting his own spot, Urban, in January of this year.
Located in the former Lemon Grass space, Urban hits the mood between esteemed wine bar Erato and mini neo-discothèque The Upstairs Lounge. The bar side comes on bold with sky-blue walls, framed mirrors, wall lamps with crab-shell shades (well, that’s what I see), spade-patterned couches and weekend DJs. The lounge side comes on soft with a silk parachute ceiling, pillow-lined window benches facing Grand Boulevard, a love seat and a star chandelier.
Nguyen’s creative drink menu stresses cocktails saccharine from the fructose of fresh fruit, pulp, seeds and all. Dotted among the nine beers and 16 wines (nine by the glass) are a few esoteric yet high-quality labels, some packing a wallop (i.e., Canadian beer La Fin Du Monde). The one-page tasting menu has some genuine stars, like grilled Haloumi (I learned that this is cheese) and chicken mole tacos.
Weekday crowds are still light. From 8 to 11 p.m., the bar side is usually filled, while the lounge side is thin. Chill time. Eat tacos, talk football with Nguyen and talk Peak Oil with strangers. Weekends offer more social entertainment, with crowds eventually filling every stool, chair and couch. But with patrons seemingly transient (that’s both good and bad), chances are you won’t have to stand long. Weekend DJs mixed obscure songs I knew (Jurassic 5) with obscure songs I didn’t (Eddie Kendricks). Mostly, heads do the only dancing by nodding between cigarette drags and conversation. Patrons are more diverse in race, sex and sexual orientation than age (25 to 30ish). Anticipate exotic and good-looking people – buzz cuts on girls, long hair on dudes, black-rimmed glasses and pinch-front fedoras.
As one of only a few employees, Nguyen works his tail off, muddling fruit, chatting up patrons, dealing with all the enters, never showing surprise, never losing his cool. For a guy from Pittsburgh who moved here explicitly to open his own successful place, he’s on his way. Urban is a great addition to South Grand.
The straight 411 …
For DJs and 25- to 30-year-old chillin’ hipsters, head to Urban.
OK, I will admit it: My first impression of Urban was not the best. There, I said it. But after I sucked it up, sat down on the exotically upholstered couch that smelled of a college apartment and let the hotspot’s aura envelop me, I fell in love.
At first, Urban seems like a condemned building where someone threw some Moroccan-inspired structural work and furniture that was dragged up from someone’s basement. But, after you sit down on one of the cozy-but-smelly couches and let the hypnotic India-inspired music envelop you, you are in for a treat.
When I visited Urban early on a Friday – around happy hour – I was surprised to find the joint somewhat full. We sat in the sea-foam green bar room and enjoyed the busy crowd. There were enough people present to socialize and have a good time without the burden of feeling like a heel who went to a club way too early.
We were shocked when we got our bill after three of us drank imported beer on a tab for about an hour. Shocked because our bill was only $27. Apparently, Urban doesn’t take the “happy” in happy hour lightly, a quality I truly admire in a bar. Urban serves imports for $3 from 5 to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday; it also has a large menu of exotic mixed drinks and, for a club, a decent wine list.
Off the center of the bar, you will find the entrance to Urban’s main room. The tented ceiling and deep earth-toned color palette in this section make it feel as if you should be sitting on the floor eating couscous with your hands or pulling flavored tobacco from the hose of a hookah.
The large window facing the busy street sports tons of pillows and is the sweetest seat in the joint. It is the place to sit and enjoy the vibe of the room while being afforded a view of the action on the street as well as the action inside.
We were taken by surprise when we heard something we could only imagine was a falling ceiling or a living creature skittering down the swoop of the tented fabric near the window area. We weren’t sure exactly what is was, but we got up and moved to the couches just in case.
Overall, Urban’s vibe is very mellow. The crowd is diverse, and not just the smattering of young club-goers you would expect to find at this bustling South Grand neighborhood nightspot. It is easy to feel comfortable there, no matter how you are dressed or who you are with. Still, a good cleaning, a little Febreze and possibly some work on the roof would be appreciated.
The straight 411 …
Urban is the perfect place to relax and share an exotic cocktail with friends. Well, once you get over the musty basement smell.
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