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Sep 02, 2014
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The 'Key' to your salvation lies in The Grove
By By Sean Hixson and Julie Lay • Photo by Josh Monken
Posted On: 02/01/2007   

Guy's perspective

Remember when beer only came in bottles? Nope. Remember when beer came in cans without prefab openings, like soup used to? Not me. Remember when beer came in cans with pull tabs? Yes, as do the soles of my feet. Remember when beer ... aahh, you get it.

Formerly, all beer, delicious, delicious beer, needed an opener and somewhere along the way, mid-20th century, some wisenheimer dubbed the beer opener a “church key.” Take the ethereal (church) and connect it to the mundane (beer). In that light, we visit The Church Key, a new addition to The Grove (formerly known as Forest Park Southeast).

Much like the wordplay smart aleck who introduced the church/booze dichotomy to a beer opener, in September 2006, the Bellon family (of Bellon Wrecking and Salvage, Bellon Remodeling and Construction, and Bellon’s Market Deli and Pizzeria) took the interesting guts of the demolished St. Aloysius Gonzaga church on The Hill and dropped them into The Church Key tavern. Ethereal meet mundane.

I have some fond memories of St. Al’s. Fluent-in-Italian Cousin Rose, my family’s last connection to the old-school Hill, was a parishioner. When visiting her, I was always struck by how well St. Al’s fit into the surrounding neighborhood. With the accompanying gym, school and rectory, St. Al’s was by far the biggest structure on the block, yet it was anything but imposing. Now, the question is, how well does St. Al’s fit into a bar?

St. Al’s pews have been turned into handsome booths, the old choir loft into the bar itself and the padded kneelers into the bar’s footrests. I like. Great use of material destined for
a landfill.

No smoking inside. Outside, in the rear, a great patio is taking shape. Appropriate for a salvage/construction family, a wintertime, fire-heated smoking hut has been erected. Huge pallets of bricks serve as walls, with steel panels atop girders as the ceiling. An industrial skin for an intimate lounge that causes strangers to introduce themselves around the fire. I like.

At this point, only open Thursday to Saturday, The Church Key is limited. Few large crowds to melt into anonymously and silently mock from the bar. Few nights with every booth occupied. Little trouble getting a drink or getting your songs played on the jukebox. This is neither good nor bad, just a fact.

Mostly, The Church Key is a come-as-you-are spot to hang out with people you already know. (Unless you are out back, that is.) If conversation with friends stalls, you’ll end up chowing down on free popcorn/peanuts/pretzels and punching up Def Leppard and Michael Jackson on the jukebox. So converse, or you’ll leave singing “Photograph” with salty lips and a crooked, drunken smile.

Service from two bartenders (no wait staff on the floor ... yet) is friendly, but the cocktails tend to change from order to order and server to server. It’s not clear if they know their own cocktail menu. I definitely had three different Rob Roys. The 40-selection beer list is good with two gems – Nat Light drafts (on late-night special: $1 from 11:30 p.m. to close) and Singapore’s Tiger Beer bottles.

The straight 411 ...
For a mundane-and-ethereal chill spot for conversation, head to The Church Key.

Gal's perspective

Sinners, unite: The Church Key in The Grove is about to reinstate your belief in all things holy.

Somewhere around mid-2006, St. Aloysius Gonzaga church was demolished to make way for single-family housing. While some parishioners were mourning, the Bellon family was thinking of a way to keep part of the church’s spirit alive. What better way is there than to take pieces of the sacred spot and incorporate them into a new bar in The Grove neighborhood?

Outside of the religious furnishings, The Church Key isn’t really all that impressive when you enter. It looks like an old Irish pub, decked out in dark woods, with the exception that the tables and seats are made of old pews and the bar footrest is a kneeler. But the place is warm and inviting and the patrons seem cordial.

As for the list of drinks, The Church Key has a good selection. A decent offering of beers, both domestic and imported; a large martini list; and a few wines keep drinkers happy. But here is the kicker, ladies and gents: The Church Key offers $1 Bud, Bud Select, Bud Light, Miller Light and PBR bottles from 6 to 10 p.m. Thursday to Saturday. When I found this out, I actually saw the heavens part and heard the angels sing.

Nowhere can you score swill this cheap in St. Louis on a weekend. By my calculations, you and your friends can get your buzz and your tip on – let’s say 10 beers with a 100 percent tip each round – for $20 on a Saturday. Now that, my friend, is a true gift from God. You may have to hit the scene early, but at these prices, you’ll be hitting the pavement early, too. Hallelujah!

There is no food beyond free popcorn, peanuts and pretzels, but the bar is thinking of adding a menu with sandwiches and the like in the spring. Just in time to enjoy some grub on the soon-to-be-renovated outside patio. Right now, all the patio boasts is a ramshackle structure of stacked bricks and a fire pit to keep smokers toasty while lighting up, but in the spring, the shack will be taken down and patio seating put up.

The funny thing about The Church Key is that it is an establishment based on relics from an old Catholic church in the middle of The Grove’s mostly gay club scene. Love the irony of that one. The mix of the patrons in The Church Key varies from folks looking to catch a drink before heading over to popular gay spot Novak’s for karaoke, to beer-guzzling college kids looking for a cheap fix in a laid-back bar. But, on a busy Friday or Saturday, be prepared to hoof it because finding a parking spot can be a bit of a challenge.

On the whole, The Church Key is a great place to have a few drinks before you head out, or come to repent after a night of sin.

The straight 411 ...
The Church Key is basically a one-stop shop for sinners. Where else can you wallow in sin and repent all on the same barstool? Go ahead, drink the wine; Jesus made it especially for you.

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