Review: Bar Les Frères in Clayton

Bar Les Frères
7637 Wydown Blvd., Clayton, 314.725.8880, Facebook: Bar Les Frères

Bar Les Frères, which was unveiled in November by Zoe Pidgeon (think Bobo Noodle House and I Fratellini) on the fashionable little commercial strip of Wydown Boulevard near downtown Clayton, is considerably less cordial than its moniker (French for “the brothers’ bar”) would have you believe. But then again, maybe it isn’t. On a weekend night when a thirsty bunch of people are jammed into a space roughly the size of my first post-college apartment, it’s hard to feel anything but fraternal.
Friday night with Sazerac in hand, I survey the crowd. First, though, a well deserved sip. After negotiating past an annoyed doorman who preferred I wait for a table, sidestepping the stampede of an outgoing party, and tapping my foot for a bartender tending to the two couples busier sharing inside jokes than actually ordering, I’m ready to finally start my weekend. For this purpose, and for this place, the Sazerac is a nice choice. Strong but not overwhelming, the harshness of the whiskey is offset by little tastes of simple syrup, Peychaud bitters, a bit of lemon and a quick swirl of absinthe to give it that hit of licorice. This is what Don Draper would drink if he was in Paris or New Orleans. It’s what you should be drinking at Les Frères. An acceptable alternative would be the Pimm’s Cup. Though a quintessentially warm-weather drink, the Pimm’s is done up so supremely well at this bar that it deserves to be enjoyed year-round. Less impressive – much, much less impressive – is the Negroni: an impossibly chalky-tasting mess doused with Campari, gin, sweet vermouth and orange. Thankfully, patrons are able to wash such mistakes down with a choice selection of other classic cocktails – the Lillet Blanc, St. Germaine Cocktail, French 75 – along with a handful of absinthes, Pernod, bottled beers, and the ubiquitous list of red, white and sparkling wines (Most cocktails start at around $8.). Those in search of something more decadent would do well to order the Dumante Alexander, which mixes pistachio liqueur with crème de cacao and gets topped with thin shards of chocolate.
Name drop all you want, but it won’t give you any pull in snagging a seat. Even at 6 p.m., even on a weekday, the white marble tabletops, chic parlor couches and handful of bar stools teem with Claytonites none-too-eager to abandon their posts. Well heeled, smartly clad, mostly older groups (along with attractive younger couples) chat, sip, laugh and linger over small plates like Toulouse sausage or potato blinis with caviar. Be prepared to stand in this cozy little 27-seater saloon. Though big crowds in this small space may slow the service and lay the pressure on, cool heads and steady hands continue to ply their craft behind the bar.

Like the drinks and the patrons, the space is well dressed. There are dozens of temples of booze like this on random Parisian side streets, but only one in St. Louis county. Thankfully lacking in tacky 1920s French liquor posters or other clichéd facsimiles, Les Frères instead leans toward the authentic – a feat few foreign-themed establishments in town accomplish with such ease. Its strength lies in simplicity. Formerly a shoe repair shop, the space has been transformed into a casual French cafe, which, in reality for us Yankees, is anything but casual. Imposing walls slathered in rich, pure red are spotted with 18th century portraits of European gentry. The traditional parlor feel is amped up by the wall of deer antlers mounted casually over the bar mirror and the soft candles augmented by the light of a giant chandelier dangling overhead. 
Though Bar Les Frères was designed partially as an overflow waiting area for the almost equally tiny I Fratellini, which sits across the way, this colorful sibling operation, dripping in vintage charm, stands firmly enough on its own. Hence the overcrowding, which can be a real pain. But with a stiff Sazerac like this, waiting for a seat never tasted so good.