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Sep 01, 2014
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Grit and Guinness
By Matt Berkley • Photo by Josh Monken
Posted On: 09/01/2008   

Tommy Gage insisted that in four years of pulling dark pints and slinging whiskey to the masses at O’Malley’s Pub, he has never had to break up a single fight. I’m inclined to believe him, but it’s hard to mask some serious disappointment. Not that I’m looking for a brawl, but if I were, this little public house on the corner of Lemp and Cherokee, an overlooked Irish gem, would be an ideal locale.

In a short time, O’Malley’s has become as much a part of the Cherokee neighborhood as the adjoining breweries or the antique shops that dot the streets – not surprising, considering that a corner saloon (under one moniker or another) has stood in the space since the turn of the last century. Gage continues the tradition, operating a destination for his friends and neighbors to knock back a few pints after a long workday. “Customers are what really make our bar,” he said. “Without them, a bar is really only four walls.”

The pub is, in a word, gritty. But gritty in a good way. O’Malley’s is what I like to describe as the anti-Irish pub: It’s not an overpriced social scene and it doesn’t knock you over the skull to convince you it’s “authentic.” This is not the place to take a date; this is a drinking bar. The smell – a not so gentle mix of smoke, aged wood and stale beer – knocks into you as you pull open the door to step off of Cherokee. The décor, the STL version of “Irish,” is exactly what you’d expect – a lot of dim space, a lot of green. It’s the type of place you can tell has hosted its share of rowdy nights. A dozen or so tables and high tops are spread throughout the small space, each with a fine view of the musicians’ corner, where, most nights, live artists will strum a guitar or fiddle into the darker hours before stumbling home. Usually they’ll take requests from the house, but I wouldn’t advise calling out Whiskey in the Jar or other clichés, think more Dropkick Murphys.

Behind the chipped wooden bar and well-used beer fridge, Gage has stacked a happy collection of whiskeys and spirits he doles out at more than reasonable prices (solid happy hour deals take things one further). The draft selection is respectable – Smithwick’s, Harp, Magners Cider, Pabst – and Gage and his crew pull a solid pint of Guinness. Make that your starting off point.

On weekend nights, the place can get slammed with a mix of twentysomethings and older patrons. Everyone is super-casual; in fact, collared shirts are almost anathema in this joint. Duck your head into the pub on a random weeknight and you might find a crew of regulars stubbornly posted in their spots at the bar, gazing up at the Cardinals game on one of the pub’s flat screens; next to them a pair of punk gals sipping on Pabst, cutting into a pack of Camels; and near the back of the bar, a rowdy guy’s girlfriend taking a brief respite from swaying to the music to prop herself up on a stool and expose her lady parts to the bar. (I’m not making this stuff up.) Apparently the local cops enjoy O’Malley’s as well. During my last visit, I saw a pair polishing off a few hefty plates of corned beef and cabbage before jumping back in their cruiser.

A buddy of mine summed up O’Malley’s perfectly: “This is the kind of place you wish you had across the street from your apartment.” And though I won’t be getting into any old-school, whiskey-soaked fistfights there anytime soon, I’m more than happy to pop back in now and again for a good pint.

Check it: Live Irish bands every night.
Hipster or hoosier: Neighborhood regulars, rugby hooligans, gritty blue-collar types.
Suds or ‘tinis: Frothy pints of the dark stuff with a whiskey chaser.
Where: O'Malley’s Irish Pub, 1900 Cherokee St., St. Louis, 314.762.9308
When: Mon. to Sat. – 10 a.m. to 1:30 a.m.

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