Where Everybody Knows Your Name
The neighborhood bar. Some think there should be a pool table present; others, a jukebox in the corner, maybe karaoke or trivia nights on the regular. But these are merely amenities. The key to a neighborhood bar is the neighborhood engendered and cultivated inside four unique walls. It’s where patrons can sing along to the music or dance by themselves like no one’s watching, where they’re not judged for tipping back one too many or cheering too vociferously (or lamenting too loudly) for their favorite team. The neighborhood bar is personal.
I’ve read various articles recently that sound the death knell for the neighborhood bar, each bemoaning that times are hard, margins are thin, and competition for customers and their dollars is stiff. All true. It’s hard to say goodbye when beloved institutions languish, but don’t count out these watering holes just yet. There are many St. Louis spots that still engender a sense of community and provide a much-needed respite from the day-to-day grind. This isn’t an elegy – it’s an invitation. Pull up a stool and join the family.
During the day at Harlem Tap Room, on a quiet stretch of Dr. Martin Luther King Drive in North City, the liquor still flows generously from the selection of handles on the back bar. But the crowd is sparse, and the pace is decidedly laid-back compared to the p.m. hours, when things can get a bit … animated, especially as the electronic darts games start to heat up. When the sun is out, people tend to pop in, sit a spell, have a nip, make some small talk with the bartender, then move along. While I sip on my bourbon, a couple of guys in workman’s coveralls eat takeout at the bar from Brother’s Diner around the corner, and a young woman in impossibly tight pants sways slowly to the classic soul dripping from the speakers, waiting her turn for the ladies’ room. It’s dark and cool inside, and I very much want to skip out of my afternoon commitments, have another round, and just let the day get away from me. Productivity be damned!
Doc Haus is located in an old South City bungalow, and if it weren’t for the large Budweiser sign looming over the front yard, it’d be virtually indistinguishable from its neighbors. This place is from another time: Cigarette smoke wafts from the patio, there are framed newspapers in the men’s room celebrating the Rams’ 1999 Super Bowl victory, and cash is the only recognized form of payment. The first time I hit up Doc Haus, it was a raucous Saturday night with folks three deep at the bar. Later, I stop in for a midday nip. The front windows are open and a warm breeze wafts through, making it feel like an urban beach shack. The only folks there besides me are a pair of jorts-clad duffers at the end of the bar talking golf swings, and the bartender, who has a mirror set up on one of the tables and is touching up her makeup. Just another day on the south side…
I drop by The Hive in Creve Coeur on a Sunday afternoon. Surrounded by offices and strip malls, all deserted on a Sunday of course, I wonder if the place is even open. But inside, the bar is packed tight. The beefy guy on the stool beside me adjusts his camo-patterned baseball cap and orders a shot of tequila. Based on the conversation I overhear, it’s an effort to keep the dog that bit him the night before at bay – it’s almost 2 p.m., so that dog must’ve bit hard. The mood is convivial, and oddly domestic, a little bit like a tipsy PTA meeting. TVs abound, and there are a few fans watching basketball, but it’s more about the interaction here than the game. The topics of the various conversations range from the upcoming Billy Joel concert (“Tickets are how much?”) to the ungodly times kids soccer games start on weekend mornings. I order a Wild Turkey, and the bartender feels comfortable enough to let one of the regulars crack the seal on the new bottle for her while she runs a pizza and a grilled cheese to the other side of the bar, an act of trust you’re not likely to see at the average corporate joint.
A longtime fixture on Arsenal Street, The Hideaway is known for hosting live piano music (a definite must-see) and karaoke, as well as offering some of the cheapest beer around, especially during Cards games. On my most recent Saturday afternoon visit though, the only music happening is courtesy of the jukebox, which is cranking out the soundtrack of my adolescence from REO Speedwagon to Foreigner and beyond. I’m minding my own business, sipping one of the aforementioned cheap brews, when I overhear one of my all-time favorite bar stories: A kid in a snap-back STL cap is telling a burly, bearded guy in a Blues jersey about a friend living in Pakistan who trips by smoking scorpion venom. Apparently said friend discovered a way to dry the substance out into powdered form. How he milks the scorpion isn’t revealed or, oddly, even speculated upon. The Hideaway changed owners a year or so ago, and a lot of diehards were concerned the place would change as well. No worries, though. The soul of the space, like the orange shag carpeting that adorns the front of the bar, remains intact.
What with the name of the bar, the games playing on the TVs and the amount of sports memorabilia scattered throughout, you’d think Ladue’s Sportsman’s Park is a sports bar. I mean, the tabletops are in the shapes of baseballs and footballs, for crying out loud. But Sportsman’s Park transcends that worn-out moniker. The Cardinals are playing as I nurse my drink, but no one is glued to the game. Instead, an older gent at the end of the bar is helping the bartender cut out coupons from the weekend Post-Dispatch, and a couple of middle-aged matrons next to me gab about their neighbors over glasses of white wine spritzers, with nary a mention of the score. Ladue is often pigeonholed as a swank destination – a bit highfalutin’, if you will – but the vibe at Sportsman’s Park is more backyard barbecue than garden party. Drop in and sit a while.
Back in my youth, The Village Bar in Des Peres was my go-to for cold pitchers of Bud and some of the best cheeseburgers and hand-cut onion rings around. It’s changed a bit over the years – the bar recently expanded into the former wig shop next door, so there’s a lot more seating – but the well-worn shuffleboard table remains, the globe light sporting Budweiser Clydesdales pulling a beer wagon continues to hang above the bar, and the food is still pretty solid. While a few solo drinkers dot the bar each time I go back, the rest of the room is filled with a broad cross section of the local citizenry: a group of kids and coaches celebrating their soccer game, couples getting out of the house for some beers and waffle fries, bros high-fiving and cheering on whatever teams are playing on TV. A village, indeed.
Editor’s note According to its Facebook page, Harlem Tap Room was closed for renovations at press time.
6 Neighborhood Bars We Love
6217 Morgan Ford Road, St. Louis, 314.352.4465
Harlem Tap Room
4161 Dr. Martin Luther King Dr., St. Louis
5900 Arsenal St., St. Louis, 314.645.8822
609 N. New Ballas Road, Creve Coeur, 314.569.1769
9901 Clayton Road, Ladue, 314.991.3381
The Village Bar
12247 Manchester Road, Des Peres, 314.821.4532
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