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Jan 22, 2018
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Black Thorn is a True Neighborhood Tavern
By Steven Fitzpatrick Smith
Posted On: 11/12/2000   

The Black Thorn is a true neighborhood tavern at the corner of Wyoming and Spring in the Tower Grove South neighborhood of the South Side. The bar is directly next to single family houses and a full block off popular South Grand. Saint Louis is known for neighborhood taverns that dot the city streets, but over the years few bars survived inside the residential neighborhoods. Often overly concerned neighbors don't see the benefits of a local pub, and only see the negative side effects, but bars have successfully coexisted with residential areas as long as this city has existed.

Black Thorn's owner David Alan Difani opened the pub in 1986. The space had continually been a bar since 1960, known as McDonnagh's Black Thorn and O'Toole's Black Thorn. The bar had been a family neighborhood tavern that served food ranging from chicken to a Saint Louis favorite: brains. The bar used to be a popular spot for card players before the age of the riverboat casino. During one of the previous ownerships, a bartender Uncle Lee, used to man the bar while also tending to a card game of gin in the upstairs apartment.

The name the Black Thorn comes from an the Irish wood that bears the fruit of the slo plum which is used in slo gin. The Black Thorn wood was usually used as a cane. The original owners of the bar wanted to name the bar after another Irish cane, the heavier shillelagh. The current owner Dave, has a black thorn displayed above the bar. According to Dave, "The black thorn was used by the Irishman who was out for his nightly constitutional, unless of course he was expecting trouble when he would bring his shillelagh. The shillelagh was much better to beat someone with."

The bar is nicer than most corner pubs. The bar itself has its own little roof complete with shingles. The wall that separates the game room from the main bar is made of brick with arched windows. The bricks are covered with graffiti from the chalk used to score dart games. The interior of the bar is riddled with an odd assortment of bar games such as pinball, Donkey Kong, shuffleboard, darts, foosball, air hockey and classic shuffflebowl. The jukebox has a fun mix of music ranging from Thin Lizzy to Johnny Cash. Early in the evening the bartenders will often play interesting, hip music if no one has pumped any money into the jukebox. There are several televisions within eyesight of everywhere in the bar, which is handy to keep an eye on the score. Several Wayne Saint Wayne art pieces decorate the bar. Wayne's trippy Saint Louis and pro 'rasslin inspired art is found in almost every South Side eatery and bar. There are a Busch signs and hanging lamps that taunt this southsider, for while the bar advertises Busch it cruelly is not served. The bar does carry inexpensive fancy beers in bottles and on draft ranging from Guiness and Schlafly to the college favorite Diet Bud.

Tacked onto the ceiling are a series of dollar bills. This is an unexplainable bar phenomenon. A person takes two quarters and puts a tack on the top and then wraps a dollar bill around it. Then the person throws it onto the ceiling where the dollar bill sticks. Back in '92, a wise bartender took four of Dave's dollars and threw them up onto the ceiling. Dave was upset that four of his dollars were now hanging from the ceiling instead of being in his pocket. Eventually the whole ceiling became covered with dollar bills. Dave is at a loss why people want to take their own money and put it on his ceiling, but he is not about to stop them.

The bartenders that Dave has hired are hip and young. The patrons range in age. The bar was a SLU grad school hangout when Dave first opened, but it has transformed into a more diverse crowd since about '95. The patrons now hail even more from the neighborhood and the neighborhood has transformed significantly in the past ten years. The area had been depressed in the late 80s with many businesses vacating South Grand and longtime residents began to leave this historic Victorian style neighborhood. Since this time, business life has been reinvigorate on Grand and there have been extensive residential rehabs in the area. The real estate prices have been rising faster in this neighborhood than anywhere else not only in the city, but the whole region.

For the most part Black Thorn's patrons are young, just as the neighborhood is becoming. The patrons are diverse -- both white collar and blue collar. Many neighborhood hipsters will stop in for a nip. It is just as likely to have a doctor throwing one back as it is to have a firefighter. It is a direct reflection of those in the neighborhood. The transformation of the neighborhood has been good for the bar, and the bar has been positive in the transformation of the neighborhood.

Unfortunately, there is a successful local developer that does not value the importance of the tavern in the neighborhood. This developer has made it very difficult for the bars to exist in the interior of Tower Grove South. The bar brings new people to the neighborhood that may not have otherwise visited. The bar also is a place for those that live on the surrounding blocks to come together at a common place within walking distance of their home. But some do not share this sentiment. There are many wards in the city that have prohibited any new taverns from opening up. There have always been nuisance problems at taverns since the French opened grog houses in this fur trading post over a hundred years ago. Unfortunately many have decided to try to eliminate the tavern, instead of dealing with the nuisance problems.

The Black Thorn is now popularly known for its pizza. A few years ago the bar opened a kitchen and is known citywide for its home made pizza. The sauce has a spicy kick to it and the home made crust is thick on the thin crust and even thicker on the thick. On Monday evenings the pizza is free starting at 8pm. The tradition began a little over a year ago as a promotion during Monday Night Football. It has been kept because large crowds came just for the pizza. It is an unreal scene. The bar fills up on Mondays with hungry young bachelors in anticipation of free pizza. The scene becomes more reminiscent of animals in the wild. The pack gets anxious as the feeding time approaches. The aroma of the pizza teases the hungry. When the pizza comes out of the oven, the stronger vultures in the crowd swoop toward the prize. A line forms and the fittest get the pizza, while the weak often are left waiting. It is pure Darwinism.

The Black Thorn is also known for Softball. A few years later he decided to form his own league in the nearby Tower Grove Park. Instead of the Black Thorn paying to sponsor teams in hope that they come back to the bar to drink, Dave organizes a league, makes the money off the fees, and now those teams need to pick up and drop off the equipment at the bar. It is just an added bonus that the teams will come to the bar and drink. Dave says, "The teams pay me to play in the league, and then they come in and pay for the drinks." Dave's ingenious yet simple idea has now spawned a league of 28 teams.

For the past few years, the Black Thorn has been rumored to be opening a basement bar that would have live entertainment. Dave has done extensive remodeling inside in the past several years, but the new room has yet to open. Dave is in no rush to open the new room. He now realizes there is much more to expanding than he had originally planned. Business is good and he is confident that the room will eventually open. But not soon.

The Black Thorn is welcome to anyone that wants to have a drink. The atmosphere is easy going with a strong neighborhood component. This is a must stop for anyone imbibing on the South Side.

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