Review: Pagan Wine Bar in the Central West End
Stepping into Pagan Wine Bar feels like stumbling into a madcap house party where you have no business being. You weren’t invited. This isn’t your normal scene. People are openly staring as you hover by the door. But awkwardness vanishes quickly at this unconventionally fun hole-in-the-wall, which, though small, has a spot for everyone.
Much like its predecessor – an independent bookstore that peddled crime and adventure novels – the Pagan Wine Bar is a quirky, offbeat wild card that can feel like it’s operating on borrowed time. It’s well situated at the nexus of the Central West End drinking and dining scene, just off the intersection of Maryland and Euclid avenues. On a typical Friday night, there are only about a half dozen guests littering the bar, but no more than 30 bodies can probably fit in the place at one time. This is a cozy, word-of-mouth roost for every kind of person you can imagine: middle-aged winos, grad school nerds, yuppies, date-night couples and single people texting away or laughing with the bartender. You’d be just as comfortable wearing a tailored Armani suit as you would faded Wranglers and a T-shirt.
Despite the ominous-sounding name, the Pagan is entirely good-natured. The tight confines lend an authentic European feel. It’s easy to imagine lounging away an entire evening sipping martinis on one of the deep leather couches, and the intimate seating provides great conversation spots. Blue lights illuminate the otherwise dark space that’s dominated by a wood bar. The walls are bedecked with white deer skulls, French cocktail prints and movie posters. Sinister knick-knacks and a few Egyptian cats perch around the bar. The light fixtures could have easily been ripped out of Count Dracula’s castle. On a table beside the booze sits a well cared for old turntable that looks to get some use, but on my visit the speakers blared techno-chant-type tunes, which, after a few rounds of drinks, were actually pretty soothing.
The Euro vibe bleeds heavily into the drink menu, a crinkled printout of wines, cocktails and a nominal list of bottled beers in a funky font. The best of the classic cocktails was the Vesper, a smooth-sipping mix of gin, Lillet Blanc, bitters and a lemon twist for a zesty kick. Another winner was the 1738 Lavender Sidecar, a sweeter and more colorful drink that merged fresh lemon juice, Cointreau, Remy Martin 1738 cognac and heavy dose of rich lavender syrup. If these were the best, the worst was the Pagan Martini, a sad and frothy watered-down waste of good vodka. The wine list was more up my alley. It’s obvious that owner Ed King – who is also is the barkeep, host, DJ, bouncer and badass master of ceremonies – is partial to red wines over white. Three-quarters of the dozen or so wines offered are big bold reds like the Ben Marcos Velle Du Uco Malbec, an Argentinian red that slammed into me like a fruity freight train.
There are better cocktails in town, but there are precious few bars this fun. This is King’s joint. The intimate and informal atmosphere is a testament to his love for the place and his passion for the neighborhood, its inhabitants and every thirsty itinerant who passes through. It feels like a rascally pop-up designed to amuse the owner and serve as clubhouse for his friends. In other words, you’re in for a hell of a good time.
Pagan Wine Bar
239 N. Euclid Ave., St. Louis, 314.677.7214
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