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Like any large municipality, St. Louis has been beset by every good, bad and indifferent trend in the bar and nightlife industry. As if in waves, trends wash inward from the coasts. Maybe they take a bit of extra time to get here, but eventually we’re subject to most styles of fun, ridiculous and debauched gimmicks from everywhere else. Tiki bars, we’ve had 'em. Smart bars, those we knew, sure. Ultra-lounges with VIP drink service and valet parking, yup, too many to count. In fact, those tend to multiply, a blot on our fair city’s landscape.
Luckily, this town’s also wide and weird enough to have bars scattered all over the region, each with the character and individuality to call them truly unique. And when the decor, the jukebox and the bartender’s haircut all meet-and-mingle in a bygone age, then you’re talking about a bar not only worth noting, but one worth celebrating. Today, we send up the flag for five places that have to be experienced to be believed. Just remember that not one of them will offer half-price sushi or appletinis for happy hour.
Tim’s Chrome Bar
4736 Gravois, 314-353-8138
Stuck in: 1979
The guidebooks don’t say this, but should: if you’re in your 20s or 30s and you want to find the perfect first date location, Tim’s Chrome Bar almost stands alone. This isn’t to suggest that the patrons of the place should be treated like zoo animals, to be gawked at as specimens of some bygone age. That said, people-watching is exactly the reason why Tim’s makes the date go by quicker and with more fun: you’re going to talk. That might come after a 50-something customer, armed with a bit of game, shanghais your date on their way to the bar for a quick turn on the dance floor. That can and will happen. At Tim’s, you’re there to dance at least once a night. It’s the custom, the way of the place and even though we suggest it as a place of awesome conversations, you’re best served by at least once shake-shake-shaking your booty.
Onstage, rock’n’roll trios play the hits of yesteryear (think: a mix of “The Cheater” and “The Joker”) and no matter your age, you’ll have heard these songs before. Buoyed by gin and tonics and bottled Buds (served with a glass), the patrons of Tim’s sit fanned out on the edge of the dance floor, where you can really watch the action, or along the spacious, miles-long bar itself. At that bar, you can ponder the decor, a neat mix of styles from the subtle, late ‘70s, with the room almost unsullied by following decades. At some point, a movie crew’s going to need a venue in St. Louis for a remake of Thunderbolt and Lightfoot. They’ll come here, they’ll remove a few signs and roll film. If there’s an assumption that some of the places on our list are painfully trapped in a different age, that ain’t so here: this place is totally comfortable, just as is.
The Queen of Hearts
731 Larkin Williams, 314-326-9108
Stuck in: 1986
True story: a couple weeks back, the Queen of Hearts was nearby, and a longstanding curiosity about the place had to be satisfied. Rolling up to what’s a slightly-quirky-strangely-anonymous building along the Meramec riverbanks, the only outward sign of weirdness came via the poorly stenciled playing cards on the side of the building. That should’ve been a tip to the interior decor, a mix of black cement, dappled by glitter, alongside sheet metal. Oddly, the back bar’s a nice one, no doubt imported years ago. But even it’s covered in T-shirts and other bric-a-brac. With two pool tables and a stage, though, it’s obvious that the twin attractions of this place are billiards and... the dancers. Yes, the dancers.
While the East Side’s known for this type of bar, Fenton’s got its own, more modestly dressed version. Here, entertainers get down to lingerie and quit, at least based on our single visit. They perform to songs like the almost-obligatory “Dr. Feelgood,” but also to “Total Eclipse of the Heart” and “Knights in White Satin,” which is a bit jarring, but no more jarring that the $4 macho mugs, or the simple fact that you’re in Fenton while enjoying said oversized novelty beer. With, of course, dancers onstage, who rotate up, amiably ask for a tip from the 50-somethings at the bar, then sit and continue their conversations with regulars. The caveat here is that if you go once, you know that something different, and truly odd, would and will happen the next time through. You’ve been warned.
Ardie & Tiny’s
100 Joe, 618-345-4933
Stuck in: 1988
Really, this is a bar that could be put in any decade. We’ll split the difference and say it’s a venue caught in the late ‘80s, only because they do have a jukebox, karaoke and a huge banks of televisions showing closed-circuit horseraces from the around the country. It's a track bar, located just off Fairmount Park's expansive parking lot, so there’s not a lot of other new stuff in this joint. It’s old school, and serves a very distinct type of customer: rail birds. (And those who cater to them by working at Fairmount.)
If you’re not interested in horseracing, you’ll find yourself a bit left out here. If you don’t already know the battle-tested staff, ditto. In fact, you’re best served only attending this place after a meet, especially on Horse Hooky Tuesdays during the spring and summer, when there’s actually a feeling of gemutlichkeit in the air. That’s kind of a rarity here, based on more than one visit. If you’re traveling solo, pack a suduko book, or fiddle with your phone, as your own head will be your only company. But do look around and daydream about watching a few Burt Reynolds movies on Netflix, just for kicks.
5 Ronnie’s Plaza, 314-842-2550
Stuck in: 1990
When Nirvana’s classic sophomore album Nevermind turned 21 earlier this year, the resulting press coverage came with a couple different storylines, though all pointed to Generation X’s realization that the music of its youth had gone and done growed up. But the House of Rock, in the spiritual heart of South County known as Ronnie’s Plaza, bears witness to an American age of rock’n’roll before Nevermind. The House of Rock stands testament to the time just before punk broke, when Nirvana’s debut, Bleach, was only a hit on college radio and the band toured the Pacific Northwest in broken-down vans. We had our own local rock culture to coalesce around, ringlead by KSHE-95. Back then, true Midwestern rockers were partying down at Granny’s Rocker, Stages, and Pop’s, with groups like Nickels, Baywolfe and Broken Toyz.
If you remember those venues, or those bands, there’s a reasonable chance that you’ve found your way to the House of Rock, where cover bands rule the stage nightly, forcing the clock back a few decades with every set. Hipsters need to stay home, because at the House, you’re gonna get rocked by rock, not the current, watered-down variety, but the real, robust stuff, in the form of covers. Our recommendation is to try Thursday nights, when Superjam busts out the KSHE Klassics, and pretty 40-year-olds saunter onto the dance floor with their awkwardly dancing dates. The band has to work a little to approximate its look (save for guitarist Eric Lysaght, a badass in any era), but the bar doesn’t change for the times, at all. The cocktail servers, the odd paintings of female nudes, the killer sound system. House of Rock’s a time capsule wrapped up inside a Mehlville High letter jacket. And you gotta dig that it way.
3131 S. Grand, 314-664-2020
Stuck in: 2001
Some of you won’t be able to wrap your young, beautiful heads around this, but there was a time when many of us didn’t have access to round-the-clock computing. I know, I know. Bear with me. During this primordial era, many of us gathered at public spaces featuring computers, where, for the price of a few dollars each hour, you could putz around the web, send email, maybe engage in some alt.dot.chat.room fun. On the corner of Hartford and South Grand, Soho Coffeehouse and the Jade Room both offered customers a chance to unwind (at the Jade, with alcohol) or wind up (at Soho, with caffeine). Simpler people we were then, and we thankful to have the opportunity for off-hour use of computer machines.
There are still a couple of Apples on the tables of Barbarella, the former Jade Room. The ground floor cousin to the popular DJs-and-dance floor room The Upstairs, Barbarella serves a few roles on the South Grand strip. A late-night food option, for one. A spill room, for when The Upstairs gets a bit rank with the smell of 100 dancers in a room built for half that. And as a sort of oddball’s assemblage venue. That’s not to say that every person through the door of Barbarella’s a character, but they are drawn there, it seems, moths to a brightly colored flame. The room’s decor has changed little over the years, and the attitude’s largely remained the same. Here, things go bump in the night after 1:30 a.m., when nearby clubs empty, South Grand’s the destination and anyplace you can rest your weary bones is an oasis. This one just happens to remind you of one from a decade ago, found in the exact same space.