There was a time when every working class neighborhood in St. Louis had a corner bar or tavern. Some of them were family affairs where everyone in the area knew the owners and you could take the kids. Sometimes they could play the pinball or Sluggo baseball machine for free. You could get Busch beer on tap in a cold frosty mug, but no premium brands like Budweiser or Michelob. Foreign beer? Unheard of. The sign that hung outside the door or was sometimes lit up in neon on the window advertised brands of beer like Falstaff, Old Style, Stag, or Pabst Blue Ribbon.
Sometimes, depending on the neighborhood, the joints took on a more sinister tone at night, especially on the weekends. Of course the weekends meant Friday and Saturday night because it was against the law to be open on Sunday. It wasn’t uncommon for two or three fights to break out in the bar on those nights, with pool sticks and shuffleboard pucks being used as weapons.
Now most of the corner bars in the city have long since been shuttered. They have gone the way of the corner confectionery, replaced by the chain places that also offer food, like Ruby Tuesday’s and Applebee’s. But, if you look hard enough and ask the right questions of the right people, you can still find a few of the old juke joints scattered about, even if they have cleaned up their reputations a little. Here is the top 3:
CBGB at 3163 South Grand serves some of the cheapest and coldest beer in town. They are one of the few places where you can still get Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer. They are not regularly scheduled, but once in awhile you can even catch a live band performing there. On Wednesday night, IF the bartender feels like it, they might have a trivia night. He throws out 20 questions about sports, movies, or sports (pretty much sports) and the patron who answers the most questions correctly wins 6 beers. The music is eclectic and varied ( anything from Sun Ra and Coltrane to David Bowie to the Freestyle Fellowship) provided by the CD player behind the bar. This is also one of the best places in town to play a game of pinball. It was voted so by the RFT newspaper several years in a row. They only have one machine, but it still costs a quarter and you can watch everything from the grossest amateur to the most seasoned machine shaker play. Watch out for Matt the bartender, most of the record high scores on the machine belong to him.
The Black Thorn Pub and Pizza sits on the corner of Wyoming and Spring Avenues on the city’s south side. From the outside the place almost looks like a converted railroad station. No beer signs here, just a simple sign above the door that reads Black Thorn Pub. A string of Christmas Tree lights encircle the outside of the 2 square windows in the front. The Black Thorn is your typical down to Earth, everybody knows your name working class bar. It has all of the usual amenities like shuffleboard, air hockey, foosball and of course the jukebox. But the thing that makes this little place stand out more than anything else is the bar food, especially the pizza. This stuff is like a Frisbee that has floated down from heaven. Secret recipe cheese stuffed crust, spicy deep red tomato sauce, and toppings that are limited to pepperoni, bacon, sausage, mushroom, onion, black olives and green peppers. Don’t you dare ask for pineapple or anchovies.
And, on Monday nights the pizza is free. Dare you ask for anything more?
The Way Out Club sits on the corner of Gravois and Jefferson Streets on the near South Side. Not really a juke joint, it is much larger than the other two, but it started out as a little dive a few blocks over on Cherokee Street. There it wasn’t much bigger than your living room, and furnished almost the same, that is if you’re into garage sale furniture. At the time the patrons were, well, a little freaky. It was the local watering hole for a lot of the city’s alternative culture like the Goths and the Pagans.
Now the place has blossomed into one of the premier venues in the city to catch a variety of bands including punk, garage rock, rockabilly, ska, and even surf. The Way Out Club is owned by local DJ Sherrie Danger and her husband Bob. The bar is consistently rated as the best rock and roll bar in the city by the RFT newspaper. The Way Out Club’s high ceilings, cool green neon glow, and old-fashioned wooden booths make this a comfortable and mellow place to hang out and listen to some of the best local music around. Their motto is “At the Way Out you’re never a stranger. “
Tip: On their website, Bob gives some advice on parking when you come down to the club. “You can park at the Fuelman filling station across the street, but not underneath the canopy, after all they are open 24 hours.” Beware of parking around the corner on Sidney or Victor Streets, that area really isn’t safe. I guess some things never change.