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As last call is bellowed on a recent winter night at Mangia Italiano on South Grand Boulevard, Derek Simmons sits at the restaurant's bar and imagines the luxury of an extra hour-and-a-half of drinking time.
"A bigger bill, from $40 in a night to maybe $60," he says. "I live right down the street, so it'll be easy. My girlfriend will be pissed at me more often. [I'll be] late for work, maybe. But I'll be able to fall asleep faster. Oh, and maybe more 4 a.m. tennis in Tower Grove Park."
Next weekend, Simmons won't have to use his imagination. On Thursday, January 30, two of South Grand's strip of four bars -- Mangia and the Upstairs Lounge -- new liquor licenses in hand, will be able to stay open until 3 a.m., altering the face of after-hours drinking in St. Louis. Partying patterns will shift. Sleep will be lost. Carless South Grand insomniacs will be able to continue carousing in their own neighborhood, no longer forced to bike it or bum rides to far-away bars that already have 3 a.m. licenses.
Before, when South Grand revelers who frequented CBGB, Mangia Italiano, the Upstairs Lounge and, to a lesser extent, Absoluti Goosed weren't ready for bed at 1:30 a.m., they'd have to make a decision come last call: the Rocket Bar in Midtown, Lo downtown or the Delmar Restaurant & Lounge in the Loop, the three most popular late-night spots for South Grandians. The rockers raced to the Rocket. The jazzed-up funksters headed to the Delmar. The house and techno freaks occupying the Upstairs made a beeline for Lo. Others, of course, went elsewhere, but these three grabbed much of the neighborhood's business.
That's because the prospect of Southies drinking late in their own neighborhood was unfathomable a few years ago. The neighborhood "wasn't ready," says Susan K. Anderson, executive director of the South Grand Community Improvement District. Plus, says the Upstairs' Tu Tran, no one bothered to try for 3 a.m. licenses because former 15th Ward Alderwoman Marge Vining, now retired and living in Florida, was adamantly opposed to the idea.
But in the past five years, South Grand has evolved into one of the hippest and most diverse neighborhoods in the city. In addition to spending a lot of their money locally, the neighborhood's newer residents have more tolerance for the noise of late-night activity. They like to walk places; they're a livelier crowd. And the unspoken truth of the new drinking policy is that more conservative neighbors and business owners in the area have either moved out or are acknowledging that things have changed, giving way to the late-nighters and the business owners who cater to them.
Still, it came as a shock when the resistance to 3 a.m. extensions dissipated so quickly. It helped that Alderwoman Jennifer Florida, who now holds Vining's position, was in favor of granting the extended liquor licenses. Tran, of the Upstairs Lounge -- which sits above the restaurant he and his family own, the Mekong -- has always harbored a desire for a 3 a.m. extension, but it never seemed like an option.
Then the scene shifted, and the opposition vanished.
"It was like a changing of the seasons," Tran says. "I never would have imagined -- I'm thrilled that they're giving us a chance."
Tran's license hearing at City Hall was shockingly smooth. Although the 3 a.m. license has been available to city watering holes for thirteen years, there's never been one on South Grand, so one might expect a little tension, a voice in opposition, at this hearing, especially because the Trans, despite their business' longevity in the neighborhood, have had their share of tangles with the powers that be in their eleven years of operation. They installed windows that weren't acceptable to the neighborhood code, drawing the ire of the city. And for a while they operated the Upstairs through a legal loophole, working it as a "banquet room" for the Mekong rather than filing the necessary paperwork to operate as a club.
But all of that is in the past.
"It's a regular love-fest in here," Florida says as the hearing winds down.
For a business to be eligible for a 3 a.m. liquor-license extension, two criteria must be met: The operation must gross at least $150,000 annually, and its management must petition and receive the consent of a majority of the neighborhood -- a combination of building owners, registered voters and business owners who live or operate within 500 feet of the building in question. Opposition, though, can easily stymie the process. A handful of neighborhood residents, with a couple of across-the-fence conversations, can easily defeat a run at the license. But by the time Tran hit City Hall, a precedent had already been set: The week before, Mangia Italiano had received the green light for a 3 a.m. license.
The love-fest on South Grand was preceded by a fair amount of sweat, says Anderson of the SGCID, who met with residents and bar owners from Washington Avenue, Soulard and the Delmar Loop to discuss the problems of 3 a.m. clubs. From these conversations, the SGCID -- an organization funded by South Grand business owners that is responsible for maintaining and improving the area -- authored guidelines for the neighborhood's late-night spots.
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