Party Down

Tangerine. Lo. The Chocolate Bar. All of them brought to you by the genius of Blake Brokaw. All of them dead. The king of St. Louis nightlife reveals his dark side.

ST. LOUIS IS A FUCKING JOKE
--graffiti anonymously chalked on the
men's-room wall at Tangerine on closing night

Erin kneels down and bawls. A minute ago the Tangerine go-go dancer was perched above the drunk, dreary crowd in her skimpy outfit and knee-high white boots, her long blond tresses shimmying to the sweet soul sounds of Ray Charles. Now her tip jar overfloweth and so do her tear ducts. Saturday night is dead, and so is the restaurant and club that for eight years was as cutting edge as St. Louis could muster.

"First Sex and the City, then Friends, now Tangerine," a middle-aged gentleman had lamented earlier at the bar, as he plotted a course through the establishment's extensive martini menu.

Jennifer Silverberg
Blake Brokaw living the "rock star lifestyle" on Washington Avenue in 1998.
Jennifer Silverberg
Blake Brokaw living the "rock star lifestyle" on Washington Avenue in 1998.

While he was at it, the bent-on-a-bender gent might as well have bemoaned the demise nine days earlier of nearby nightclub Lo, and that of Lafayette Square's Chocolate Bar, which was taken off life-support the day before that. And, for that matter, the Hungry Buddha, a build-your-own-stir-fry-bar that passed away a year ago. And the nightclub Deep Deep Cool, which died in 1999. Even, possibly, ACME Java and Eats, and Traffic too, the both of them long gone but not forgotten on the downtown scene. A litany of the coolest St. Louis hangouts of the past decade, all of them founded by one man, Blake Brokaw. And all dead. If St. Louis suffered from a dearth of hip before Tangerine slammed its door for the last time in the wee hours of June 13, now it's a wasteland.

At dinnertime a few days previous, Brokaw had ambled into a nearly vacant Tangerine clad in his signature black skullcap set off by a small silver hoop earring in each ear. After consuming a kamikaze and a Camel Wide Light at the bar, he ordered a Corona and trudged outside to a table, where he took a seat and explained his tattoos, which include chili peppers, geckos, a thickly inked Marc Chagall design and, on his neck, a beet. As in the vegetable.

"I'm just a chef and I like food. I especially like beets," he said in the near-whisper he habitually employs even when telling a joke.

"I guess that makes me a beatnik."

The Tuesday-night foot traffic on Washington Avenue's recently widened sidewalks was minimal. Everyone who passed seemed to know the 38-year-old Brokaw personally. Which makes sense. He lived in a loft above Tangerine until late last year, when he moved out of downtown to Forest Park Southeast with his girlfriend, an aspiring model nearly two decades his junior. Then she left him.

But at the moment Brokaw had other troubles on his mind. He wasn't sure whether Tangerine would even make it to Saturday's eighth-anniversary bash/wake, when drinks would roll back to their original 1996 prices.

"It'll close when the state decides to do it. They're getting us on some back-taxes issues," he said. "When [Washington Avenue] closed down -- a year or so ago -- it kind of screwed everything up and we had to start juggling a lot of stuff. One of those things was our tax situation. There was no money coming in. We had a backhoe and three tons of gravel in front of my store."

But with the reputations of Brokaw's businesses Tangerine, Lo and the Chocolate Bar solidly intact, surely someone's interested in buying him out?

"Lots of people are interested in doing a lot of things, but coming across some cash..." Brokaw broke off briefly, then continued. "People say a lot of things. Most of the time I see people when they're drunk, so it's like: 'I want to buy your bar, I want to buy your bar,' and I give them my phone number and I never get a call."

To hear Brokaw tell it, his places close simply because interest falls off. At Tangerine and Lo, he says, the process was sped up by intrusive street repairs.

"Wash. Ave. has been just flattened by this street-renewal thing," he asserts, speaking of the initial stage of the boulevard's ongoing multimillion-dollar renovation. As further evidence of the impact, he cites the recent passing of Washington Avenue nightclub Deep Six, as well as the move by Velvet, another nightclub on the avenue, to allow in less-profitable eighteen- to twenty-year-olds on Fridays.

"The city said, 'Thanks for showing us an area that we should make happen, but now that it's happened, get out of here,'" affirms Scott Gilmartin, co-owner of Velvet and Rue 13. "'We don't want your nightclubs.'"


St. Louis has so much potential. It's not a very competitive market for what I do. You do something a little outside of the average and all of a sudden you're totally unique. It's almost impossible to fail here. You just have to have a good idea and be willing to work at it. There's a captive audience here. It's not like the rent is killing you. It's an easy place to live....I'm going to be here eight years from now.
--Blake Brokaw in a 2001 interview on www.thecommonspace.org

To see J.D. Salinger in his element, you'd have to fly to New Hampshire, pay off a guy at a gas station for directions to his house and then watch through a pair of binoculars as the reclusive author played chess with his dogs (or whatever it is he does). Up until a few weeks ago, to observe Blake Brokaw all you had to do was show up at Tangerine after he'd had a few.

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