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.

Or talk to his mother.

Growing up in Kirkwood with two younger brothers, Blake always wanted to be different. "Too smart by half. I could never win an argument with him," says Sandy Martin, who now lives in Alton, having divorced Brokaw's dad in the early 1980s. "He was always very creative. He was in a few plays, loved music. He had a really good singing voice."

He also loved food. "Blake would eat anything, and his brothers too. Because of my German heritage, there was a lot of fried foods, and mashed potatoes and gravy, vegetables, but also pastas from my Italian [heritage]. Blake hung around while everybody else cooked," Martin remembers.

As a kid Brokaw (pictured at about five years of age) was "too smart by half," says his mother.
As a kid Brokaw (pictured at about five years of age) was "too smart by half," says his mother.
"Blake had this concept of this club that wasn't going to make any money," says Shawn Collins, who managed Lo for most of its lifespan.
"Blake had this concept of this club that wasn't going to make any money," says Shawn Collins, who managed Lo for most of its lifespan.

Brokaw attended Kirkwood High for two years, then transferred to the Central Visual and Performing Arts High School in the city. His mom recalls him in a production of Damn Yankees! at the latter, in which he sang "You've Gotta Have Heart." Brokaw credits the school with fueling his interest in the bohemian/hipster crowd he went on to associate with.

For college, he put in brief stints at Meramec and at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, then moved to San Francisco to attend and eventually graduate from, in 1990, the California Culinary Academy.

"I was living the whole 'beat' thing, the whole lifestyle," says Brokaw. "That entailed drinking a lot and doing lots of other things and living in a tiny residency hotel in North Beach."

In 1991 he came back to St. Louis.

"San Francisco was one big temptation. It was hard to live there," he says. "I could have never done what I've done here there. Can't afford the land, it's so trendy. I'd rather be a little fish in a little pond than a little fish in a big huge ocean."

After stints as a chef at a few local restaurants, he signed on as head line cook at the storied downtown institution that is Tony's. He stayed for a year and a half before jumping to Harry's on Market for an eight-month stint. He opened his first restaurant, a lunch-only venture at Sixth and Pine streets called Traffic, in 1995. Financial backing for that first foray was supplied by his father's girlfriend.

Post-Dispatch food writer Joe Pollack lauded Traffic's food, and other aspects of the restaurant as well. "The writer of the menu copy [Brokaw] is a person of great imagination -- the bill of fare involves Big Food (plate lunches), Little Food (appetizers), Wet Food (soup and chili), Green Food (salads), Noodle Food, Food on Bread and Sweet Food (rather self-explanatory). It's a wide-ranging selection, with lots of ethnic touches, too."

Nonetheless, it closed after about a year and a half.

"You just can't make it on lunches in this town," Brokaw explains. "Same as Hungry Buddha's demise. You have to go to dinner."

Next came ACME Java and Eats, located on Washington Avenue at the site now occupied by Studio Café. "I opened it pretty much on credit cards," says Brokaw. It died after only seven months.

Tangerine, which Brokaw says he opened on a loan of $35,000 from his mother, was next. Lauded with numerous Riverfront Times and awards for best vegetarian restaurant and best martini, it was also featured on a Food Network segment called The Best of Meatless Eats in 2002.

Deep Deep Cool, also on Washington Avenue, was perhaps the most ambitious of Brokaw's ventures.

"We had the Loser's Lounge up front -- you could get 40s of Colt 45. In the second room was live jazz. Up on the mezzanine was the Poodle Bar, with pictures of poodles and poodle figurines everywhere. That was a Champagne bar, and on the third floor was a pool hall and jukebox.

"Too big of a club. The market wasn't right," Brokaw sums up.

Like all of his explanations for his businesses' failures -- and, come to think of it, nearly all of his explanations for anything -- it's a short assessment. But there was more going on in Brokaw's life in the Deep Deep Cool era, which lasted roughly a year between 1998 and 1999. He was morbidly obese, tipping the scales at 325 pounds. (He'd been a vegetarian for eight years before culinary school, but, he says, "I would still maintain a high weight level because I would eat tons of cheese and sour cream.")

In 1998 he underwent bariatric surgery for weight loss. He has since gained back some of the pounds he shed with the surgery; at just over five-foot-seven, Brokaw weighs in at about 220.

"I've never really dieted at all," he says. "I just pretty much eat whatever I want to eat. That's why after the bariatric surgery I still gained weight." (Brokaw says that although he used to cook frequently when he lived with his girlfriend, he now mostly eats out at Pho Grand and the King & I.)

Food isn't the only thing he has overindulged in. Stints in rehab have taken Brokaw out of St. Louis three times during the past four years. The first was for a month in 2000 and came shortly after Lo opened. Another monthlong stay in 2003 was followed by two weeks in March of this year. Brokaw won't get specific and will say only that he was in drug-and-alcohol rehabilitation at a center in Missouri, somewhere outside St. Louis.

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