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.

"Blake is not afraid: He's not afraid of losing his money. He's not afraid of any idea. He's not afraid of failing. He could come up with a menu that serves endangered species. You never know what he might come up with," Collins says. "Me and him were partners at the Hungry Buddha. Originally, when Tangerine was at the height of its vegetarian phase, he wanted to open a hamburger place next door that was just called 'Moo' and only served hamburgers."

In fact, Collins says, Brokaw had too many ideas.

"Once he comes up with an idea, you have to slow him down. We had all the places open, and we're kind of struggling, doing construction, and he comes up with an idea and is kind of moving forward. And you have to be like, 'No, we're not doing anything else.'"

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.

Collins, who now attends culinary school in New York and co-owns a house-music label called Muzique Boutique, knows as much about Brokaw's business ventures as anyone. But when it comes to the question of what Brokaw is trying to accomplish with them, he's at a total loss.

"If anybody knew that, I think he wouldn't be in the situation he's in, personally. He wouldn't be a mess. I don't think he really knows what he wants. I think that Blake is one of those tortured souls who are always trying to move on to something new, trying to get something that doesn't necessarily exist. I think a lot of creative people are kind of like that."

Fellow visionary Bob Cassilly, co-founder of the City Museum, thinks Brokaw simply gets bored easily.

"He's a highly creative guy. But after he opens it up, it's tedium. One thing after another. I think he's just burned out. He's had restaurants that closed before and always come back again. You get up on the hill, and then roll back down. He likes to climb back up, I guess."

Others aren't so generous in their characterizations.

"I found him to be sexist and authoritarian," says 25-year-old Andy Jones, who worked at the Chocolate Bar last summer. "There were a lot of women that worked there. One time at a staff meeting he was going on about that the women were catty. Somebody had complained about an employee, and he basically blamed it on the fact that they were women."

"I have really no response to that," Brokaw says. "I probably said that. I don't think I'm sexist, at all. It's my job to be kind of authoritarian at times. I'm not an authoritarian most times, but when we're in a staff meeting an authoritarian presence has to be there."

A Lafayette Square chocolatier and café that sometimes featured DJs, the Chocolate Bar received a glowing review in the Post-Dispatch when it opened in January 2002, followed by a packed house. "We had to close [briefly] because we sold all of our inventory in the first day," recalls Brokaw. "When we started out, we used to bring in more than Tangerine on Friday and Saturday nights."

Restaurants go out of business all the time, of course, and ones that pay top dollar to import chocolate from Indonesia, New Guinea and Tanzania may have an especially difficult time. But in the Chocolate Bar's case, it doesn't seem to have been for a lack of demand.

"It was definitely packed during the weekends," says Jake Hafner, proprietor of the neighboring 33 Wine Shop & Tasting Bar. "I think sometimes consumers get odd impressions of how businesses are doing just because they're packed," Hafner adds. "There's nights here that I'm packed and I don't really make much money. There's other nights I'm not that packed and I make money."

The Chocolate Bar's abrupt closing left a bitter taste in the mouths of many who were involved. Brokaw confirms that as the end drew near, employees' paychecks began to bounce. Before officially shutting down, the Chocolate Bar was closed during business hours at least once because irate employees didn't show up. "It's kinda hard to pay people when we're closed a lot of the time because they don't feel like working," says Brokaw. "They had a group collective and decided that since they were going to lose their jobs anyway -- or so they thought -- they wouldn't work there anymore."

Brokaw also suspects a female employee stole from him but declines to elaborate. "The interest waned," he concludes, sounding a familiar note. "I thought I'd get a lot of residential business, but nobody leaves their houses. They live in these million-dollar houses but they never leave. We tried doing lunch, breakfast, but the residents just don't come out."

Brokaw recently returned to square one, signing on with Anthony's, sibling to renowned Tony's. Until recently the swanky wine bar offered only drinks and a scaled-down food selection. But on this night a new menu makes its debut.

And Matt McMullin -- for eight years the man responsible for Tangerine's day-to-day operations -- has come to see what his former boss has come up with in his newest culinary reincarnation. "I'm probably not going to eat," he tells his wife, Kim, as they join the opening-night pre-ballgame crowd. "I really want the steak tartare, but that sounds like a bad idea on a touchy stomach. I've been so stressed out lately with everything going on that it's been really hard to eat."

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