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.

The closing of Tangerine dealt a blow to the 36-year-old McMullin, who's still looking for a new job. (And, sentimentally, to Kim, who previously worked as a server at many of Brokaw's restaurants and as his bookkeeper for a number of years.) But a couple of Buds lift his spirits, and soon he's reminiscing about Tangerine's halcyon days.

"It was mad-busy those first three years," recalls McMullin, who's rockabilly from his greased-back hair down to his white-and-black wingtip shoes. "We'd do 400 people a night through that place. Blake bought a Porsche on layaway. He just brought cash in and said, 'I want that Porsche.' It was a Speedster. He'd just bring some cash in at the end of the week and thunk it down towards his car. It didn't take him that long to buy it. It was insane." (Brokaw says he sold the car a few years back. "I don't own anything except my dogs," he says.)

Emigrés from Boulder, Colorado, during Washington Avenue's pre-boom days of the mid-'90s, the McMullins paid $375 a month for their loft back in the day. In their time they worked at almost all of Brokaw's businesses. It started back in the days of Sanctuary (which subsequently changed its name to Velvet), when they ran with Brokaw's crowd.

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.

"I was already a bartender and Blake said he wanted to open a martini bar," Matt McMullin recalls. "I said I had a lot of fantastic recipes for different flavored martinis. We knew the martini-retro thing was going to break big. We pretty much brought the modern martini to St. Louis.

"Once Tangerine opened, it pretty much occupied our entire existence," he goes on. "There were hundred-hour weeks: Just have a beer as we were closing, go home, go to sleep, get up and do it again."

A similar buzz is in the air tonight at Anthony's. Brokaw, who created the menu along with head chef Vince Bommarito Jr., stays out of sight in the kitchen despite requests from his friends that he come out and talk. But his presence is here, in everything from a spinach-and-mushroom tamale appetizer to chocolate truffles served three flavors to a plate: peanut butter, raspberry and cayenne pepper. Godfather-esque, Tony's patriarch Vince Sr. makes the rounds. He compliments Brokaw's rapport with his son and indulges in a brief stroll down memory lane: "Blake worked for me for a long time, back before he started his restaurants. He understands what we're trying to do."

By the time Bommarito moves on, the Cardinals game has started at nearby Busch Stadium and Anthony's has nearly emptied.

"We made a classic business blunder," McMullin says, getting back to Tangerine's downfall. "What is Blake's biggest strength is also his biggest weakness -- that he loves to open businesses and he's fantastic about it. He can bring so many factors together so fast, it was really brilliant.

"Hungry Buddha was great, but it was probably a decision we shouldn't have made," McMullin continues. "It was a cannibalization of our own lunch customers at Tangerine. When we opened Lo as well, that drew more customers away from Tangerine. What we probably should have done in retrospect is funnel all that money back into Tangerine -- creating it again, expanding it, making it new. But there were a lot of factors that made that kind of tricky to do, and we made the classic business blunder of overexpansion, which was compounded by bad luck.

That bad luck, McMullin contends, came in the form of the tanking of Washington Avenue.

"It seemed to Blake and us at the time that the street would be able to support these multiple businesses. The expansion was to anticipate the street's explosion when all the [construction] work was done. We really expected the street to take off."

--anonymous graffiti,
Tangerine men's room

Paul "Pablo" Weiss's Kitchen K, which opened in August of last year, is currently being affected by stage two of the Washington Avenue renovation. Weiss says the St. Louis Development Corporation learned from its mistakes the first time around and is handling this stage of the project better. But he says stage one was a disaster.

"It was like the lunar surface: No traffic, nothing. It was a death knell to all the businesses, in that you couldn't get there by car," says Weiss.

"The fact that you couldn't get to the area just to eat killed Hungry Buddha," echoes Velvet and Rue 13 co-owner Scott Gilmartin.

Jennifer Tretter, who worked as Brokaw's bookkeeper, goes further.

"Basically, downtown is dead," Tretter argues. "I feel like they closed the street for a year and a half for nothing. Parking is a nightmare. Nobody's going out. It hurt everybody down there." Another factor: Until recently Washington Avenue's nightclubs were among the only local establishments of their kind that stayed open until 3 a.m. "Now with South Grand being open until 3 a.m. as well, along with U. City, there's just not enough people to go around," says Tretter.

She cites other ills, as well: The economy is bad. Downtown lofts are too expensive. And homelessness downtown is out of control. "Larry Rice's minions panhandling, 'Give me liquor, give me cigarettes,' every day," Tretter says, echoing a frequent Washington Avenue complaint. "I don't think I would want to live down there, personally. I don't know who they think is going to live down there. Fifty-year-old couples? The bars are the only reason to live down there."

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