Lost Downtown

An insider's guide to downtown St. Louis

There's nothing wrong with spending your days down by the river (i.e., the Arch) and Union Station and getting your postgame thirsty on in Laclede's Landing, really. But if you're the type who loathes tourist traps, malls and cookie-cutter megabars packed with sweaty suburban transplant crowds, there are a handful of diversions within walking distance of the EJ Dome that offer a more, shall we say, authentic St. Louis experience.

Can't nobody hustle up a festive weekend without the proper velour tracksuit, which is why Gus's Fashions & Shoes (1201 Washington Avenue; 314-621-6456) is as good a place as any to start. Here a four-foot-eleven salesclerk named Jimmy Barton will offer you insane discounts on everything from team-specific jerseys and hats to Phat Farm merchandise. The staff will also spray-paint your store-bought sneakers for a small additional fee if you want to give them a streetwise touch. If you are Caucasian, be prepared for a bit of amplified heckling from owner Gus Torregrossa, who uses his microphone behind the register to rib customers (the vast majority of whom are African American) and announce impromptu sales on select gear.

Just north on Tucker is the Missouri Bar & Grill (701 North Tucker Boulevard; 314-231-2234), a no-frills, Mediterranean-tinged establishment that offers surprisingly sumptuous gyros and a formidable selection of ouzo. For fans of America's pastime, the MoBar's walls are a shrine to 1980s Cardinals baseball, with Ozzie Smith and Willie McGee proving particularly photogenic. The television set tends toward sports, they've got a Golden Tee machine, and the jukebox is serviceable. Formerly a regular haunt for Post-Dispatch reporters -- back when daily newspapermen had the decency to drink during the week -- this is the sort of place you can take over with a sizable group of friends.

Ditto Dapper Dan's (410 North Tucker Boulevard; 314-421-3955), a workaday watering hole whose illuminated black-and-white sign promises cocktails and food, seven days a week. In, say, Chicago, a bar like Dapper Dan's would be teeming with youngsters attracted by the shopworn authenticity of it all (the place was granted Missouri's first post-Prohibition liquor license), not to mention the cheap Miller High Life drafts and sirloin burgers. But hipsters who venture to this corner of Lost Downtown are far more likely headed next door, to the Creepy Crawl (412 North Tucker Boulevard; 314-851-0919), a mainstay of the local hard-rock scene -- but decidedly not of the Lost world.

Besides you and your posse, the folks who regularly occupy barstools at these joints probably hail from the infamous Mark Twain Hotel (205 North Ninth Street; 421-2980). The single-room-occupancy Twain gets an unfair rep as being an ersatz halfway house for addicts and sexual deviants, but most of its occupants are hand-to-mouth, salt-of-the-earth folks who will provide you with a better tour of the city than even the most savvy visitors' bureau.

Twenty steps beneath the base of the Twain is a mysterious establishment called Chod's Bar (205 North Ninth Street; 314-621-8445), its presence heralded by a single sidewalk sign pimping the subterranean eatery's chili (spelled "chille"). With its abbreviated, hard-to-pin-down hours, Chod's is solely owned and operated by Candy Brooks, an orange-haired pepper pot of Korean and Majorcan descent who has lived and worked downtown since 1976. Prone to closing up shop unannounced for twenty minutes at a time, Brooks says the best bet for scoring one of her $2.25 hamburgers, $2.75 bowls of chili or stiff well-liquor pours is to show up between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. But if we know our Candy, she'll stay open long past sundown if demand merits it.

Should you shart in your trousers after a robust meal of beef-based products and Busch at Chod's, Famous-Barr (601 Olive Street; 314-539-8600) -- downtown's last full-service department store -- ought to have a special running on cotton boxers and slacks. They always do.

One notable Mark Twain resident is James Mercer, who operates Downtown Shoeshine, which shares space with Marilyn Massey's Downtown Barber Shop (314-621-2233) on the ninth floor of the regal Chemical Building (721 Olive Street). At the base of this historic edifice is Dooley's Ltd. (308 North Eighth Street; 314-231-4200), a morbidly alluring burger-and-bourbon emporium whose oak interior resembles a British pirate ship that's about to sink.

Situated on the north side of Olive between Tenth and Eleventh streets, Bussone's (1011 Olive Street; 314-241-1083) leads a double life as a package liquor store and a restaurant and bar dubbed La Coney Island. Owner Jim Bussone, now age 75, took over the business from his uncle in 1957 and in 1986 oversaw its move west from its original location at Eighth and Pine to make way for the SBC office tower. Bussone'll tell you that during lunch hour in the old days he used to put fifteen to twenty martini glasses out on the bar and premix a big pot of martini. There used to be a dozen liquor stores downtown. Now he's the only one. Gone too is the three-martini lunch order. In its place, a handful of noon-hour patrons wield plastic silverware on split-frank chili dogs served atop Styrofoam plates, with the occasional pint of Guinness or snort of Jack-on-the-rocks. The jukebox is all Karen Carpenter, all the time. Behind the bar, a robotic pair of Kris Kringle dolls gyrates nonstop near the ancient manual cash register. A small TV set above the till is normally tuned to CNN; except during Arch Madness, when CBS -- and hoops -- rule the day.

Mike Seely is a Riverfront Times staff writer. For an unabridged tour of "Lost Downtown," click here.

 
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