By Lindsay Toler
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Lytle's sister-in-law Carliss and her lifelong best friend Sylvia Thompson avail themselves of the buffet: ribs and corn on the cob grilled in the husk. The two women are St. Louisans now, but at one time they both lived in Bowling Green, Kentucky.
"Thirty years ago we'd abandon our families on the weekend and come up here to see Red Bone," says Thompson. She sips from a glass of moscato garnished with two maraschino cherries. ("I like it sweet," she says.) "That man is so nice. He used to let us two crazy women drive his car. And he loved his car! Back then he had a red Fleetwood Cadillac. He'd see us coming and just reach for his keys. He'd hand them over to Carliss and say, 'Don't get in an accident, and bring it back.' We'd be so scared of messing that beautiful car up, we'd park it way far away from any other vehicles so it wouldn't get scratched. We'd always bring it back — just maybe not in the time frame he expected."
"I've got a little story about that," says Lytle. This time the question is how Warren turned into Red Bone.
"When I was born, I came out red. I was this little red baby — really red. So I grew up being called Red: 'Hey, Red!'
"Red Bone came later, when I was about twenty. I had gone down to Carbondale, Illinois, to work on a construction job and would go back to St. Louis on the weekends, where about four of us was living in a house together. So we all ate in the same kitchen and everything.
"While I was out of town on that job, my mama sent a ham to the house, from Arkansas. I came back up from Carbondale on the weekend, and they had eaten all my ham. There wasn't nothing in the box but a bone. Nothing but a bone. All the meat was gone. They ate all that meat up, there wasn't even a scrap of it left. I didn't get one bite. So I was walking down the hallway in the house and one of the guys called out, 'Red Bone!' Because there wasn't nothing but a bone in the box.
Red Bone started when my mama sent me that ham from Arkansas. It stuck. I let it stay just exactly as it was. I thought it was fantastic."
The $6 Beer
Freeman Bosley Sr., the 80 year-old firecracker of an alderman who has been overseeing the Third Ward for nearly as long as Red Bone has been running the Den, says, "I haven't touched a drop of alcohol since 1955, so I don't spend a lot of time in taverns, but we have had some neighborhood meetings in Red Bones Den. Red Bone has been a solid character in this community for a long time now. I helped him tap into some city money to rehab his back patio with that old wrought-iron fence and such."
Man-about-town Steven Fitzpatrick Smith, who owns the Royale Food & Spirits, one of the south side's most popular pubs, has frequented Lytle's bar since he was in his late twenties. "Local taverns are a great way to see and feel what a neighborhood is really like," Smith says. "You can't get to know the north side just driving through it. I kept going back to Red Bones Den because there was always something interesting happening inside. I'd often see union guys, tradesmen and boxers at the bar. St. Louis icon Lee 'The Rose Man' Nixon hawked his wares there. It was a lively place, and diverse not just in terms of personalities, but also in terms of skin color. Even in that nearly all-black neighborhood, mine wasn't the only pale face in the crowd. As a special bonus, the Bonettes, Red Bone's cocktail waitresses, were some good-looking and wild women. That dance pole definitely spiced the place up.
"I consider R.B. a friend now, but he does like to make people squirm," Smith goes on. "For instance, he calls his farm over in Illinois 'Porch Monkey Headquarters.' If he sensed that politically incorrect name made you uncomfortable, he wouldn't rest till you repeated it out loud."
Fellow tavern keeper James Gurin, of Marsha's Limited Bar and Grill four blocks east of the Den, says he and Red Bone have been friends for most of the 32 years Gurin's bar has been open. "We always go to each other's parties," Gurin says. "He and Diane both eat at our place; sometimes they come to the Sunday soul-food buffet, but R.B.'s favorite thing on the menu is probably the honey-glazed chicken wings. You'd think we'd be rivals, but we've always been supportive of each other. I'm not planning on getting a Chill Chamber and charging $6 for a beer anytime soon, though — our old-school iceboxes are working just fine."
Red Bone takes pride in those $6 beers.
"We only started charging $6 a beer three years ago. I wish I could have charged that much all along!" he says. "I didn't know it was so sweet — the Chill Chamber, it holds 30 cases, and the beer doesn't freeze because of the aluminum bottle, even though it's set at 21 degrees. The chill and the sixteen-ounce size, that's what let me get away with charging $6 for a beer," he says, looking at the wide, glass-fronted super-cooler whose stock took a serious hit at the big bash. Post-party all that's left are two cases of Bud Light Lime and a bottle of Jägermeister.