When planning a day trip to Alton, Illinois, you can opt for one of two itineraries.
Plan 1 (The Traditional)
Take a right turn off the Clark Bridge and head for Fast Eddie's Bon Air (1530 East Fourth Street; 618-462-5532 or www .fasteddiesbonair.com). Try to find a place to park. Grab the last remaining table. You'll be inside this crowded, legendary roadhouse of cold beer and cheap tasty eats until the sunlight is but a dim memory, and your designated driver has fallen asleep.
Plan 2 (Mix It Up!)
There really is more to do in Alton than party at Fast Eddie's, so instead of taking your usual right off the bridge, be adventurous and turn left.
Duke Bakery, in the heart of the Middletown Historic District (819 Henry Street; 618-462-2922 or www.dukebakeryinc.com), is now celebrating its 60th anniversary and should be your first stop. This local institution serves a proprietorial blend of good coffee and plenty of delicious pastries to go with it.
Gawk at the neighborhood's charming Victorians for a while, then head back downhill to the Melvin Price Locks and Dam and the National Great Rivers Museum (2 Lock and Dam Way; 618-462-6979 or www.mvs.usace .army.mil/rivers/museum.html). Observe as various vessels enter the lock chambers and then, inside the museum, learn the difference between hopper, deck and tank barges.
All that river air and newfound knowledge will put you in the mood for a shopping spree. Head back downtown and park somewhere near the intersection of George Street and Broadway. Start at Country Meadows Antiques (401 East Broadway; 618-465-1965 or www.countrymeadowsantiques.blogspot.com), then work your way through the nearby shops, which includes two RFT Best Of St. Louis award-winners: the Prairie Peddler (413 East Broadway; 618-465-6114 or www .theprairiepeddlerantiques.com) and George Street Antique Mall (108 George Street; 618-463-1693). You're sure to find incredible old treasures. Once those are stowed, check out the stoneware at Mississippi Mud Pottery (310 East Broadway; 618-462-7573 or www.mississippimudpottery.biz), and watch the Mud Team shaping even more pieces at its wheels.
Lunchtime! Head down Broadway to My Just Desserts (31 East Broadway; 618-462-5881 or www.myjustdesserts.org) for some wonderful soup, salads, sandwiches and homemade pie in a pleasant historical building. Afterward, stroll across the street to Second Reading Book Shop (16 East Broadway; 618-462-2830 or www.secondreadingbookshop.com) and talk to its owner, famous local author John J. Dunphy. He can tell you everything you want to know about the Riverbend region. Be sure to ask him about the Piasa Bird, whose autobiography he edited. That story will naturally make you want to see the bluff painting of this scary, scaly monster for yourself. Take a short drive up the River Road past the grain elevators for a look.
Is it time for a drink yet? If not, drive up State Street to the Christian Hill Historic District and check out some haunted houses. You did know Alton is one of the most haunted towns in America, didn't you? The Alton Visitor Center (200 Piasa Street; 618-465-6676 or www.visitalton.com) has maps galore, one of which gives directions to all the best-known area ghost hangouts.
Now it really is time for that drink! Bossanova (112 West Third Street; 618-462-1175 or www.altonbossa.com) is the place to go for this, with its secret agent-inspired martinis and large selection of beers. The atmosphere is glossy but relaxed, and there's an RFT award-winning painting of a naked lady behind the bar. If you're in the mood for casual dining, this can be your last stop. The salads are fresh and well-made, and the Ligurian pizzette — topped with shrimp, sun-dried tomatoes, walnuts, pesto and feta — is a fantastic customer favorite.
If you'd like to end the day with a fancier meal, head over to Gentelin's on Broadway (122 East Broadway; 618-465-6080 or www.gentelinsonbroadway.com). The view of the Clark Bridge is dramatic; the food, inventive and delectable; the service, attentive and friendly.
Finally! You can go to Fast Eddie's Bon Air for a nightcap now. Just be aware that a cab ride back to St. Louis can get pricey. Better hope your designated driver is still standing.
— Suzy Rust
The shops are a bit different today, but the old buildings still remain. Thanks to its rich history and picturesque scenery, Main Street is ideal for a day of shopping, dining and strolling down the brick streets or along the river. It's hard to go more than ten feet on Main Street without passing a unique novelty shop selling knickknacks, clothing, jewelry or snacks — and you've got ten whole blocks to explore.
So before you get started, you might want to start your day with some sustenance at the St. Charles Lions Club Farmers' Market on Riverside Drive. Open only on Saturdays until noon, the farmers' market is located just a few feet away from Frontier Park (500 South Riverside Drive), an ideal picnic spot right on the water's edge. Lunch is an easy endeavor with local produce, meats and baked goods straight from the market.
After you're sated, it's time to head up Main Street for some shopping. Laura's La Petite (709 South Main Street; 636-724-4207) houses handmade crafts with a quaint homey charm. Laura's bottom floor is packed with a clutter of crafts, including locally made jewelry, candles, pottery, picture frames and anything else that you'd find at the coolest of garage sales. Creaky wooden steps lead to the top floor, which features handmade quilts and pillows.
If you've had enough old-timey chintz, it's time to check out MOss (424 South Main Street; 636-410-0625 or www.nikmoss.com), one of several chic boutiques on Main Street. Run by Nicole Moss, an LA fashion designer originally from St. Charles, the store carries some designer lines, but also handmade Etsy-type bags, scarves, headbands and jewelry. Moss will customize almost anything you bring in; a worn-out pair of jeans can be patched up and bedazzled for around $30.
To satisfy your spiritual and mystical needs, you might want to pop into the Enchanted Attic (304 South Main Street; 636-949-9502). Just walking past the shop brings the strong but pleasant aroma of the incense and candles for sale inside. The Enchanted Attic also offers gemstones for channeling positive energy, as well as jewelry, wind chimes, crystals and a corner of metaphysical books.
By now you're probably due for a snack, which can only mean Grandma's Cookies (401 South Main Street; 636-947-0088). After 34 years in business, Grandma's Cookies closed in 1999 when "Grandma" retired. But in May 2010, her granddaughter reopened the business, using all Grandma's original recipes. With six varieties of cookies baked daily, Grandma's Cookies is best known for its classic chocolate chip. The cookies retain the shape of the ice-cream scoop they're measured in, resulting in crunchy outer edges and a moist orb of chocolatey dough in the center. There's also coconut, peanut butter, peanut butter and chocolate, snickerdoodle and oatmeal raisin cookies, retailing for just 60 cents each or $6 for a dozen. One trip to Grandma's Cookies will make you want to live by the motto of the staff: "A balanced diet is a cookie in each hand."
If your sweet tooth hasn't been done in by Grandma's Cookies, Riverside Sweets (416 South Main Street; 636-724-4131) has enough tasty confections to excite the inner child in anyone. A staple of Main Street for the past twelve years, the place is famous for its homemade fudge. Riverside Sweets also makes its own peanut brittle, candy apples and turtle corn, which is popcorn drizzled with caramel and chocolate. In addition to the homemade treats, Riverside Sweets also carries other ice cream and seasonal decorations.
There's no way you'll still be hungry after that, but if you somehow managed to save room, you've got a few great options for dinner. Of course everyone visiting Main Street wants to eat at Tony's, or Lewis and Clark's. But Braddens (515 South Main Street; 636-493-9303 or www.braddensrestaurant.com), though less hyped, is also good. A more casual restaurant, Braddens offers reasonably priced food ranging from nachos and wings to mussels and stuffed portabella mushrooms. Braddens also features an open outdoor patio — perfect for a nosh or, on a really hot day, one of Braddens' frozen cocktails.
And while Main Street certainly has no deficit of good bars, Old Millstream Inn (912 South Main Street; 636-946-3287 or www .millstreambar.com) is a great spot for a low-key after-dinner drink. Located on the south end of Main Street, away from the chaos of the northern end, Old Millstream has a huge selection of beers. With 115 varieties constantly in stock, and as many as 30 more added seasonally, you can have your cake and discover something new, too. In addition to the main bar, Old Millstream has another bar in the basement that opens at noon six days a week. The basement bar has an English pub feel, with low ceilings, dark wood paneling and stone walls. There's also a huge patio overlooking a small stream that empties into the river.
Unlike some of the rowdier Main Street bars, Old Millstream prides itself on a relaxed atmosphere. After a full day of shopping, eating and walking those darling brick-paved streets, we can't imagine anything more appealing.
— Julia Gabbert
Upon arrival, you'll want to start the day with a morning pick-me-up at the Corner Coffee House (100 North Florissant Road; 314-521-4600). On the corner of North Florissant and Darst roads, the spacious diner offers breakfast and lunch, self-serve soups of the day and the always-popular brew from local favorite Chauvin Coffee Company. This corner shop succeeds by catering to its regulars. The kids have their own corner to play in, and for adults, two computers are available for Internet use at a minimal charge. Take time to peruse the bulletin board, proudly displaying some of the city's history, as well as news clippings and photos showing off present-day progress.
On the Historic Ferguson website, www.historicferguson.com, you can find walking-tour guides free for the downloading. But it's hard to go wrong taking a walk down the tree-lined residential streets just east of Corner Coffee, soaking in the quaint charm of the older homes and well-landscaped yards. It's less than a mile from your java stop to the lovely century-old homes on Church Street, Clay Avenue and Elizabeth Avenue.
Or you can check out one of Ferguson's eleven parks. January-Wabash Memorial Park (501 North Florissant Road; 314-521-4661 or www.fergusoncity.com) houses the community aquatic complex, a 5.5-acre lake, horseshoe pits and, of course, a playground. It's just a short drive north of the coffee shop; if you want to stay on foot, try the much smaller Caboose Park (220 South Florissant Road; 314-521-4661 or www.fergusoncity.com), centrally located on South Florissant Road in the commercial district next door to the police station. Bring a picnic to eat under the covered patio and peek into the out-of-commission cabooses.
Saturday mornings bring bustle to the otherwise vacant Victorian Plaza, thanks to the weekly farmers' market (20 South Florissant Road; www.fergusonfarmersmarket.com), which enhances the square's lone gazebo with white tents, an array of colorful products and general joviality. The market is open May through October, every Saturday from 8 a.m. to noon.
But if you'd rather visit on a Friday, you can groove with live concerts at the newly constructed Plaza at 501 at 501 South Florissant Road. This 1.5-acre square was a custard shop before the city acquired it and redeveloped it into an entertainment venue. Concerts are typically the second and fourth Friday of the month, beginning at 7 p.m.; check www .fergusoncitywalk.com for more info.
After hearing some music, you may want to cool off with a drink at Ferguson Brewing Company (418 South Florissant Road; 314-521-2220 or hillbrewingco.com). They have Ray Hill's Classic American Pilsner, as well as a half-dozen brews of their own. The brewhouse's dark wood bar, brick walls and chalkboard menu provide the setting for standard pub fare and ten-plus beers on tap at all times. Try a golden blonde ale — perfect for a humid St. Louis summer day.
If beer doesn't wet your whistle, perhaps you'll want to try a sweet frozen treat. The appropriately named Whistle Stop Custard Shop (1 Carson Road; 314-521-1600 or www .whistlestopdepot.com), located in the old depot, is adjacent to an active freight line and doubles as an ice cream shop/lunch cafe and quasi-museum. Enjoy a sundae while learning about the train station's history.
Ferguson is not only touting its charm and new amenities, but also its accessibility for both pedestrians and bicyclists. In this post-railroad era, the sidewalks are clean and colorful bicycle-shaped bike racks line the streets. The Ted Jones Bike Trail runs through the city with several access points, connecting to the UMSL campus as well as the thirteen miles of additional trails in the North County Bikeway. Bring a bike or walking shoes and participate in the resurgence of St. Louis' neighbor to the north.
— Elizabeth Ortmann
Community hub Urban Eats (3301 Meramec Street; 314-558-7580 or www.urbaneatscafe.com) is a stylish coffeehouse and eatery smack in the middle of Meramec, Dutchtown's version of a main drag. The place is clean, bright and staffed by amiable baristas. Urban Eats recently doubled its square footage and expanded its offerings to include a full bar and juice bar in addition to coffee, local art and choose-your-own-adventure sandwiches and wraps. The space doubles as the Urban Arts Collective, which promotes local artists and offers them a chance to show their work at Urban Eats' free gallery.
Across the street is Winkelmann Sons Drug (3300 Meramec Street; 314-353-3300), a neighborhood pharmacy that's been in operation since 1913. It's one of the holdovers from the pre-Walgreens era, and remains independent to this day. There are also a couple of shopping options worth checking out on Meramec: the consignment store Refabulous (3314 Meramec Street; 314-353-1144) and Twice Blessed Resale Shop (3312 Meramec Street; 314-481-3332 or www.ourladysinn.org), a charitable venture run by the folks behind Our Lady's Inn, a shelter for homeless mothers. Their wares are cheap, and there's no such thing as buyer's remorse when your money is going to a worthy cause.
Dad's Cookie Company (3854 Louisiana Avenue; 314-772-3662 or www.dadscookies.com), one of America's first franchises, has operated in St. Louis since the late 1920s. The teensy Dutchtown shop looks virtually unchanged from that time, save for the credit-card swiper and the post-Flapper fashions worn by the sweet ladies behind the white marble counter. The ubiquitous scotch oatmeal cookies, housed in giant glass jars or weathered metal trash cans, are crisp and delicious.
You can't get more St. Louis than a Tedad's concrete — silky vanilla custard blended with the signature cookies from the mini Ted Drewes satellite (4224 South Grand Boulevard; 314-352-7376) in Dutchtown. Well, you could get more St. Louis, but that would involve eating a Mom's Special wrapped in an Imo's pizza with a toasted-ravioli garnish, and no one wants that. Avoid the post-Cardinal game lines at the Chippewa flagship — the South Grand spot is closer to the stadium anyway.
After dessert, there are two bars you must visit — Behrmann's Tavern (3155 Meramec Street; 314-353-9626) and The Original Crusoe's Restaurant (3152-54 Osceola Street; 314-351-0620 or www.dineocr.com). At Behrmann's, the barkeep will tell you that this is the second-longest-running bar in St. Louis still operating under its original name (Failoni's being the first). The walls are decorated with black-and-white photos showing the River City of old. Hit Behrmann's for a cheeseburger and an oral history lesson from the regulars inevitably bellied up to the bar. If you're lucky, they might show you how to use the 1950s bowling game. People swear by Crusoe's, and if you're feeling adventurous/suicidal, order the Big Ass Burger, 40 ounces of greasy heaven for $29.99.
— Diana Benanti
The air is bacon-scented in Crown Square, thanks to ever-teeming Crown Candy Kitchen (1401 Saint Louis Avenue; 314-621-9650 or www.crowncandykitchen.net), the 98-year-old landmark emporium. Lovers of candy, ice cream and damn fine sandwiches will be transported back to Crown Candy Kitchen's 1913 birth upon entering the door — if, that is, they make it through. Lines often stretch around the corner in the sweltering St. Louis summer, but that heart disease-inducing chocolate malt and mile-high BLT are totally worth the wait.
Gentrification often begins with coffeeshops first and art galleries second, and Crown Square has one of each. Do-good mudhouse Urban Studio Café closed its doors in early 2011 after a two-year run, but it wasn't long until a different set of owners reopened the joint as a new casa de caffeine called La Mancha Coffeehouse (2815 North 14th Street; 314-932-5581 or www.lamanchacoffeehouse.blogspot .com). Meanwhile, gallery-and-arts collective the Poor Souls Society (2701 North 14th Street; 347-927-6857 or www.poorsoulssociety.com) occupies one of the squeaky-clean storefronts in Crown Square. Walk one block east and you'll find the Old North Grocery Co-op (2718 North 13th Street; 314-260-9276 or www .oldnorthgrocery.com), housed in an old horseradish factory. It opened last summer, relieving the area of its former distinction as a food desert.
Be sure to say "hi" to the chickens pecking around next door at the 13th Street Community Garden, but don't expect them to greet you in return; these are aloof city chickens. In addition to community gardens, there are a few green spaces sprinkled throughout the neighborhood, such as the peaceful stretch on Blair and St. Louis avenues, or the Operation Brightside-adopted Wingmann Park on Wright, Dodier and Blair streets.
But the best parts of Old North aren't found on the pedestrian mall (yet!) or at the bottom of your Crown Candy malt — they're in the neighborhood's buildings. Structures date back to the late 1800s, and though some are beautifully restored, others are beautiful for their sunken roofs, graffiti-shot impassable doors and crumbling mossy brick. The astonishing ruins from the 2008 fire that claimed Fourth Baptist Church, located at 2901 North 13th Street, aren't far from sunny La Mancha, but the sight is a loaded testament to the area's tortured past. Relics dot the landscape, but progress is having its groundswell moment, and that's surely a sight to see.
— Diana Benanti
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