Night Hawks

Two South Grand joints get 3 a.m. liquor licenses, changing the face of after-hours partying in St. Louis

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As last call is bellowed on a recent winter night at Mangia Italiano on South Grand Boulevard, Derek Simmons sits at the restaurant's bar and imagines the luxury of an extra hour-and-a-half of drinking time.

"A bigger bill, from $40 in a night to maybe $60," he says. "I live right down the street, so it'll be easy. My girlfriend will be pissed at me more often. [I'll be] late for work, maybe. But I'll be able to fall asleep faster. Oh, and maybe more 4 a.m. tennis in Tower Grove Park."

Next weekend, Simmons won't have to use his imagination. On Thursday, January 30, two of South Grand's strip of four bars -- Mangia and the Upstairs Lounge -- new liquor licenses in hand, will be able to stay open until 3 a.m., altering the face of after-hours drinking in St. Louis. Partying patterns will shift. Sleep will be lost. Carless South Grand insomniacs will be able to continue carousing in their own neighborhood, no longer forced to bike it or bum rides to far-away bars that already have 3 a.m. licenses.

Before, when South Grand revelers who frequented CBGB, Mangia Italiano, the Upstairs Lounge and, to a lesser extent, Absoluti Goosed weren't ready for bed at 1:30 a.m., they'd have to make a decision come last call: the Rocket Bar in Midtown, Lo downtown or the Delmar Restaurant & Lounge in the Loop, the three most popular late-night spots for South Grandians. The rockers raced to the Rocket. The jazzed-up funksters headed to the Delmar. The house and techno freaks occupying the Upstairs made a beeline for Lo. Others, of course, went elsewhere, but these three grabbed much of the neighborhood's business.

That's because the prospect of Southies drinking late in their own neighborhood was unfathomable a few years ago. The neighborhood "wasn't ready," says Susan K. Anderson, executive director of the South Grand Community Improvement District. Plus, says the Upstairs' Tu Tran, no one bothered to try for 3 a.m. licenses because former 15th Ward Alderwoman Marge Vining, now retired and living in Florida, was adamantly opposed to the idea.

But in the past five years, South Grand has evolved into one of the hippest and most diverse neighborhoods in the city. In addition to spending a lot of their money locally, the neighborhood's newer residents have more tolerance for the noise of late-night activity. They like to walk places; they're a livelier crowd. And the unspoken truth of the new drinking policy is that more conservative neighbors and business owners in the area have either moved out or are acknowledging that things have changed, giving way to the late-nighters and the business owners who cater to them.

Still, it came as a shock when the resistance to 3 a.m. extensions dissipated so quickly. It helped that Alderwoman Jennifer Florida, who now holds Vining's position, was in favor of granting the extended liquor licenses. Tran, of the Upstairs Lounge -- which sits above the restaurant he and his family own, the Mekong -- has always harbored a desire for a 3 a.m. extension, but it never seemed like an option.

Then the scene shifted, and the opposition vanished.

"It was like a changing of the seasons," Tran says. "I never would have imagined -- I'm thrilled that they're giving us a chance."

Tran's license hearing at City Hall was shockingly smooth. Although the 3 a.m. license has been available to city watering holes for thirteen years, there's never been one on South Grand, so one might expect a little tension, a voice in opposition, at this hearing, especially because the Trans, despite their business' longevity in the neighborhood, have had their share of tangles with the powers that be in their eleven years of operation. They installed windows that weren't acceptable to the neighborhood code, drawing the ire of the city. And for a while they operated the Upstairs through a legal loophole, working it as a "banquet room" for the Mekong rather than filing the necessary paperwork to operate as a club.

But all of that is in the past.

"It's a regular love-fest in here," Florida says as the hearing winds down.

For a business to be eligible for a 3 a.m. liquor-license extension, two criteria must be met: The operation must gross at least $150,000 annually, and its management must petition and receive the consent of a majority of the neighborhood -- a combination of building owners, registered voters and business owners who live or operate within 500 feet of the building in question. Opposition, though, can easily stymie the process. A handful of neighborhood residents, with a couple of across-the-fence conversations, can easily defeat a run at the license. But by the time Tran hit City Hall, a precedent had already been set: The week before, Mangia Italiano had received the green light for a 3 a.m. license.

The love-fest on South Grand was preceded by a fair amount of sweat, says Anderson of the SGCID, who met with residents and bar owners from Washington Avenue, Soulard and the Delmar Loop to discuss the problems of 3 a.m. clubs. From these conversations, the SGCID -- an organization funded by South Grand business owners that is responsible for maintaining and improving the area -- authored guidelines for the neighborhood's late-night spots.

"With that policy," says Anderson, "anyone who comes in and says they want a 3 a.m. [license], I can pull out this document and say, 'This is what works for us. You meet these qualifications, and we'll support you.' It's as simple as that."

The stipulations are basic, although one's a tad confusing: Live performances and recorded amplified music (i.e., the records and CDs that DJs spin) are allowed until 2 a.m. Between that hour and 3 a.m., only "background music" at an acceptable decibel level is allowed. But if people aren't dancing to the DJ's music -- merely lounging and talking -- is what he or she is playing considered "background music?" Or does this stipulation merely prohibit a human being from picking records and allow a 100 CD-changer to do the selecting?

The other rules cause no confusion: Owners must pick up litter nightly along their blocks and in their alleyways; off-duty St. Louis police officers must be hired to patrol the area.

Excise commissioner Bob Kraiberg, who's seen his share of liquor disputes, says that the cooperation on South Grand is unique. Most 3 a.m. licenses are held by hotels and areas with few residents -- neither Soulard nor the Central West End has a 3 a.m. bar.

"The fact that the business community, the South Grand neighborhood association, the alderman and the other groups came together to say, 'Hey, this may be beneficial to businesses, but it needs to be controlled,' is a big step forward," he says.

Even though South Grand's change is only on paper -- the bars aren't open late yet -- the reverberations of the new 3 a.m. licenses will be felt throughout the city. "I see a lot of the people going downtown," says David Burmeister, co-owner of Mangia Italiano, when asked where his clientele winds up after he closes. "Some people who drive as far as the Delmar [Restaurant & Lounge] are residents of South City. There are 15,000 people that live just in our backyard, and a lot of those people want to drink at 1:30, and [they're] driving, getting in the car and going downtown and such."

Anyone with a notion to keep drinking after any of the 700-odd bars in the city that close at 1:30 a.m. can find booze. Commissioner Kraiberg estimates that 50 establishments have 3 a.m. licenses. But until now, the South Grand neighborhood has been an island of early closing. When that changes, South Grand night life will also change.

"It'll mean fewer DUIs," says one official, who declined to be named.

"More ibuprofen," adds Mangia customer Jason Hutto, drinking his noontime cup of coffee at the restaurant.

Most people say that the Rocket Bar will be the hardest hit by the new late-night clubs, but owner Pablo Weiss isn't worried. He says his main feeder clubs are the Way Out Club, the Hi-Pointe and Frederick's Music Lounge.

"I think the market's big enough for everyone," he says. "We're more of a rock & roll crowd, and the Upstairs Lounge is more of a DJ-oriented club. Mangia's more of a restaurant, has more of a bar scene. We're rock & roll, pool table, drinking."

Matt Wagner, manager of CBGB, says the change will help the entire area. "A lot of the customer base for me is local, and now they don't have to have a bunch of idiots back in their cars," he says. "A lot of my friends live on the street, so they can walk. I can get people out of my place easier, and I can go and get a drink when I'm done here, if I want."

The obvious question for Wagner is whether CBGB will follow suit.

"Oh, hell no," he says.

When it's 1:45, you've tied one on and your consciousness is delicate but you want to keep going, does it really matter where you end up?

"More than ever!" says Brett Underwood -- writer, Tap Room bartender, host of KDHX-FM's No Show and frequent occupier of one of Mangia's stools. "I'm pickier when I just want one or two more than I am when I am starting out. I'm not going out to 'pick up' -- well, hardly ever. It's like that final frame or two at the bowling alley or that last six months of life: You want to end it in an impressive manner."

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