A Guide to St. Louis' Best Cocktail Bars

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A cocktail at Retreat Gastropub. - PHOTO BY MONICA MILEUR
PHOTO BY MONICA MILEUR
A cocktail at Retreat Gastropub.

The Cool Kids

Who says great cocktails need to be surrounded by formal fuss? These laidback spots pair terrific drinks with low-key, approachable settings

Retreat Gastropub

Every detail at Retreat Gastropub (6 North Sarah Street, 314-261-4497) is thought out. From the reclaimed wood bar-back to the lanterns hanging overhead, the place has a carefully curated (and self-described) modern rustic feel. But before you roll your eyes, have a drink. All that thought and attention produces some delicious cocktails that hold their own against the offerings on Retreat's celebrated food menu. Underappreciated classics, such as a refreshing gimlet, play nicely with a lineup of cheeky inventions. Try a mezcal-fueled "Oaxaca Flocka Flame" or a "Fort Collins" with our assurances that while the names are jokes, the drinks are serious. Thank twenty-something beverage director Tim Wiggins for that — or maybe thank owner Travis Howard, the former general manager of Baileys' Range, who had the good sense to lure the up-and-coming barman away from another Dave Bailey restaurant, Small Batch, when he opened Retreat in 2015. Wiggins and his bar staff are unfailingly friendly and attentive. Follow their suggestions for a house-made shrub, served with Champagne or in a cocktail. (Pineapple sage is the most popular.) Sit inside at locally sourced wood tables or out on the sun porch ... or just grab a seat at the bar and enjoy watching professionals at work.

Layla

Here's a news flash for anyone who's only been to Layla (4317 Manchester Avenue, 314-553-9252) for a bite with the kids or for a quick burger: The Grove's chillest hangout is also a surprisingly sophisticated cocktail bar. Layla offers great shawarma, burgers, milkshakes and top-notch cocktails — like the "Oaxaca Texas Ranger," which combines mezcal with serrano syrup, Stiegl Radler and fresh lime and grapefruit. Or try the "Mathattan," a twist on the classic drink involving golden falernum and orange bitters. The brilliant Tony Saputo is no longer behind the bar at Layla, but his presence is still felt in these smart, highly quaffable drinks.

Eclipse

Galactic overlord of the Loop Joe Edwards opened Eclipse (6177 Delmar Boulevard, 314-726-2222) on the east side of his Delmar Boulevard galaxy in 2009, wasting no time stamping the building with his signature retro-kitsch style. Housed within and atop the Moonrise Hotel, the bar/restaurant features a clean modern look, NASA memorabilia and a whole lot of toy rocketships as a crucial part of its décor. And of course, let's not forget about that rooftop bar, with its giant moon — the largest man-made moon in the world, in fact — looming overhead. If that's not enough to put your head in the clouds, perhaps take a crack at the establishment's cocktail selection, which features more than 25 drinks, including the excellent "Moon Shot," made with Maker's Mark, blackberry liqueur, lavender, lemon, falernum and Angostura bitters. Or perhaps you like to get to the point with your drinking — don't worry, Eclipse has you covered, with more than 60 varieties of whiskey, more than enough to have you seeing stars.

Behind those old-timey refrigerator doors are at Juniper are some new ingredients, including those in this cocktail, "I Don't Want No Shrubs." - PHOTO BY MABEL SUEN
PHOTO BY MABEL SUEN
Behind those old-timey refrigerator doors are at Juniper are some new ingredients, including those in this cocktail, "I Don't Want No Shrubs."

Juniper

John Perkins' Central West End restaurant is one of the best spots in the city to get a taste of St. Louis' Southern roots. But the reasons to visit Juniper (360 North Boyle Avenue, 314-329-7696) are not limited to the food; this is also a great place to drink up the flavors of the South. For example, the "Georgia Julep," which incorporates mint and peach sweet tea simple syrup in addition to Old Grandad. Not everything here is quite so on the nose — the cocktail list has a great variety of drinks that tilt to the sophisticated more than the thematic — but everything pairs well with the terrific food and the stylish, brick-walled space. We're especially fond of "Hell Hath No Fury," a mix of mezcal, watermelon shrub, lime and agave, topped with Hellfire bitters.

Tiny Bar

It may sound like a reality show in which contestants battle to open the smallest drinking establishment ever, but Tiny Bar (1008 Locust Street, 314-800-7218) is instead just as its name promises. Nestled snugly downtown near the Bridge Tap House, the bar boasts a whopping 250 square feet of space, with only ten seats — expect standing room only if you arrive at peak hours. While some may scoff at the gimmick, this is a legitimate spot with a killer drink list, developed by Ted Charack of Planter's House fame. A host of knowledgeable bartenders mix drinks that pack a wallop as they make use of the limited space by rubbing elbows (literally) with regulars, serving some seriously addictive concoctions. For summer, try the "Yellow Brick Road" — a take on the classic margarita made with Espolon tequila, Cointreau and jalapeño-infused honey. Keep in mind: tiny operating hours are Wednesday through Saturday from 5 to 10 p.m. That's not enough time for an all-night bender, but just right for an after-work nightcap. Like the bar itself, it's a reminder that we could all do a lot more with far less.

Crafted

It's a familiar song and dance: Bar Rescue visits bar. Bar Rescue cleans up the kitchen, fires a few drama queens and pronounces bar saved. Bar goes back to its same old ways. But Crafted (3200 Shenandoah Avenue, 314-865-3345) has been the exception to the cliche: Not only did Bar Rescue come up with a great rebrand for the Tower Grove East neighborhood spot previously known as Van Goghz, but owner Dani Davis has continued to innovate even after Jon Taffer and Co. flew on to the next bar in crisis. Taffer's innovation for Crafted was a series of pressed cocktails: Bartenders combine ingredients into a device similar to a French press, which allows the ingredients to steep before the customer pushes and pours. It's a fun, easy way to mix things up, and to Davis' credit, the ingredients she's pressing are much more sophisticated than you might imagine. Take the "Pressed-4-Thyme": vodka, lemon juice, a house-made lemon-thyme simple syrup, fresh thyme and hibiscus flowers. Or the "Pineapple Express," which combines house-made pineapple-cilantro simple syrup, fresh pineapple juice, cilantro and chipotle pepper flakes with lime juice and rum. Not interested in pressing your cocktails? There's a full roster of traditional styles as well, and they're just as sophisticated. Forget the stench of reality TV: This place is a legit cocktail bar hidden inside a great neighborhood bar — the very best of both worlds.

Behind the bar at Scarlett's: a lot of wine, and the makings of a really great cocktail program, too. - PHOTO BY MABEL SUEN
PHOTO BY MABEL SUEN
Behind the bar at Scarlett's: a lot of wine, and the makings of a really great cocktail program, too.

Scarlett's Wine Bar

Scarlett's Wine Bar (4253 Laclede Avenue, 314-797-8223) may not be the first place you think of when it comes to cocktails. After all, the stylish spinoff is a member of the Sasha's family, a concept that's so wine-centric it's encoded in its DNA. It's not that Scarlett's strays from that formula (you can certainly still enjoy adult grape juice at the Central West End spot), but its growing cocktail program makes it much more than just a wine bar. Over the past few months, Scarlett's has distinguished itself from the Sasha's fold with a beverage list that can hold its own against the town's better-known craft cocktail bars. Much credit goes to bartender Naomi Roquet, who honed her bar skills at the Libertine and has brought her passion for concocting creative and whimsical libations with her to Scarlett's. You may go in wanting a brunello, but Scarlett's drink list will still give you pause — or at least convince you to have cocktail hour first.

Katie's Pizza and Pasta

Appropriately enough, Katie's Pizza & Pasta Osteria (9568 Manchester Road, Rock Hill; 314-942-6555) is known for its handmade pasta dishes and its wood-fired pizzas, but don't be mistaken: The cocktails at this seemingly always-busy eatery also bring much to the table. Frequently featuring fruit, but not in an overwhelming, cloying way, these drinks are sometimes elaborate, often exciting and always worthy of having another — or taking advantage of the pitcher option. If a dirty martini is your thing, the Italian version here does not disappoint: The Kalamata juice and prosciutto-wrapped olives could help persuade even martini purists over to the dirty side.

More Than Margaritas

These spots offer Latin-American cuisine and some delicious cocktails that go way beyond tequila and sour mix

The bar at Nixta, an impossibly cool space that becomes hot late at night. - PHOTO BY MABEL SUEN
PHOTO BY MABEL SUEN
The bar at Nixta, an impossibly cool space that becomes hot late at night.

Nixta

If the gentle pulse of Latin music, the sultry vibe and the exotic flavors on offer at Nixta (1621 Tower Grove Avenue, 314-899-9000) don't get your heart pounding, then the bar program will certainly do the trick. Like the food that comes out of the kitchen at this fashionable Botanical Heights spot, the drinks are Latin-inflected and daringly modern. Here, there is something for every palate — smoky mezcal-based libations that tingle the tongue with ghost pepper spice; fruity, yet balanced, pineapple and rum concoctions; and a top-notch tequila selection that can be crafted to fit your mood by the professional bartenders or simply sipped neat. Once the clock strikes 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday nights, the restaurant is transformed into Bar Limon, with tables pushed aside to create a dance floor for salsa. It's a fun touch that gives the neighborhood a vibrant nighttime entertainment destination, though most of the time people are too busy gazing into their dates' eyes — or drinking their fine cocktails — to pay that much attention to the dance floor.

Público

Público (6679 Delmar Boulevard, University City; 314-833-5780) may be a fine-dining restaurant, but the first thing that'll catch your attention upon entering is its striking wrap-around bar, which features an intricate back-lit pattern. The second thing you'll notice will surely be the incredible cocktail menu being served from it. With a nod to traditional Mexican and South American cuisine, tequila, mezcal and rum take center stage in bar manager Nick Digiovanni's cocktail list, combined with powerhouse flavors such as Creole shrub, bright citrus, smoked salts, chile, ginger, honey and crème de cassis. Even banana makes an appearance. The drink menu is rounded out with a carefully curated selection of Spanish and Argentinian wines, craft beers and good Mexican imports. Everything pairs perfectly with the wood-fired, spit-roasted meats, vegetables and seafood.

click to enlarge Mission Taco Joint. - PHOTO BY KELLY GLUECK
PHOTO BY KELLY GLUECK
Mission Taco Joint.

Mission Taco Joint

A good margarita is very nearly as important as the food on offer at any decent taco shack, and luckily Mission Taco Joint (multiple locations including (6235 Delmar Boulevard, 314-932-5430) excels at both. Brothers and co-founders Adam and Jason Tilford opened the first iteration of the eatery in the Delmar Loop in 2013 to great fanfare, and the restaurant's popularity among critics and customers alike has propelled it to additional locations in the Central West End, Soulard and St. Charles, with a fifth heading west to Kansas City. It's easy to see why the West Coast-style hotspot has done so well — those tacos, though — but let's be sure to show the margs some love, too. Mission Taco offers five varieties: Its signature style features tequila, fresh-squeezed lime juice, agave nectar, dry orange Curaçao and a salted rim. It is a standout of the form. Opt for the mezcal version if you prefer your agave in a variety other than blue; order the "Maestro" for a churched-up variety featuring top-shelf liquor. A frozen option sees the signature version served up slushie-style, and you can even customize your drink with jalapeños or aguas frescas. Pro tip: Nighttime dining at Mission Taco can come with a long wait for a table, especially at the restaurant's Loop location. Beat that wait by walking up to the carry-out window to order your food, then step into the Mission Bodega — a smaller, attached bar to the right of the main entrance that usually opens around 6 p.m. — for your margarita fix. We won't judge you if you end up hastily eating your tacos on the sidewalk so you can get back to the bar.

Drinks at Cantina Laredo go far beyond margaritas. - PHOTO BY MABEL SUEN
PHOTO BY MABEL SUEN
Drinks at Cantina Laredo go far beyond margaritas.

Cantina Laredo

You could walk to Cantina Laredo (7710 Forsyth Boulevard, Clayton; 314-725-2447), order a salt-rimmed margarita, sink into a stylish barstool and leave a satisfied customer. You could even change it up a bit and get one infused with strawberry and mint or pineapple or watermelon. When it comes to the unofficial Mexican restaurant standby, they've got you covered and then some. However, the drink program at this stylish Clayton bar goes well beyond the expected, extending into fruit-forward fun that still packs a punch. Cantina Laredo offers an extensive selection of Latin-inspired libations that seem expressly designed to make you feel like you're on vacation south of the border — that lovely covered outdoor patio doesn't hurt either. From an impressive sangria to ginger palomas, Cantina Laredo appeals to drinkers who like their cocktails to be a fiesta, albeit a thoughtful and balanced one. Add a top-notch tequila selection, and you've got a restaurant and lounge that are not to be missed.

Chava's in Soulard

At one point, in a fit of hubris, we taste-tested margaritas at no less than a dozen hotspots all over both city and county. Our verdict can't totally be trusted, seeing as we were left reeling by all the tequila we'd downed, but it still bears noting: Chava's Mexican Restaurant (925 Geyer Avenue, 314-241-5503), we decided, was serving the area's very best margaritas. This cozy brick-walled Tex-Mex joint in the heart of Soulard has it all going on: friendly service, good food and, yes, pitchers of terrific margaritas. It's the rare place that offers flavored margaritas (strawberry, mango, raspberry and even pineapple among them) but truly doesn't suck. Made with fresh-made juice instead of the crappy mixes you might be used to, they're ridiculously potent and marvelously tasty. And at $24 for a 60-ounce pitcher, they're a bargain compared to the carefully layered $10 cocktails you're used to purchasing. We'll drink to that.

Turn the page for our favorite bars outside the central city — terrific options closer to home for county readers

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