40 Cheap Thrills That Keep Us Loving St. Louis For Less

The Chain of Rocks Bridge: Always a thrill.
The Chain of Rocks Bridge: Always a thrill. KELLY GLUECK

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John F. Kennedy Memorial Forest. - ELIZABETH SEMKO
ELIZABETH SEMKO
John F. Kennedy Memorial Forest.

Best Place to Get Away From It All

John F. Kennedy Memorial Forest

Forest Park, southwest corner, forestparkmap.org/kennedy-forest

We love our Forest Park standbys — landmark spots like the Muny and the Saint Louis Zoo are truly priceless (never mind their "free" price tag). But among your go-to destinations should be a less recognized, but no less wonderful, destination: the John F. Kennedy Memorial Forest. This forest preserve is a free oasis in the midst of the hustle and bustle of Skinker Boulevard and Highway 40. You can leave the din of traffic in the distance as you head down one of the bike trails or gravel paths winding through these 60 acres of beautiful of trees, flowers and wetland. Kennedy Forest became the first part of Forest Park reserved for environmental conservation when it was dedicated in 1964. Today, it's a prime spot for bird watching and serves as home for a number of frog species in addition to being a favorite spot for hiking and biking. Whether you want to explore, work out or simply enjoy a few moments of solitude, this bit of tranquility is a great place to go. Sure, you already have plenty of places you love in Forest Park — but Kennedy Forest should definitely be one. —Elizabeth Semko

The Skyview Drive-In

5700 North Belt West, Belleville, Illinois; 618-233-4400

By far the worst part of going to the movies is the exorbitant prices you're expected to pay at the concession stand. The robber barons at the AMCs and Wehrenbergs of the world want you to spend some $30 on chicken feed and sugar water, leaving you with no choice but to line your pockets with more reasonably priced snacks purchased on the way to the theater. It is not fair or right that you are reduced to the status of a common smuggler just for daring to watch a movie on a huge screen. Luckily there's another option, a better way. Belleville's Skyview Drive-In has been entertaining moviegoers in their own cars since 1949 — no smuggling required. Want some popcorn? Go ahead and bring a whole tin. Soda? A cooler full in the backseat will quench your thirst. Go big and get some brown liquor to go with that too; just make one of your more sober companions drive you home. Not that we have any first-hand knowledge about this or anything, but it's reasonable to think you could smoke blunts back to back in your car all throughout the show, as long as you're sly about it. Ditch the pricey concession stands in the typical theaters. It is time to put the dignity back in the moviegoing experience. It is time to visit the Skyview Drive-In. —Daniel Hill

Samantha Levison. - THOMAS CRONE
THOMAS CRONE
Samantha Levison.

Best Reason to Have Another

Samantha Levison

Atomic Cowboy and Thaxton Speakeasy

Now about ten years into her run as a bartender, Samantha Levison has worked at high-volume bars like the Pin-Up Bowl and regulars-heavy spots like the Crow's Nest. These days, she splits time between the Prohibition-themed Thaxton Speakeasy and everything-but-the-kitchen-sink appeal of the Atomic Cowboy. Her blend of experiences and interests have given her a unique skillset, met with a personality that shines in any setting. The 33-year-old Levison combines excellent customer service with sharp technical skills. "Obviously, you have to have a balance of both, or you're not going to succeed," she says. "That's my life's story: It's a blessing and a curse that I can see both sides to everything and want to balance things out. I used to worry that I didn't specialize in anything, whether bartending, my hobbies, what I went to school for. But, maybe, I could interweave all these things into my own life and career while helping other people have good lives." While she has an abiding interest in the finer aspects of bartending and digs a busy night with simpatico co-workers, Levison really just wants to share the good vibes, even on shifts when the bar is slammed. "I've met so many beautiful people; that's one of the perks of the job," she says. "Maybe you see a stranger, looking bummed out and no friends with them at that moment? Introduce them to someone else. That creates good energy in the place. People take that energy outside and, hopefully, they're nicer to family and friends." Cheers to that. —Thomas Crone

Best Place to Eavesdrop on the Revolution

MoKaBe's Coffeehouse

3606 Arsenal Street, 314-865-2009

If you ever wanted to feel better about the Resistance, spend a few nights camped out in MoKaBe's. The Tower Grove South institution unabashedly mingles its business with a progressive social conscience. When St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch announced in 2014 that ex-Ferguson cop Darren Wilson would face no charges for killing Michael Brown, 70 to 80 people watched a broadcast of the announcement inside the coffee house and later took shelter there when city police dropped canisters of tear gas just outside the doorway. It's not usually that dramatic. On any given night, you're likely to spot people of all ages addressing envelopes to politicians as part of letter-writing campaigns, customers dropping off packages of socks to be handed out to the homeless and volunteers creating assembly-line operations on a back table, stuffing tampons, toiletries and informational fliers into care packages for young women in need of help. Far from the alt-right fantasy of a shadow network of mercenary protesters paid by a bogeyman George Soros, the activists quietly at work in MoKaBe's embody a reassuringly genuine example of grassroots organizing. Plus, the sandwiches are pretty good. —Doyle Murphy

The Donut Stop. - DANNY WICENTOWSKI
DANNY WICENTOWSKI
The Donut Stop.

Best Sugar Rush

The Donut Stop

1101 Lemay Ferry Road, 314-631-3333

Depending on your appetite and imagination, you could probably spend weeks — and more — trying to devour every possible variety of donut available at the Donut Stop. How many varieties, precisely? The store touts 103 combinations of cake donut alone, but that estimate is likely outdated. On a recent morning, an employee just laughs at the question. "We've stopped trying to count," she says. To be fair, the folks behind the counter at this south-county pastry temple have better things to do than play donut accountant. The options are dizzying. For instance: Start with the base cake (vanilla, devil's food or blueberry) and then choose icing or glaze, and of course then you have to decide what kind of icing or glaze. Maybe you're in the mood for sprinkles, nuts, cream filling, powdered sugar — or then again, you may be aiming for that which can't be classified as a donut at all, like the lumpen pleasure of the "Cinnamon Glob." The aforementioned glob, nationally recognized several times over, is a fried hunk of pastry with the visual appeal of a sat-upon muffin and the taste of buttery heaven encased in crispy fried dough. Now on its fourth set of owners and continuously in business since 1953, the Donut Stop is proof positive that quality and quantity can coexist, and in this case, in the sweetest of harmonies. —Danny Wicentowski

Best Trip Down Memory Lane

Cruise Night at Chuck-a-Burger

<p>9025 St Charles Rock Road, St. John; 314-427-9524

Fifties nostalgia is hot right now. While in some cases that amounts to a rather soul-crushing national effort to make our country Great Again™, at Chuck-A-Burger it's more about golden oldies, flattened burger patties and classic cars. For some 60 years the north-county drive-in has been a hub of such time-tested delights, serving up soda pop and Elvis in equal measure while customers in the lot outside debate the merits of Ford versus Chevy. And on the last Saturday of each month the nostalgia gets kicked into overdrive, when the eatery hosts its monthly Cruise Night, bringing dozens of ancient automobiles out from the safety of their garages to be ogled and gawked at by strangers. With a bacon cheeseburger in one hand and a hand-dipped milkshake in the other, you can stride throughout the lot and behold these carefully restored beauties in what is truly their natural habitat. Just make sure you don't spill anything on the cars, or you just might find yourself on the wrong end of an old-fashioned ass-kicking. —Daniel Hill

Best Throwback Bar

Mike's Ten-Pin Lounge

18 East Broadway, Alton, Illinois; 618-465-6565

As we arrive at Mike's Ten-Pin, the bartender scrambles away from her perch near the bar's entry. First, it's to button up her flowing shirt; before long, she's scooting to the back room, from which she emerges wearing ... pants. (As in, yes, pants, and no, they were not part of her earlier ensemble.) These are clues that Mike's Ten-Pin Lounge is a critical link, tying the current day to Alton's not-so-distant life as a nightlife zone with a touch of extra, unexpected, random excitement. A pool table stays active throughout our stay and the drinks are appropriately priced; a Three Olives Rangtang cocktail and bottle of American lager are $5.50. The room, an unusual hue of light green, is lit primarily by televisions and beer signage, including a glowing Spuds McKenzie, the backbar's appropriately decorative centerpiece. Despite a handful of large rubber rats that seem to be a thing here, every surface is strangely pristine (like, eat-off-the-floor clean), even though a deep nicotine funk hangs heavily in the air. Combined, these are all vivid reminders that Mike's Ten-Pin is only two blocks removed from Alton's downtown bar district and a good two decades removed from that area's wilder past. Or, its present, if you know where to visit and happen by on just the right night. —Thomas Crone

The Laclede's Landing Wax Museum. - SARA BANNOURA
SARA BANNOURA
The Laclede's Landing Wax Museum.

Best Place to Get Your Picture Taken with Celebrities (Wax Version)

Laclede's Landing Wax Museum

720 North Second Street, 314-241-1155

Your life is boring, and your friends are starting to catch on. Your social media feeds betray your secrets (or lack thereof). The only photos you've uploaded in the last year are of your dinner (for one, sigh) and your dog (cute, but also bored of you). What do you do? You fake it for the 'gram, of course! Head on down to the Laclede's Landing Wax Museum and snap some selfies with the stars. Pull up that seat next to Barack Obama on a park bench and smile for the camera. Cower beneath Michael Jordan's mighty dunk and get an employee working there to take a convincing picture of your lack of sports prowess. "#SLAMDUNK" you'll tweet to your followers, and no one will be the wiser. "Oh my god, you met Shrek? The real Shrek?" your friends will ask you enviously, and you will click "like" and all will be fooled. With more than 200 life-size figures in its collection, from presidents to movie stars to super heroes to monsters, you're sure to find something at the Laclede's Landing Wax Museum capable of tricking the gullible into thinking your life is interesting. If not, at least they have an ice cream shop where you can drown your sorrows. —Daniel Hill

Best Place to Get Your Picture Taken with Celebrities (Real Version)

Eclipse at the Moonrise

<p>6177 Delmar Boulevard, 314-726-2222

The kingdom of Joe Edwards is vast. It sprawls throughout the Delmar Loop, including many of the retail shops and buildings on both sides of the busy street. Notably, it includes all of the district's major music venues now that Cicero's has closed its doors. Blueberry Hill's smaller Duck Room, the mid-sized Delmar Hall and the world-class Pageant stage are all firmly under Edwards' dominion. How do you think he achieved that bonkers wall of photos with celebrities inside Blueberry Hill? Seeing all the stars he has shared photos with is enough to make anyone jealous. But fret not, dear reader, because here's a little tip: Edwards owns the Moonrise Hotel as well, and oftentimes when musicians perform at one of his venues they also stay at his inn. The Moonrise has a terrific rooftop bar sitting atop it, meaning that, if you're smart about the timing (and a little lucky) there's a decent chance you can catch some of those musicians putting back a few following their concerts just down the street. Say goodbye to your envy and start your own celebrity wall of photos! —Daniel Hill

Best Place to Find a G-Spot

Shameless Grounds

1901 Withnell Avenue, 314-449-1240

All libraries contain magic of a sort, and the enchantment held by the wall of bookshelves in Shameless Grounds opens a portal to a world you'll be hesitant to leave. The café, a sex-positive haven where even the menu items are raunchy — such as the "Ample Breast" turkey and bacon sandwich — boasts a library of human sexuality that begs to be explored over a bottomless cup of coffee and a long afternoon. More than 1,700 titles, plus periodicals, are available for reading and check-out, with subjects that cover everything from Cosmopolitan sex manuals to academic research on gender theory. Perhaps most impressively, the library hosts a gargantuan amount of literary smut, ranging from vanilla fantastical BDSM kinkery to pulp fiction stories so outlandishly written, they're best enjoyed by passing the copy to your partner and daring them to read the hot-and-heavy metaphors without cracking up. Be warned, though, lest ye wind up on the Wall of Shame. Just because this is a library of wonderful smut, you still have to return your books on time. —Danny Wicentowski

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