Best Of 2016

Is there any better example of a great St. Louis dive than Iowa Buffet?

A good bar is like its own small town, populated by essential archetypes. The owner or top bartender is your mayor (or sheriff, if it's that kind of place), establishing the cultural norms while managing the day-to-day. Tourists will pass through, but a citizenry of loyal patrons keeps the lights on. There will be a peacemaker and a wizened council. A village idiot or three is unavoidable.

It takes time to build these tiny, inebriated municipalities. Sadly, our nation is haunted by the ghosts of a million failed societies, the graves marked by Ruby Tuesdays and faux speakeasies.

St. Louis remains one of the last strongholds of the honest-to-God bar. We drink cans of Stag without irony and decorate our walls with dusty Budweiser neons. A strong pour from the bottom shelf is easily covered by a five spot. And it's this way in every neighborhood. Hidden between the brick bungalows of south city and burrowed into the side-street corners of north county, hundreds of bars provide a web of small towns with enough stools for each of us to find our true home.

Take a seat on the floral sectional below a Clydesdale poster that doubles as a window shade in the "VIP lounge" of the San Bar (9441 Lackland Road, Overland; 314-427-9750) and ask yourself whether a just society can co-exist in a world of Buffalo Wild Wings. Drink a $1.50 Natural Light draft in North Hampton's Silverleaf Lounge (3442 Hereford Street, 314-481-4080) while you eat beef jerky homemade by a retired cop and consider whether it's time to rise up with sharpened rakes against $12 muddled cocktails.

In another city, the sketchiness of One Nite Stand Dance Club (2800 Ohio Avenue, 314-776-0996) would be only a legend told by wrinkled barflies to incredulous youth. Developers would have ripped out its stripper pole, and there would be no need for Friday night pat-downs at the door — it would have been turned into a TD Bank long ago. Even the Central West End, the poshest neighborhood in the city, has Rosie's Place (4573 Laclede Avenue, 314-361-6423), a no-theme watering hole where you'll see suits slamming rail whiskey next to lunch pail regulars.

Only recently has the rest of America begun to understand what has been lost by killing the neighborhood bar. From Brooklyn to Los Angeles, a nostalgic generation has tried to recreate the dive, hauling in thrift store couches and vintage beer signs for a curated vibe. The difference in St. Louis is that our bars are the real thing, not a carefully engineered echo. If the furniture looks a little worn, a little dated, it's because it's been there five decades. The wood paneling on the walls and mostly working Budweiser lights of Iowa Buffet (2727 Winnebago Street, 314-776-8000) weren't installed because someone wanted it to feel retro. They're there because that's what was in style during that last remodel. Age makes the dive here, a place where "if it's not broke, don't fix it" feels like a commandment.

We are the keepers of the flame. Our elbows wear grooves in bar tops across the metro. It's our civic duty.

Cory King's Side Project Cellar is a beer lover's mecca.

When the James Beard Foundation nominated the Side Project Cellar (7373 Marietta Avenue, Maplewood; 314-224-5211) for its Outstanding Bar Program award earlier this year, owners Karen and Cory King were shocked. The St. Louis beer community, however, saw this one coming.

Since he began brewing his Side Project beers out of Perennial Artisan Ales (8125 Michigan Avenue; 314-631-7300) in 2014, Cory has dazzled the beer world with his sought-after barrel-aged brews. He needed a venue that would not simply serve his beer, but would exist as a means to fully immerse drinkers in the experience. He turned to wife Karen to put together a world-class tasting room.

She delivered. The Cellar team is as serious about the craft of beef drinking as they are about the brewing process. They pay attention to such details as temperature, barware and proper serving for each individual selection. The result of their efforts is the premier place in town — if not the country — to experience beer as an art form.– Cheryl Baehr

Start Bar lets you enjoy game night somewhere other than your sofa.

Start Bar (1000 Spruce Street, 314-376-4453), a new concept opened in July by the owners of Wheelhouse, is much more than just another place to grab a drink downtown. It's a genuine haven of nostalgia for an older crowd, less focused on bringing the party and more intent on bringing a piece of patrons' childhood back to life. While the place offers various craft beers, boozy shakes and slushies, delicious food and an impressive selection of throwback tunes, Start Bar's real raison d'etre is in the recreation it offers.

From old school games like Donkey Kong and Pac Man to a multitude of ski ball machines, Start Bar has a little bit of everything. Patrons can shoot their way to victory playing Time Crisis and House of the Dead II or enjoy some good ole competition with friends using N64 classics like Mario Kart and Super Smash Bros. All of that coupled with a great location just steps from Busch Stadium makes Start Bar the perfect place to eat, drink, play and, most importantly, have an awesome time.

Save your rocks glasses for those sissy bars.

You know those vacation drinks? Giant glass bowls of sweet, colorful liquors sipped through bright twirly straws? So much fun, right? And then they top them with those little umbrellas? The best.

The St. Louis version is even better. CBGB (3163 S. Grand Avenue, no phone) calls them gin buckets and serves them in a metal bucket the size of a large dog bowl. Dogs are way fun! Anyway, there's plenty of tasty liquor, because it's really just a huge gin and tonic. There are no umbrellas. Super sorry! But they give you as many clear plastic straws as you want. Drink up.

You don't have to drink wine here, but you'll probably want to.

If you're a regular at either Sasha's — the wine bar on Shaw or the wine bar on DeMun — you may find it slightly discomfiting to visit the other, sort of like accidentally kissing your boyfriend's twin brother. Here is the same charm you'd thought was entirely unique to your neighborhood, the same celebratory feel that keeps you drinking long after you vowed to make an early night of it. How, you wonder, can something that feels so specific to both time and place be duplicated?

Well, prepare to have your mind blown, again, with the arrival of Scarlett's Wine Bar (4253 Laclede Avenue, 314-797-8223). Residing in the southeast corner of the Central West End, the twins' baby sister is younger and sassier but no less appealing, with a lovely patio out front and cozy nooks inside, a bigger menu and a fancy pizza oven. Most importantly, like her older siblings, she's ready for a good time at both 11 a.m. and 11 p.m., with a kitchen that stays open late and a staff that's as accommodating and gracious at midnight as they were when you opened your tab. So far Scarlett's hasn't been as busy as her siblings in late-night hours, but we have no doubt time will take care of that. There are few bars this perfect anywhere in the world; St. Louis is now triply blessed.

The "Hot Jupiter" has a taste as big as the planet it's named for.

With the first sip of this magnolia-colored cocktail comes a rush of heat, the unmistakable punch of crushed red pepper. The "Hot Jupiter" at Taste (4584 Laclede Avenue, 314-361-1200) can easily draw comparisons to the fifth planet's stormy Great Red Spot. The spicy notes of pepper and pineapple hot sauce delightfully dance their way across the tongue, balancing with subtle citrus undertones. And while many respectable people decry tequila as never a good idea, the Hot Jupiter will prove them wrong. The interplay of flavors — including agave, lime, suze and pineapple — is out of this world.

Negroni slushies? Si grazie.

God bless Gerard Craft. Here we were, desperate for a frozen adult drink but resigned to the notion that the only appropriate place to order such a margarita-strawberry-colada concoction is a Sammy Hagar Cabo Wabo after-party. Meanwhile Craft and his cohorts at Porano Pasta (635 Washington Avenue, 314-833-6414) soldiered on and developed a frozen cocktail that could be ordered without shame or even ensuing decay. Inspired by the classic negroni, a gin-based libation that until now has been reserved for Roman rooftops or trendy cocktail bars, the Porano team developed a negroni slushie, a drink that is so perfect it's a wonder we'd survived for so long without it in our lives. A riff on the standard gin, Campari and vermouth elixir that somehow works in slushie form, it's everything you want in an adult drink: citrusy, bright, not too sweet, shockingly refreshing and as boozy as it comes — though that doesn't stop us from ordering two (or three).

Only at the Libertine is your cocktail served in a vessel paying tribute to the original Big Papa.

Behind the bar at the Libertine (7927 Forsyth Boulevard, Clayton; 314-862-2999) sits a giant Hemingway tiki drinking vessel because ... well, because why wouldn't there be? Since the restaurant opened in 2013, owner Nick Luedde — or Bacchus incarnate, as we like to call him — has been instrumental in crafting the Libertine's irreverent and ever-changing cocktail menu. In Ben Bauer he's found a compatriot whose mastery of the art of bartending is matched by his ability to keep up with Luedde's penchant for beautiful excess. This March, the pair conspired to concoct a classic tiki menu that takes the seriousness of the craft cocktail movement and laughs nostalgically in its face. Hemingway is just one of the magnificent heads you can drink from, as the Libertine's menu proves that what flows from Luedde and Bauer's noggins is as good as it comes.

The carpet's gone. The bar's essence remains.

When Al Coco, longtime owner of the Hideaway (5900 Arsenal Street, 314-645-8822) passed away unexpectedly last fall, regulars braced themselves. Nothing good lasts forever, and the beloved dive had enjoyed a great run — who could blame Coco's heir for opting for the highest bidder rather than choosing a caretaker who appreciated the bar's inimitable spirit?

Somehow, though, a near-miracle happened. The Hideaway was sold to a group of young owners who are both experienced in the hospitality industry and appreciative of the bar's unusual charms.

Oh, sure, married couples Valerie and Dan Carroll and Gracie and Sam Jackson made a few changes. They pulled up that awful carpeting and replaced the ceiling, which had both been tarred by decades of heavy smoke. They also found themselves forced to deal with a major repair they'd hoped to put off for a bit when the bar's ancient plumbing system gave way unexpectedly in July.

But the heart and soul of the bar? That's remained the same. Mark Dew still plays the piano Fridays and Saturdays. The drinks are still cheap — and stiff. And those busty ladies still make doe eyes from paintings hung over the bar. The essence remains wonderfully south city, and while the place is now drawing a younger crowd, the regulars are still here, and everyone mingles easily. When Dew sings "On the Road Again," you might see an elderly couple two-stepping or a young one buying a round of shots. Somehow it all works beautifully. No one thought this classic St. Louis watering hole could possibly get any better — but guess what? It did.

Stella Blues: A great place to drink, and a cheap one.

Have you ever tried to buy a PBR at happy hour in Oakland? If so you'll know a so-called "good deal" on cheap beer is a ridiculous $4. Lagunitas, brewed just a short drive to the north, goes for $7 on special.

And that's not just California inflation. In Chicago, a PBR on special is $3.75 in the diviest of dives. How do people afford their drinking habits in such a place?

Suffice it to say, we don't have these problems in St. Louis, home of the never-ending drink special. Here we don't limit affordable prices to random hours in the early afternoon or late at night. And our discounts are good enough to undercut the best bargains being offered in just about any other city.

Consider the options on just one small part of one south city street. You could bounce around a few blocks of Morgan Ford Road near Tower Grove Park and get your buzz on for less than an Andrew Jackson.

Start at Colorado Bob's Ship of Fools (3457 Morgan Ford Road, 314-772-7564) from 4-6 p.m. for a $10 bucket of domestic bottles. Mosey on down to Stella Blues (3269 Morgan Ford Road, 314-762-0144) for dollar rails and $2 domestics 'til 7 p.m. Pick up some delicious Korean pork kabobs to refuel while you're there.

End your night wobbling down to Tower Pub (3234 Morgan Ford Road, 314-771-7979). There you can drink until close. Every night Monday through Thursday has a different special to fit your boozy needs, and these deals run all night long. Monday: $2 pints. Tuesday: Flip a coin, guess it right and your drink is on the house. Wednesday: Bring your gal pals for $2 ladies night. Thursday: Practice your trivia skills and chug some $1 PBRs.

Play your cards right and you just scored ten beers for $15. Where else can you do that in the whole damn country?