Chicago

The Best Speakeasy-Themed Bars in St. Louis

Taste Bar
Taste Bar
Taste Bar

About 10 years ago, when the imbibing public in St. Louis became fascinated with the idea of the sexy, venerable craft cocktail, it also fell in love with its natural illicit partner in crime — the speakeasy bar. The St. Louis nightlife community responded with the opening of several top-tier drinking establishments all featuring lengthy lists of thoughtfully crafted cocktails, dimly lit spaces, snappily dressed bartenders, and hand-cracked artisan ice cubes. What also mattered was an obvious rebellion against what most bars were known for — being loud, crowded, and filled with televisions and neon signage circling pool table lights.

Today, you will find competent, if not comprehensive, and inspired cocktail programs at almost all mid-to-top tier St. Louis restaurants and bars. However, amongst the crowd of establishments serving classic Negronis alongside 10-ingredient concoctions, a few St. Louis bars also possess the enigmatic old-timey allure of a speakeasy. The following are a few of the city’s most clandestine watering holes where passwords, hidden side bars, and a guarantee of a delicious boozy concoction await.

Blood & Sand
Blood & Sand
Blood & Sand

Blood & Sand

DowntownWhen Blood & Sand opened in the fall of 2011, it was the first St. Louis drinking and dining establishment of its kind to require a membership. Despite some locals snubbing the exclusive arrangement, the venue operated successfully using the members-only model until this summer, when they opened to the general public. Blood & Sand is named after the classic cocktail and, from the beginning, has been known for their exceptional and cheeky bar program. (The current menu follows a musical theme.) Take Beach House’s “Dark Spring,” described as a “complex, herbaceous, and quaffable” combination of Batavia arrack, yellow Chartreuse, Cap Corse Blanc, lime, and celery & fennel cordial. Or you can always order their namesake, the Blood & Sand — Scotch, cherry liqueur, sweet vermouth, and fresh orange juice.

The Bullock Room at Planter’s House

Lafayette SquareAsk your Uber driver to drop you off at the Bullock Room and they won’t know what you’re talking about. Up a side staircase and behind a heavy velvet curtain is an intimate second bar located inside the grand and glorious Planter’s House restaurant and bar, owned by St. Louis bartender royalty Ted Kilgore. The small room, clad in velvet brocade wallpaper and featuring a U-shaped bar, was named for Tom Bullock, a longtime bartender at The St. Louis Country Club and the first African-American to write a bartending book (published in 1917). The Bullock Room celebrates the skill and finesse that makes a truly outstanding bartender with a lengthy cocktail menu of classics and new creations. For something uniquely savory try the “Skater Tot”: mezcal, Kina d’Or, peppadew-chive syrup, and lime served with a salty manchego cheese garnish. Desire something more fragrant? The “Jump the Apex” combines beet-infused gin, beet-infused green chile vodka, green Chartreuse, rhubarb liqueur, lemon, and strawberry. Or, best yet, fully embrace the spirit of the Bullock Room by allowing the bartender to create a custom concoction just for you.

Gin Room
Gin Room
Gin Room

The Gin Room

South Grand Tucked inside the front room of the Persian restaurant Cafe Natasha’s, The Gin Room is the kind of spot you could walk right past without knowing it. The definitive place in St. Louis to enjoy and discover gins from around the world, it boasts a collection of over 100 different gins between their commercial and private collection — which may be the most complete, curated gin list in the Midwest. When you first walk in the room, it’s hard not to be awed by the expansive bar that reaches to the ceiling, every inch stocked with bottles of spirits and liqueurs. Proprietor and gin ambassador Natasha Bahrami, or “The Gin Girl” as she is called, is an adroit educator, always ready to engage with patrons about the history, distillation process, and particular qualities of her collection, and her house-made tonics create sublime mixers. Plus, while the space is recognized primarily for its gins, few know that the bar also pours over 100 kinds of amaros.

Taste Bar
Taste Bar
Taste Bar

Taste

Central West EndTaste opened in July 2009 as a tiny eight-seat bar that neighbored James Beard Award winner Gerard Craft’s Niche restaurant. The bar and restaurant shared a kitchen and offered innovative small plates, but the real focus of Taste was the cocktail program headed by Ted Kilgore (now of Planter’s House). After moving to larger digs in the Central West End in 2011, the bar continued to build upon its reputation as the consummate choice for an inventive craft cocktail in St. Louis. Open Taste’s massive wooden door, pass through the dark velvet curtains, and you’ll enter a small, dimly lit room. Dominating the clay-red wallpapered space is a wooden bar that sparkles and gleams with rows of antique-cut crystal glassware and countless bottles of spirits and liqueurs. The vibe here ranges from subdued and cerebral during the week to celebratory and spirited on the weekends, but one thing that is predictable: finding a seat during prime hours is painfully difficult. Expect to wait with fellow thirsty folks for a spot inside or, on balmier days, on the patio, which is the choicest spot to people-watch in the STL.

Jason Stoff
Jason Stoff
Jason Stoff

Thaxton Speakeasy

DowntownThaxton Speakeasy is St. Louis’ only password-protected bar. It’s located in the historic Thaxton Building, whose front entrance is under a huge deco marquee sign bearing the building’s name — but you won’t get in that way. The entrance that must be used is around the building in the back alley. Once you prove that you’re privy to the password (find it by checking their website), descend the stairs into a basement level where the space opens up into a glorious display of sweeping painted murals and large backlit faux windows. Thaxton is open to the public on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays (except when booked for one of its frequent private events), but Thursday is the night to really dig in your heels, when regular patrons often dress in era-appropriate fashion and a live band plays old-timey throwbacks meant for dancing. Unsure of your moves? Free swing lessons are also offered on Thursday evenings to get you flipping and scootin’ to the brass. Friday and Saturday nights feature a more restrained atmosphere with DJs playing tunes while the house-made moonshine and barrel-aged cocktails flow.

Chicago

Robyn DaCultyre Is Doing It for the Culture

"The cool thing about Ohio is that there is literally a place for everyone."

Photo by Kayode Omoyosi
Photo by Kayode Omoyosi
Photo by Kayode Omoyosi

I was introduced to Robyn DaCultyre at an Untitled Queen show at C’mon Everybody in late January, and it was one of the most unique drag shows I’d seen in a while. Afterwards, I tracked down this self-described “drag creature” and video chatted about her drag origin story, the state of drag in her native Ohio, and the dual identities that make up her persona. Thrillist: I want to ask you about how Robyn DaCultyre came about and your point of view behind your performance.

Robyn DaCultyre: I’ve been travelling around the country from a young age in ministry and Christian studies. I moved to Chicago right after high school. Four years later, moved back to Columbus and decided I didn’t really want to do church anymore; that wasn’t where my heart was.

I had a really low point in my life and had a suicide attempt and then really found drag and started doing drag as a coping mechanism and way to let off steam. I started in July of 2019, and it was really a lot of punk and metal music. I created this drag creature of sorts and they were really out of this world and celestial and all of those fun alien type terms.

And then we went into a global pandemic and I had a lot of time to figure out who I wanted to be. Digitally I was still doing a lot of drag creature-esque numbers and all of that, but I had this moment where we’re on the front lines getting hit with pepper spray and rubber bullets and pepper spray-all of those lovely things. And I said, I have this platform and I need to start showcasing what’s happening.

Untitled [Queen] stepped in at the right time and messaged me and said, “I’m doing this show for Independence Day called Untitled in America with 52 different performers and I want you to be a part of it.” It was at that moment I was able to take the footage I had been recording on the front lines and incorporate it into digital content. I did a song called Black Like Me by Mickey Guyton that talks about white picket fences, but if you want to see how America is, then you should try being Black like me. The imagery of what’s literally happening in Columbus in that digital performance really spearheaded me into focusing on people who look like me.

Nina Simone is one of my biggest inspirations, and one of her quotes that resonates with me is that it’s the duty of the artist to resonate with the times. My art is politically charged. I like to entertain, but there will definitely be a time when you come to a show expecting to have your drink and be chill and that might not be the case.

How did the name Robyn DaCultyre come about?

I was smoking with Ursula Major, who was on season one of Dragula, and the first time I introduced myself to her I was Robyn Banks, which is my drag name originally. She said, “Well, do you just not want to be original at all?” [Laughs] And I sat with that for a couple of months, and I got really stoned one day and was listening to Janelle Monae, and she talks about doing it for the culture, and I said “I do it for the culture, too!” And the rest is history.

And you started a series called Melanated.

We started Melanated last February. I told the idea to my show director that there were no shows specifically run by Black people that only featured Black entertainers. I wanted to do this show for a night and she said, Why don’t we do it once a week for the whole month? The first show happens, and it’s a sold out crowd, and [my director] comes back and says we should do this every month. So I sucked it up and here we are a year later.

Melanated is the only fully Black show in all of the state. It’s a horrible marketing tool and not something I want to promote, but it is just a fact. It amazes me that we are the 13th largest city in America and there’s nothing here that’s fully focused on Black entertainers. The name also comes from Janelle Monae; she says she’s highly melanated and I said, that works.

Photos by Chay Creates LLC (left) and Bridget Caswell (right)
Photos by Chay Creates LLC (left) and Bridget Caswell (right)
Photos by Chay Creates LLC (left) and Bridget Caswell (right)

You refer to yourself as a drag creature, as opposed to drag queen or king…

This is actually the first time I’m making this public. I am in this place where I want to separate the alternative creature from who this melanated goddess or whatever is. DaCultyre is definitely the person who runs Melanated and then Robyn is this drag creature that is out of this world and really loves punk and alternative music. And both intertwine to make Robyn DaCultyre.

You also do pageants. Tell me about that.

In 2020 I was appointed by Nina West, who is from Columbus, as the representative from Ohio for National Entertainer of the Year in Louisville, Kentucky. I placed ninth out of 13 contestants and I really fell in love with the system and fell in love with the pageantry and loved the idea of reigning and being different. I want to show that we as alternative performers, as bearded performers, you can come into these systems and shake things up.

Is there a uniquely “Ohio” style of drag?

No, and I think that’s one of the things that makes it so amazing is that everyone has their own unique style, and it’s all pretty much accepted. I started as a performer and a drag creature and there was space that was afforded to me and I transitioned to more glamor and pageantry and that’s afforded to me as well. I’ve been a bearded entertainer for a year now. The cool thing about Ohio is that there is literally a place for everyone.

I think I have everything I need. Is there anything else I didn’t ask you about that you want to bring up, or‚Ķ

I don’t think so. Are there any generic questions you haven’t asked?

Generic questions‚ĶI think I asked all of them already [laughs]. I like to ask what you’d be doing if you weren’t doing drag?

It’s a great question. I have a day job that is very demanding so I need drag to get away. I’m also very creative and artistic. I used to do web design and all these other things to pull into my creativity. Drag is the longest thing I’ve stuck with in all parts of my life, so I don’t think it’s going anywhere anytime soon.

Get the latest from Thrillist Australia delivered straight to your inbox, subscribe here.

John deBary¬†is a drinks expert and writer. His first cocktail book,¬†Drink What You Want, is available now, and his next book,¬†Saved by the Bellini, is expected in early 2023. He is also the co-founder and president of the¬†Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation, which is dedicated to improving the lives of hospitality industry professionals through advocacy, grant making, and impact investing.

Related

Our Best Stories, Delivered Daily
The best decision you'll make all day.