The Great American Saloon Series

The Royale Treatment

A remembrance of corner taverns gone by.

By 3.3.11

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Stroll through any city with a formerly Episcopalian, German Lutheran, and Roman Catholic majority population, and one will find on every block the ghost of a corner tavern. In his excellent history of watering holes, The Old-Time Saloon, the humorist George Ade recalls the superfluity of corner taverns circa 1900, and how the establishments rapidly fell into disfavor.

According to Ade, the glut of public houses was one of the main gripes of groups like the Women's Christian Temperance Union and the Anti-Saloon League. Ade believed the bar owners had it coming. As the dry opposition snowballed, tavern keepers continued to flout the law, serving minors, operating after midnight, and opening their doors on the Sabbath. Taverns were havens for all manner of illegal shenanigans. And they spread like warm butter.

Ade had high praise for the established German brewers -- the Buschs and Lemps in St. Louis, and the Schlitz, Pabst, and Blatz families in Milwaukee -- for being conscientious managers of the industry. It was the English that mucked things up. Envious of the Germans and their wide profit margins, the British aristocrats muscled their way in. The English were happy to set up anyone with a pair of shoes with a corner saloon -- as long as he agreed to sell only their brand of beer. Wrote Ade:

New saloons opened whenever there seemed to be a fair chance of attracting a group of bar drinkers. They grew in number along the main thoroughfares, filtered into side streets and invaded residence districts. They planted themselves next door to churches, schools and hospitals. They began to sprout in quiet neighborhoods among well-behaved homes, despite the frantic protests of property-owners and householders.

German-Americans (about one in three of the population) were the last bulwark against the dry protests. But the sinking of the Lusitania (1915) effectively silenced them. With the wet resistance squashed, the WTCU, Anti-Saloon League and the Methodist Board of Temperance, Prohibition and Public Morals easily carried the day.

AFTER PROHIBITION, the neighborhood tavern made a brief comeback. I have fond memories of being dispatched to fetch my father home from the corner saloon, but not before joining him at the bar for a Royal Crown Cola and a bag of corn curls. That tavern is no more, having been dealt a deathblow by the middle class flight to the suburbs. (How bad was it? If Chicago boasted 7,600 taverns in the early 1900s, it now has fewer than 1,300.)

Today, as some urban neighborhoods undergo gentrification, a few corner taverns are coming back. More often than not they are reopening as gourmet bistros where the linened tables are reserved for yuppie diners who quaff craft beers on tap.

The tavern at the corner of Kingshighway and Juniata in St. Louis has largely avoided this pitfall. The proprietor, Steven Fitzpatrick Smith, is a Chicago native with enough untainted Irish blood in his veins to eschew shabby chic (you will find no rust-painted 1950s Schwinn bicycles hanging on his walls). What's more, Smith has earned his Irish innkeeper chops by serving as the city's de facto boxing commissioner due largely to his inner city youth boxing program and renowned backyard amateur bouts.

Smith opened The Royale Food & Spirits in 2005. Since that happy day, it has been our default saloon. The Royale is smallish, and usually crowded. But it is never rowdy. The clientele are mostly mild-mannered hipsters, with a few yuppies and sports fans sprinkled throughout to keep the atmosphere from becoming too ironic. Most bars are ruined by their unfortunate selection of music. Not the Royale. Evenings there is a DJ who plays old scratchy records from the early Sixties. If one thing distinguishes today's Royale from its 1930s predecessor, it is that the free lunch counter has been replaced by a menu featuring fish tacos, goat-cheese pizza, and other delicacies. However, it is the Kobe beef hamburger that wins awards.

The Royale makes a point of not serving Anheuser-Busch products, even though you sometimes smell the brewery from The Royale's spacious biergarten. Instead, the bar specializes in cocktails named for the city's famous neighborhoods. My favorite is the Soulard sling (Rhum Barbancourt, fresh orange juice, fresh lemon and lime juice, lemon juice, sugar, Angostura bitters and grenadine, served on the rocks, with a slice of orange and a cherry). If your prefer your poison by the pint (and who doesn't) there's St. Louis's locally brewed Schlafly's on tap. I like the grapefruity IPA the best.

Two years ago, Smith purchased an abandoned corner saloon on Cherokee Street, not two blocks from my home. The plan was to house a boxing parlor on the first floor and a Royale-style saloon on the second. However, the local alderman, a teetotaler, wasn't having any of it. He managed to stall the project until the economy tanked and Smith had to shelve his plans. Today, the tavern sits dormant, its brick walls splattered with gang graffiti, a twitchy crack dealer and a low-rent hooker sheltering in the doorway. In our ward at least, the Anti-Saloon League rides again. Thank God we still have The Royale.

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About the Author
Christopher Orlet writes from St. Louis.