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Second set: A hidden rock-and-martini connection

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 12, 2012 - By the time that Pablo's came into business on June 13, 1997, the nightclub's namesake, Paul "Pablo" Weiss, had already shown himself to be a canny operator in a changing area of downtown. Creating the Hot Locust Cantina and attached Side Door on Locust, just a block east of the still-evolving Schlafly Tap Room, Weiss figured that a major pop was about to happen to that corridor. The outward signs were pointing in that direction.

Some folks just had to look a little bit harder than others to see those oft-faint indicators of positive motion.

"Let's remember that the current 2020 Lofts on Washington were the former Sporting-News Building," he says. "So behind us, there was this empty, bombed-out building. The street was still one-way, and there was certainly no foot traffic. That place had Schlafly's, (my) domain and not much more than that."

And while in a moment of playful cynicism, he might say that the area "still doesn't get enough foot traffic, so things haven't changed all that much," the corner of Locust and 20th has been pretty good to him. And he's been pretty good to it, too, either operating or leasing to a half-a-dozen different concepts over the years at two addresses.

The first to arrive was the Hot Locust Cantina, which for a few years in the mid-'90s was an absolute magnet in moving business westward on Locust, especially during lunch hour. The Side Door music club, attached to the back of the Hot Locust with a trademark gangway entrance, booked some of the best rock'n'roll music of the era. Manager Darren O'Brien Ledeen was smartly bringing in acts on the way up and down the ladder of success.

There may've been some glitches, partially due to the club moving into what had been a forgotten area of western downtown. Here's one micro example: Weiss' new venues were just in front of a converted firehouse, whose tenants were connected, well-regarded members of the St. Louis arts community. In one of those moments of progress upsetting a moment-in-time's normality, what had been a well-to-do couple's quiet, out-of-the-way urban oasis now shared an alley with a busy restaurant and club. With bottles pouring into the Dumpsters at the close of a shift, it was a changing, jarring moment in defining what progress would mean going forward. People were coming. And people bring noise. The Hot Locust and the Side Door were doing that even on sleepy weeknights.

It didn't happen overnight, it took some time. But in an area of town that had devolved over decades, a turnaround was happening in the span of months. The pace suggested to Weiss that he should attach his name to something new in 1997.

From Rock To Martinis

The new club at 2001 Locust would be called Pablo's; and for those who loved the hip, affordable cuisine and rock'n'roll vibe of his neighboring businesses, this was a real culture shift. And it came with a striking, visible investment in the corner.

"The original idea took over an empty storefront," Weiss remembers. "We won an AIA award for the glass front wall, which was custom-designed by our architect, Fendler and Associates. Going back to the mid-'90s, this was the first wave of what we now know as the martini and vodka craze.

"It was an open market for a club that wasn't necessarily a dance club like Velvet, or like the Monkey Bar and the other crap down on Washington. This was a smaller, martini-type bar; and I was just reflecting the desire of the marketplace for a more intimate martini thing. It's a trend that began then, and we're still experiencing it."

The space had an interesting design, for sure, with the eyeball-shaped, partially walled main bar the primary hook of the interior design. Interesting, too, was a second tier that extended the room to a higher seating area in back. The oval bar created traffic patterns that gave workers an occasion to coin the phrase "doing laps at Pablo's," due to the circular nature of the recessed space. And there, people would, literally, walk around and around, seeing who was tucked away in both the tiny and expansive red booths that were prime real estate during the busiest hours.

"It was a really good looking place," Weiss says, referring to both the room and the clientele. "I would suggest that the design and colors of the space were exceedingly cool and the market reacted," he says. And the people? "Let's face it, if you were in your 20s or 30s, it was a great pick-up place. Let's call it what it is, it was where good-looking people went. It was the place to be.

"Pablo's was a smash, a hit from 20-minutes before we opened the first day and we never looked back. It was really something. The only reason I changed it was that I was getting a little bit sick of dressing and up and doing the whole martini thing."

Actually, the "dressing up" component of the bar is worth noting.

Early on, Pablo's enacted a dress code for both workers and customers. On opening night, I was working behind the bar in a white shirt and tie, the official outfit for the gents. I lasted a couple months in that look before fleeing, happily, for the DJ booth. The female bartenders, meanwhile, of which there were three-to-five on a given, busy shift, were outfitted in black slacks or skirts, and sharp, black blouses. For a time, weekend nights were a zoo, with two cocktail servers, between four-and-six bartenders and barbacks, two dashing doormen and a single cook to handle the appetizers in the closet-sized kitchen.

During the opening months, there wasn't a weekend night without a line around the corner of 20th, with patrons of the Side Door smirking as they walked to the $5-cover rock shows next door. The alley between the venues, for those in the know, was where the best party was taking place, as the patrons and staff of all three clubs would mix and mingle; even the chic elements of Pablo's clientele dropped some of their pretensions in the gangway lights.

When things really began to hum, a couple months in, a second bar was added on the mezzanine level, which was usually manned by a pair of rock musicians, Brian Nichols and Brian Klenke. The Brians would go on to play in the hard rock band Vinyl, but at Pablo's they were a pair of court jesters, on-the-clock entertainers set up just behind the DJ booth. That quirky, raised corner was manned by myself and Matt Hunt, each of us evenly splitting the six nights a week that Pablo's was open and each of us were close enough to just reach back for a Long Island Tea from the Brians, at a moment's notice.

"This somewhat-more-sophisticated atmosphere than I and my friends were used to was a direct result of Pablo," Nichols says. "He always had a smile, always made you feel welcome, and he had a lot of people around him that loved him.

"But you wouldn't have known that by looking at the neighborhood; 20th and Locust at this time was no man's land. It wasn't just abandoned like the rest of downtown, it was in ruins, condemned. Bums had better places to go, so you rarely saw them. Most buildings in that area lacked windows, doors, and the copper had long been stripped and sold. They filmed 'Escape From New York' in the area and barely put any money into the sets.

"What better place to open a high-end, martini lounge that catered to the young trust-fund babies of St. Louis. I thought the idea was ridiculous. Until I walked in the place.

"It was the most aesthetically beautiful room I had ever been in," Nichols continues, "and I instantly never wanted to leave. It was art, it was classic, it was cool, and St. Louis had nothing like it. Paul had put his flag in the rubble on 20th and Locust and declared that St. Louis was still alive and well. And the people came. A lot of them had money, and most of them had never spent a second downtown after the sun had gone down. They saw what was possible: super cheap real estate, tax breaks, government grants, and artists and architects biting at the chance to sculpt the rubble back to its glory days. I truly believe Pablo's set the tone for the revitalization of downtown St Louis. And it was a hell of a lot of fun working there."

"It sure felt like we were buzzing around like a couple of bees for the first couple of weeks," Klenke says, "when the place was packed to gills with people. Brian and I both had vintage English motorcycles and we would ride to work and park them right in front of the bar on the sidewalk. Pablo loved it, the customers loved it. I think it added a little something to the place. People loved to come in from the street and ask about them while we filled their drinks up.

"We had the best bunch of people working there, from the door guys, the kitchen staff to everyone behind the bar to the DJs. Such camaraderie! I loved going to that job. The best for me was the end of the night when we all got to breathe a little from the frantically busy night and pour down a few shots while we cleaned and closed the place up, listening to great tunes into the wee hours, telling each other stories of the night before, then getting back on the choppers and thundering out of there till the next night."

Sounds a bit rock'n'roll, no?

From Martinis To Rock

Pablo's ran for not quite two years, though the experience was pretty transformative, as the Brians suggest above. The space was great and the crowd, while a bit uptight early on, began to morph as the months went by. The canary in the coal mine was Chris Deckard, the local songwriter, sound engineer and bon vivant. As our own worker dress codes relaxed, Deckard would arrive late in an evening, attired as if he were a Victorian-era astronaut, a steampunk before the term was popularized. At first, he cut an interesting figure, our favorite regular who dressed most irregularly. But, in time, as more rockers started to take over, our DJ sets began to get more edgy and, eventually, a decision was made to change the place over.

At a blowout closing night party, workers painted streaks on the pristine walls that had literally been painted on opening night, as attendees were snaked around in lines outside. The drinks went down quickly that night and, then, sooner than believed possible, the place became the Rocket Bar. That was the downtown/midtown rock club from 1998 until New Year's Eve in 2004. A sexy vibe returned with Nectar in 2005, Weiss selling out his share to the owners of the neighboring Pepper Lounge, itself the eventual replacement for the Hot Locust and Side Door. Nectar had a couple-year run, before morphing into the El Borracho, which affected a hipster-Mexican conceit that's failed in multiple versions around town. Through it all, the eyeball-bar stayed.

Right now, with Pepper Lounge hanging in there against the laws of time and space (when applied to clubs, at least) the shell of 2001 Locust is ready for another concept. Meanwhile, Weiss is running the Cabin Inn at the City Museum, while holding the liquor license for the remainder of that crazy structure. After running the big Kitchen K and the small Mercury Lounge in recent years, he seems downright happy at the Cabin Inn, watching kids order ice creams as their parents ring up European beers.

Dichotomies, it seems, are Pablo's bag and always will be.

To reach Thomas Crone, contact Beacon features and commentary editor Donna Korando.

Thomas Crone special to the Beacon