Best fest buddy Tom and I couldn’t have picked a better weekend for a road trip: the weather was early fall, teasing everybody in the Midwest of what summer was supposed to be; Enterprise had a $26-a-day deal, and we wound up with an SUV; and the airports were screwed up because an unbalanced person set a fire at the control center in Aurora, so flying was out of the question.
I was gonna compare us to Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, but though we do know – and tell – old jokes, neither of us sings. Thelma and Louise – too much drama, and two of them together probably don’t weigh what one of us do. Fred and Barney. Possibly. Cramden and Norton. More than likely.
Yet, since Tom did all the driving, that made us Hoke and Miss Daisy, but that he wouldn’t let me sit in the backseat by myself – though he probably wanted to put me with the luggage on occasion.
If I am taking too long to get to the point, it’s because this was a Celtic-themed trip, a drive to St. Louis, where there was a Highland Games going on in Forest Park.
Travel meant satellite radio, wind farms, ag smells, and the scary bathrooms and interesting clientele found at off the Interstate gas stations.
Some had urinals too short, others too high. Make your own Goldilocks joke. Include bears. And banjo music.
One truckstop held a Wendy’s where the hardworking manager overseeing her slow staff could have been Thelma or Louise. Who knew Mennonites like Frosties.
A gas station had souvenirs that included a crucifix with a shoehorn in the middle of it, perfect for Colts fans. And almost all the stops had hard liquor close to the door, or locally made wine by the checkout counter.
The Cheshire Hotel
Five-and-a-half hours later, we checked into our hotel, The Cheshire (www.cheshirestl.com), which is near the intersection of Clayton Lane and Clayton Avenue – and by a huge Amoco sign over a gas station.
Had we brought a trailer hitch, a big wrench, and the cast of Ocean’s 11 with us, that sign would be on my lawn today. It was that impressive.
But, nay, it remains ensconced, a beacon before The Cheshire, a boutique hotel with Tudor architecture that revamped and reopened in August 2011 and that seems to be a popular spot for wedding receptions.
If you’re from Chicago’s northwest suburbs, it might remind you of the long-gone Chateau Louise in West Dundee.
If you’re a Doctor Who fan, you’ll love this place. More so if you have read all the Harry Potter books. There’s a stuffed bear in the lobby, too.
The rooms all have names related to British lit, including a contemporary-styled James Bond suite, a Romeo & Juliet one, and a Passage to India one. There’s a JRR Tolkien room, of course, and fanboy Tom wanted to stay there – but I told him his feet weren’t furry enough and that dudes who look like orcs like I do are barred from it.
We weren’t barred from the nook of a bar that is the hotel’s Fox and Hounds pub, where we had our first pint of Guinness on the trip and tried some local beer.
No. Not Budweiser. We heard that since Anheuser-Busch got in bed with InBev its grip on St. Louis has loosened – which is to say, while you don’t see too much Miller product, the craft beer thing is big here, too. And locally made Schlafly’s Oktoberfest is a fine, carmelly seasonal brew.
Hey – that rhymes. Which figures, as we stayed in the Robert Southey room. Southey was a 19th Century poet who is best known for his version of the aforementioned Goldilocks tale. Yet, the room had two beds, not three, no blonde lurking about stealing porridge, and a copy of The Canterbury Tales, which can put you in a romantic mood, I guess, if you’re up on your Middle English.
Us Midwesterners just slumbered in separate beds, snored, farted and occasionally got up to go to the bathroom. Chaucer would have been proud.
The Campbell House
Before we hit the games, we took in a bit of St. Louis’ Irish history and pubbery.
Our first stop was the home of fur trader and entrepreneur Robert Campbell and his family from 1854 until 1938 (www.campbellhousemuseum.org).
The Scotch-Irish, Presbyterian Campbell rose to become the wealthiest man of his day in St. Louis. Fur was like the iPhone of its day – but warmer. Campbell hung out at his 1508 Locust St. digs with the likes of U.S. Grant – who at one time delivered firewood to the home.
Bob was the youngest kid in his dad’s second marriage, and he stood squat chance of getting any family money. So he headed to the States where his brother Hugh already was.
Like Sam Cooke and most Americans, I don’t know much about history, but some points resonated with me from the tour I took:
We are all lucky to be alive, given the diseases that would kill you back when white people came to the middle of the country.
What a world it must have been that drinking lots of booze was safer than drinking water. Cholera. Look it up.
Campbell got along with the French who settled St. Louis in part because they both disliked the Brits. And he hired fresh off the boat Irish Catholics for his staff.
People would have big families where they might reuse a name if one of the kids died early.
Hoarding just makes the work of historians that much easier.
The sad and strange ways of the rich and powerful versus the sad and strange ways of the have-nots: maybe mass media has leveled the playing field.
Dusting stuff in the house of a rich person in Victorian times would be an endless task. And getting up and down the steep stairways, most dangerous.
I love living in a time with central air conditioning, heat, indoor plumbing, and vaccinations.
Anyway, Campbell’s home holds gobs of original possessions including furniture, paintings, clothing and carriages. There are even taxidermy birds who had their own wing – make that heated room – in the home.
You might call this “Downtown” Abbey as there is an artifact at the St. Louis mansion that has but one match, which is in Highclere Castle, which is used as the set for this century’s version of Upstairs, Downstairs.
If your travels take you to the Ulster American Folk Park in Omagh, County Tyrone, Northern Ireland, you can tour Campbell’s Irish homestead, where images of Campbell’s St. Louis home are on view (www.nmni.com/uafp/Collections/Collections-highlights/The-Campbell-Story).
All this learnin’ made it time for the first drink of the day – at The Dubliner (www.dublinerstl.com), 1025 Washington Ave., where Tom’s brother Mark and his buddy Nick joined us for the fun.
A neon silhouette of James Joyce hangs above the downtown establishment with the words “Bee Hat Lofts” underneath. Bee Hat was a company that owned the building that opened in 1905 where the bar now is, in what was the garment district.
Proprietor John McDowell opened the spot in 2006, having come to St. Louis by way of Australia, Utah and Colorado. McDowell explained his rugby days took him to Australia, then Utah, where he met the woman who would become his wife, who convinced him to join leave the land of Osmond for the more-Irish Denver.
She was from St. Louis, and the couple moved back to Missouri, where McDowell first had a painting company. A job in what now is his bar led to it becoming the bar.
McDowell’s place bills itself as a European gastropub, but whatever it is, it has one of the best Guinness pours going.
McDowell said when he hires his staff they have to pass a test for drawing a proper pint. As it should be everywhere.
The Kerry Cottage
Next it was time to do a little souvenir shopping, so we popped into The Kerry Cottage (www.kerrycottage.com), the go-to place for St. Patrick’s Day swag in St. Louis. First-generation Irish-American Maura Lawlor started the shop with her late mother who emigrated from County Kerry.
The spot once held the office of Lawlor’s dad’s construction business, and its expansion included buying a Laundromat that was next door. Lawlor felt the shamrock-shaped hole in the wall where dryer pipes had been was a sign the project was on the right track. So she left the hole in the wall.
The shop also has a thatched roof that took nine months to put up in 2011. The thatch came from Turkey. The project involved people from New Zealand, France, and the Caribbean.
The insurance premiums went down, Lawlor said, and the roof is supposed to last 70 years.
I’m getting one for Tom for Christmas. And a Georgian door.
Either way, Tom bought a Guinness bar towel, and Lawlor was gracious enough to give me a Irish-style Cardinals ball cap – which looks sort of Christmasy, given the red and green.
I will wear it as long as the Cardinals are in the MLB playoffs, to mock fans of what passes for pro baseball in Chicago.
Shopping made us thirsty, so we visited O’Connell’s Pub (www.saucemagazine.com/oconnells/), 4652 Shaw Ave. Publican Fred Parker said the family-owned pub has been at this particular spot since 1972 and in town since 1962.
It’s named after the Dublin street, and, as it was started by someone who was Bohemian and English, at first sold more Schlitz than any beer, Parker claimed.
What makes it Irish, Parker said, is the lighting, dark woodwork, relaxing atmosphere with music at low volumes, and just one TV. There’s also all the stuff on the wall, a good deal of it coming from an uncle who was an antiques dealer.
Going local, we had a side of Mayfair dressing with our deep-fried mushrooms. Named after the St. Louis hotel where it first was offered, the recipe includes champagne, anchovies, garlic and mustard or horseradish.
St. Louis Scottish Games
Thus fortified, it was time to hit the Scottish Games, which meant heading back to the hotel to put on my kilt, along with my t-shirt that reads, “I’m the Irishman your mother warned you about.” Hey, I wanted to fit in, but only so much.
Making it worth getting dressed up for was hearing a bagpipe version of Rod Stewart’s “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy”. That, and the games were in Forest Park, one of the country’s best city parks.
You could tell Forest Park is beautiful because of all the wedding parties getting their pictures taken there. Yes, weddings were ubiquitous. September is the new June. Climate change.
As for the games (www.stlouis-scottishgames.com/), organizer Jim McLaren noted next year the St. Louis event will feature the masters world championships for middle aged and older guys who can toss cabers and throw or hurl other heavy objects.
This year’s games drew several thousand people, there to see the big boys in kilts, hear 120 or so musicians taking part in pipe and drum competitions, have some peaty whisky, eat some haggis, or meet some sheep. But not meat some sheep. That’s best done indoors.
It was pretty hot, and we all were getting dehydrated, so we headed to John D. McGurk’s (www.mcgurks.com), 120 Russell, in the Soulard neighborhood, the French Quarter of St. Louis.
Owner Jim Halloran started the place in 1978, which helped bring back the neighborhood, where Mardi Gras, not St. Patrick’s Day, is the big deal. The spot has more than tripled in size over the years and holds a beer garden that can hold 250 people – with the emphasis on garden, as McGurk’s sister landscaped the area to make it a pretty place to drink.
Four years ago, Esquire Magazine named McGurk’s one of the best bars in America, and it’s featured in the book Irish Pubs in America: History, Lore and Recipes.
This particular Saturday afternoon, the McGurk’s was buzzing, the corned beef excellent, and Tom said lamb-laden stew was the best he’s had since Ireland.
Sure, the wedding reception going on outside was playing Steely Dan and Michael McDonald for dinner music. But Halloran said one of the key’s to his pub’s success has been featuring live Irish music most of the time – which any pub-goer in the Chicago area can tell you is getting rarer at places up here.
Our livers took a nap before we headed early evening to Seamus McDaniel’s in Dogtown, which might be the Beverly of St. Louis – both having blue collar roots and Irish parades.
Dogtown has a baloney story about its name involving Igorot people from the Philippines on display at the 1904 World’s Fair sneaking off from the event to grab some dogs for food from miner’s camps.
John Corbett of the Dogtown Historical Society explained the name actually refers to all the miners who once lived and worked in the area digging up coal and clay. As such, with the techniques and conditions of the times, the landscape wound up looking like dogs took over the area.
This section of St. Louis consists of four neighborhoods and part of another. Corbett, 65, noted there are a lot of residents who have spent most if not all of their lives on its blocks, hanging out with the same crowds – in his case having coffee every morning with the same group of guys.
Corbett’s dad was a star soccer player in a town where soccer has a storied history. There are photos and a jersey to this point on the walls at Seamus McDaniel’s, which is ground zero for the St. Patrick’s parade, which, unlike in Chicago, is always held on March 17 and overseen by the local chapter of the Ancient Order of Hibernians.
Seamus McDaniel’s (www.seamusmcdaniels.com), 1208 Tamm Ave., opened in 1986 in a spot that once held O’Shea’s, and a portrait of Jack O’Shea hangs behind the bar at McDaniels.
O’Shea was a character. According to Harry’s St. Louis Guide to Pubs, Saloons & Other Drinking Establishments, (www2.webster.edu/~corbetre/dogtown/articles/brennan-pubs.html), “O’Shea’s has hosted illegal gambling in a room upstairs, hidden illegal Irish immigrants, operated illegally on Sundays, caused a Code 2000 alert (police lingo for a riot), had a patron in a rage ram through the front of the building with his automobile, and seen plenty of other notorious goings-on.”
Now, as Seamus McDaniel’s, the place prides itself on supporting local unions and being family friendly. It’s a local for watching the Cardinals or the Missouri Tigers – in your tiger-print jam shorts if you’re so inclined – and having local bar food such as toasted ravioli.
Jim Venincasa and wife Sue own and operate the spot, which serves a good number of beers and whiskeys – a sign of the changing times in a place that opened with the usual limited assortment of Budweiser suds. Now it taps its own Red Ale and Redbreast Whiskey.
The Scottish Arms
That eating and drinking seachange in America was on display again Sunday morning at The Scottish Arms (www.thescottisharms.com), which stocks more than 200 whiskies and where we had brunch.
The menu included dishes with salmon, of course, and Scotch eggs, and a fry, along with a duck confit and a tomato and basil quiche served with hollandaise sauce.
Chef Carl Hazel said the Arms makes its own sausages and its own haggis. A twist on the St. Louis desert here, the gooey butter cake, is gluten free, made with whisky, and comes from a local pastry chef.
A flyer by the door advertised an event at a place called The Shaved Duck, a St. Louis barbecue place.
So much food. So little time.
Alas, we hit the road, our bellies full, when fate taunted our caloric intake. Roadblocks closed off the two main highways heading east out of town for bicyclists on a charity ride.
It was like being back in Chicago on a Sunday, but still a quicker exit than the Kennedy usually is.