When I was a child, my father, like many fathers in those days, had his favorite dive-bar hangout. His was located on a busy street corner in the northern suburbs of St. Louis. It was gritty and smoky; the walls were covered with dark wood paneling and beer posters and signs. Hand-written signs warning patrons to not upset the bartender, items for sale, and losers who had skipped out on their tab. Hanging above the bar was a fuzzy old Sylvania television broadcasting the Cardinals (baseball or football) or the Blues. Those were the good old, days when a bar was filled with working class men who just wanted to stop for a few cold ones before heading home.
Today it seems like most bars are much cleaner, more sanitized and, while maybe not corporate, they certainly have the aesthetic of a corporately run sports bar. Pubs have multiple big-screen televisions playing ESPN or one of dozens of other sports-centric programs or games. The crotchety old bartender has been replaced by a chipper young girl in bright orange hot pants, and local brews have been replaced by the brands marketed and produced by the mega brands for mass consumption.
This is why when I walked the door at Redlight Redlight last Saturday evening while on a weekend get-away to Orlando I felt like I was stepping through a time portal. This unassuming pub located away from the beaten trail off of East Colonial Drive is a gem that brought an immediate smile to my face.
The sign is retro and, I say this with no malice whatsoever, slightly shabby looking. The interior is old-school pub with the requisite beer signs and hand-written notes. In addition there is a huge, full wall chalk board with listing of beers available. The place is dark thanks to low lighting, but also due to the dark woods used throughout. The bar is a wooden masterpiece that belongs in a movie about old bars, it looks as though it is ancient and it fits perfectly with the vibe of the place. Behind the bar is a wall with several taps and appropriate glassware. On the bar itself are several more taps including two beer engines with real ale. Off to the side there is a stage and a screen that was showing the Alabama – LSU game while I was there. Also behind the bar are several hard-working and extremely knowledgeable bartenders. No tiny orange shorts on these guys, but if you want to know about beer, they know their stuff. This place is, as Guy Fieri would say, old school money.
I found the one empty barstool in the center of the bar and parked myself on it. Above the bar is more chalk board with the names of the beers on tap. Now, I have been to bars with many more choices than Redlight Redlight, but this place had some truly awesome beers on tap. Beers like The Companion by Brooklyn Brewing, Pangaea from Dogfish head, Jai Alai from Cigar City, and Old Thumper Cask ESA.
The crowd was a friendly lot of young and old, beer novices and aficionados, and surprisingly a lot of ladies. I was nearly floored when a young lady who could not have been more than 22 or 23 ordered a gueuse right next to me. I asked her about it and she said she has loved it since the first time she tried it on the suggestion of one of the bartenders.
My first choice was St. Louis Gueuse Fond Tradition from Brouwerji Van Honsebrouck in Belgium on tap. The last time I had this beer on tap was when I was actually in Belgium earlier this year. As I recalled, the beer is refreshing sour with apple and vinegar notes. I finished the evening with something new that, hard as it may be to believe, I had never heard of before; mulled beer. My helpful bartender, in an effort to find brews I had not already tried, mentioned it to me and then brought me a taste. In the tradition of mulled wine, this brew was warmed and served hot. The beer is dark almost black with ruby highlights and smells very similar to mulled wine; cinnamon, cloves, anise, dark fruit like plums and raisins all enveloped in a lovely steam emanating from the glass. First sip revealed the taste very much like the nose. On a blustery, cold evening in Orlando, that was just the thing to send me out the door.
As I said goodbye to my new friends at Redlight Redlight, I promised to return on my next visit south. I walked to me car and it struck me that many beer bars do it wrong, they dress themselves up to be something they are not. A good beer bar needs only three essential things; a bar, good beers on tap, and friendly, knowledgeable staff. That’s it. No matter how you glam a place up if those three things are not there, it’s just not a good beer bar. Some of the corporate big boys should take note and go retro. I know that given the choice, that’s what I would want.