State and federal law prohibits businesses from discriminating against people based on race, religion, sex, ancestry, or disability. But, denying service based on age is fair game and the St. Louis area boasts dozens of bars and lounges where the minimum for entry is at least 30 years old.
On recent Friday night, the Dejavu 2 Cafe in Jennings bustles with a mostly over-50 crowd, flourished with brimmed hats, shiny shoes and flashy dresses. Amid the dim lights, white table cloths and turntables playing soul, R&B, and Motown, it’s hard to tell the place was formerly a Chuck E. Cheese’s.
“Everybody makes fun of it: this is where the older people come — they call senior citizens — and I’m okay with that title. This is where the senior citizens come,” says owner, Peewee Johnson.
Barring the club’s door to anyone younger than 35 is a big draw for business, he says, and helps maintain a level of manners that easily goes out the window with a younger crowd.
“When you come in the door, you come in dressed. If somebody bumps into you, steps on your shoes, whatever, you say excuse me and keep on moving.”
Tammy Tellis, 54, is a retired educator and visits regularly to dance and see friends. “I don’t want to be at the club and someone yells out ‘Mom,’” she says, laughing about how she’d like to avoid sharing the bar with her 21- and 25-year-old kids. There’s an appeal in keeping out other young adults too, she says.
“I don’t have to worry about the guys with the ball caps and T-shirts. You know: The younger group. That’s not what I want to hang out with,” she says.
Old School Tradition
Dejavu 2 Café is only a few years old, but it follows a long tradition of mature-only establishments in the St. Louis area.
“Age restriction was based on what the club’s atmosphere was,” says Nelson Harvey, music promoter and publisher of St. Louis Night’s Magazine. Some of the most famous older clubs in north St. Louis, he says, go back decades.
“It was a known fact that if you were going to Hurn’s [Cocktail Lounge], Zodiac [Lounge], NBC [Lounge] you were 50-plus,” he says, referring to some of the oldest bars in north St. Louis.
According to Harvey, there are more than 25 area clubs that still turn away younger patrons. He says such establishments are vestiges of an era when music acts like Tina Turner, Albert King and Smokey Robinson played regularly in neighborhood establishments in north St. Louis.
“Neighborhood clubs for a long time have sort of been like a country club,” he says, explaining the age limits help preserve a level of style and polish of a bygone era. Many have signs on the door, but for others it’s been an unspoken rule.
“Because you knew there were X amounts of places that your father or uncle would go to. You had the same opportunity to go, but you just didn’t go because you knew that was an older market,” says Harvey.
One of the most well-known is the Harlem Tap Room at Martin Luther King Drive and Whittier Street.
“It isn’t posted anywhere that you have to be over 30. [It’s] just kind of a given. Everybody knows it’s a grown folks hang out,” says college admissions recruiter Perez Eric Maxwell, who visits once or twice a month.
Many similar establishments have closed since their heyday in the 1960s and '70s, but some that remain have taken on a new a new role in the neighborhoods they serve.
Professor Garrett Duncan teaches African-American Studies at Washington University and says such lounges today offer sanctuary in communities devastated by poverty and crime.
“They create a safe haven for an older population who have been disenfranchised, not just by the youth population, but also from the police departments, the legal services and medical services who were supposed to protect and serve them,” he says.
Duncan says he sees the age limits as a constructive and necessary response in communities where young adults are disproportionately the perpetrators and victims of violent crime.
Raising the bar
That’s one reason why CW's Lounge on Natural Bridge Avenue near Parnell Street has persevered in St. Louis’ struggling JeffVanderLou neighborhood since 1985.
Owner Cardell Williams says, in recent years, his 30-and-up restriction has become less about the age of his customers than about a generational divide.
“Nowadays, this younger generation don’t care about themselves. They don’t care about you, the police and nobody else ... They’ll run your older crowd away because older people don’t want to be around them.”
And Williams says as that younger generation gets older, he’s planning to raise his age limit soon.
“I’ll probably go up to 35. People at age 35 and older — they have more respect for other peoples.”
He says there are plenty of other places where younger adults can go until they come of age.
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