Saint Charles Tavern Sits in South Tucson’s Sweet Spot

December 24, 2018
By Angela Orlando
By Angela Orlando

Nothing sinful about a watering hole that supports the community.

(Credit: Saint Charles Tavern)
(Credit: Saint Charles Tavern)

Not unlike Saint Nick, Saint Charles Tavern has gifted the people of South Tucson with some serious jolly fun. And as motley as the tavern’s clientele may be, there’s nothing sinful about the place.

Rather, as co-owner Elizabeth Menke said, Saint Charles Tavern is “maintaining the sweetness” of the neighborhood.

The history behind the watering hole

Once upon a time and for many years, Saint Charles Tavern’s married owners Churchill Brauninger and Menke worked at the uber-popular, heavy-drinking San Francisco Mission District bar, Zeitgeist. In fact, that’s where they met.

At Zeitgeist, Brauninger acquired design brainchildren for what would become his own future watering hole.

Meanwhile, Menke further mastered the art of accommodating diverse crowds at what she said was the busiest San Francisco establishment at the time, save for the ballpark.

“Bartending remains Menke’s favorite part of owning and operating what is rapidly becoming one of South Tucson’s centers of community.”

All welcome, thoughtful drinking encouraged

“It’s an everybody bar,” she said. “You have your retirees that show up at 10 a.m. drinking Bud Light [next to members of] the drinking industry” joining bikers at the bar, she said.

Her patrons are what she coined “thoughtfully drinking” together, savoring the tavern’s equally thoughtfully curated liquor list, playing pool, and listening to live music in the beer garden.

In 2008, when Brauninger and Menke left San Francisco for Tucson, where Menke had spent the majority of her childhood, the couple didn’t expect to open shop in the City of South Tucson. The main reason they acquired the building was availability, Menke said.

Patio at Saint Charles Tavern (Credit: Jackie Tran)
Patio at Saint Charles Tavern (Credit: Jackie Tran)
Bar license won not bought

The right to serve alcohol within the municipality was hard-won. Even though they bought their Series 6 bar license from the building’s previous residents, they had to earn the privilege to use it.

It took a year to gain the City’s approval. Meanwhile, their building sat abandoned, waiting to serve the community.

Historically, Menke explained, at its peak, there were a total of 55 liquor licenses, many restaurants, and a race track in South Tucson. This was the city’s tax base.

But things got out of hand. Crime skyrocketed, and Arizona’s very powerful liquor board began to revoke established liquor licenses to curb problems.

Now there are only eight liquor licenses in the entire City of South Tucson, and Saint Charles Tavern, of course, protects one of them.

Elizabeth Menke at the patio at Saint Charles Tavern (Credit: Jackie Tran)
Elizabeth Menke at the patio at Saint Charles Tavern (Credit: Jackie Tran)
Curbing South Tucson’s crime rate

Part of the way that Menke and her co-owners — including a third owner who doesn’t participate in the day-to-day operations — earned the right to sell alcohol, was to go before the City of South Tucson’s board and convince them that the tavern would improve the neighborhood, versus introducing problems that can go hand-in-hand with booze.

Menke and her co-owners had to promise the City of South Tucson that they would not operate as a liquor store, she said.

The board’s biggest concern, she added, was safety and that they would not “flood the streets with nefarious behavior.”

“We even had to write a business plan,” Menke said. Although she carries an Associate of Science from San Francisco City College’s Culinary Arts and Hospitality Studies department, it was the first time she had to actually write such a convincing proposal.

“We were incredibly confident; we were all in,” Menke said. And convince they did.

Bar at Saint Charles Tavern (Credit: Jackie Tran)
Bar at Saint Charles Tavern (Credit: Jackie Tran)
A patron saint of reform is watching over the tavern

As of the tavern’s three-year mark, there have been no problems. Saint Charles Borromeo himself seems to be watching over the bar. He is the patron saint of reform, which is one of the things Saint Charles Tavern is, in turn, doing for the City of South Tucson.

Artistic beer garden displays local artists’ work

The beer garden that Brauninger and Menke built in the tavern’s yard evokes the one they left behind at Zeitgeist, but it is decorated with local muralists’ art.

Tucson artist Amy Novelli paints frames on the yard’s walls and future muralists will fill them in with their own creations, Menke said.

One of the reasons for the beer garden’s saint-infused decor is that it is preserving the aging building while preserving the city’s Catholic character.

Community support is a win-win

Menke said that the tavern has gained popularity owing to its relationship with and support of the tiny community of South Tucson.

They are transparent and communicative with the board, and with the town’s residents.

The tavern has, as Menke said, “transcended the reputation of violence” that South Tucson is so often stigmatized with.

They are proud to be part of the community’s flourishing revitalization, “without gentrifying it,” Menke noted. Rather, Saint Charles Tavern is providing revenue and enjoying mutual support with the longtime residents.

Bar at Saint Charles Tavern (Credit: Jackie Tran)
Bar at Saint Charles Tavern (Credit: Jackie Tran)
Building relationships and expanding the vision

They are also enjoying symbiosis with the nearby American Eat Co., who is helping to revitalize the area. All the restaurants within the food court deliver to Saint Charles Tavern.

Ideally, Menke and company will rehabilitate the other half of their 3500-square-foot building, which is actually a house.

She fantasizes about eventually expanding to add a second bar, with an employee space, and maybe someday in the distant future, a cafe.

“We’re always concerned with what the community needs. What does it want to be? What makes sense?” she asked.”

Menke said that as of right now, the bar needs to be protected. Bar ownership is a vulnerable business; it’s precarious. And they must maintain the sweetness.

Operating hours are 10 a.m. – 2 a.m. Monday to Saturday and 10 – 12 a.m. on Sunday.

Saint Charles Tavern is located at 1632 S. Fourth Ave. For more information, Keep up with Saint Charles Tavern on Facebook.

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