On any given night in Birmingham’s Lakeview neighborhood, where there is neither lake nor view, you’ll find Miss O popping beers and pouring whiskey for a cadre of regulars at Lou’s Pub. “What’ll you have, hun?” she says in her gentle way, gray hair pulled back into a tidy ponytail. Like any great neighborhood bar, Lou’s trades in local characters, a know-you-by-name atmosphere and bartenders with a cult-like following. Unlike most neighborhood bars, however, Lou’s is also a package store (Southern for “liquor store”)—an anomaly in blue-law-laden Alabama. Opposite the copper-topped bar, all along the right wall under a neon row of Pabst and Coors signs, you’ll find a solid selection of bourbon, hard-to-find rums and enough bitters and Fernet to make a mustache curl.
Louis Zaden opened Lou’s in 1987. It took him a year to stock the retail side, buying an extra case of vodka here, some gin there, until the shelves were full. Birminghamians would stop in after work for a drink, a dose of Lou’s sharp wit and a brown bag to go. Lou and his pub were so central to the local routine that when he died in 2008, a block party of mourners turned out and closed down the street. The local Budweiser distributor even sent trucks to give away free beer.
These days, a roster of local legends—Miss O, Mike Curl, Frankie—continue Lou’s legacy, pouring drinks from the century-old apothecary cabinet: Old-Fashioneds, fresh-citrus Whiskey Sours and an awful lot of Bud and High Life (the latter often topped off with Tang). Their specialty? Knowing precisely when to have the next drink ready. On Sundays and Wednesdays, Angel Negrín hosts Church Night, a cheeky nod to the Southern habit of getting a double dose of the spirit each week; Negrín, a linchpin in the city’s cocktail renaissance, shakes his way through classic Hemingway Daiquiris and gin Brambles and does a mean version of cocktail improv.
Throughout the bar-cum-liquor store, the sense of community thrives. Out front, under shade trees, folks hold court around concrete patio tables. Inside, propped behind the bar, a Leave-A-Drink board denotes hand-scrawled “gift certificates” for beverages pre-bought for friends. Area bartenders pop in for supplies and to share a shot before their shift. Monthly service industry nights keep the bar hopping until the wee hours, sometimes as late as 7 a.m. Regulars linger on bar stools or at the tables outside, and drinks seem to magically appear. And at quitting time, Miss O and Co. will gladly send you on your way with a bottle or two.