Review: Small Change in Benton Park

Mixing craft cocktails with Red Hot Riplets from a vending machine may sound like a bar identity crisis, but the marriage of high and low is a happy one at Small Change. Where the owners’ other place, Planter’s House, is perfect for a special night out, the new Benton Park spot works for any occasion.

Outside, Small Change feels like a nothing-special neighborhood bar marked by an old Falstaff sign and a green wooden door. But inside awaits a relaxed, retro vibe with friendly hipster bartenders shaking up cocktails to a mellow mix of tunes featuring the likes of Cat Stevens, the Beatles and the Velvet Underground. White twinkle lights adorn the ceiling, lending a soft glow to the exposed brick walls hung with an assortment of old-school bar memorabilia like a Schlitz clock, a giant Old Fitzgerald bottle and a big, slightly battered Budweiser sign. A few TVs play whatever game happens to be on, but they don’t dominate the room.

A small selection of wine is available in addition to a nice list of local and national beer cans. Stag and a rotating selection from Civil Life are the only beers on tap. There’s no kitchen, but you don’t have to go hungry. Just take a handful of change to the two vending machines in the back for chips, candy and even Lunchables. Mac and cheese and ramen noodles are also available and can be zapped in the microwaves sitting nearby.

small change’s successful marriage of high and low makes it an ideal neighborhood bar // photo by david kovaluk

The relaxed attitude doesn’t extend to the cocktail menu – no surprise given the mixology masterminds in charge. Owners Ted Charak and Jamie and Ted Kilgore gave Planter’s House alum and bar manager Harrison Massie control of the specialty cocktail list. With only six drinks, it’s focused and encompasses enough of a spectrum – sweet and smoky to light and boozy – to please nearly everyone. Each is named after a Tom Waits song (if you were wondering whether the bar name was a reference to the 1976 album).

The Waltzing Matilda is a delightfully effervescent vodka cocktail with lemon and bubbles. Cassis (a blackcurrant liqueur) adds some sweetness, while zucca (an Italian rhubarb aperitif) brings a hint of bitterness. For something a little earthier, try the Such a Scream: a complex take on a flip that combines whiskey, beet liqueur, lemon, allspice dram, bitters and a creamy, foamy egg white. 

The Jockey Full of Bourbon is a Manhattan on tap featuring rotating combinations of whiskey, vermouth and bitters. On my visit, it included Four Roses, blanc vermouth, sweet vermouth, Suze and Burlesque bitters that resulted in a sweet but sultry, very smooth take on the classic.

For another high-low touch, Small Change offers two intriguing specialty shots. The Little Drop of Poison is simply a rotating shot of amaro (a bitter Italian herbal liqueur) and a complementary base. The one I tried, Fernet Branca with Contratto Bitter, was syrupy like port and had a bracing medicinal bitterness that wouldn’t appeal to everyone. 

from left, the double pbj time shot and the rotating, amaro-based little drop of poison

The second shot, PBJ Time, comes in two glasses: one with peanut butter fat-washed Camus cognac and the other with Manischewitz Concord Grape wine. Taken together, it tastes – you guessed it – exactly like a PB&J. Kinda weird, kinda genius.

The clientele is your typical neighborhood bar mix, welcoming a wide range of ages and even dogs. The vending machines also sell dog treats, and many nights you’ll find at least one or two furry friends roaming around inside. It’s a place to bring all your friends from the picky hipster cocktail aficionado to the up-for-anything pal who’s happy as long as the drinks are cheap and cold. Embracing both could feel forced, but like the experienced bartenders they are, the Small Change team struck a harmonious balance that feels genuine.

Small Change // 2800 Indiana Ave., St. Louis, Facebook: Small Change STL 

Stephanie Zeilenga is a critic for Sauce Magazine.