ST. LOUIS -- To the uninitiated, Saturday night fever here can play out like a hillbilly skit from ''Hee Haw." But before you cry, ''Whoa, Nelly! What's your beef with the Corn Belt?," I can explain. I'm a proud product of the Midwest, having grown up in Illinois, two hours from St. Louis, not to mention that I spent countless weekends club-hopping here as a college student. Besides, only a vibrant, gay-friendly city like St. Louis could have given the world Tina Turner and Josephine Baker.
Inevitably, though, St. Louis -- famous for its arch and known as the gateway to the West --is a city everyone visits at some point. Folks land here all the time for weekend conventions, weddings, layovers, a Cardinals game at Busch Stadium, or, for gay men into ''bear" types, an annual soiree called Hibearnation. Metro, the city's public transport system of buses and trains, is efficient, but seriously consider a car rental to pack in all the attractions, which are certainly spread out.
So what do the locals do around here, anyway? I found out over the summer when I visited the city's haunts with my lesbian cousin, Cheryl (who goes by Cher, for a closer connection to Chastity Bono, no doubt). We began our night at 10 p.m., which is standard for St. Louis, and our first stop was Attitudes (4100 Manchester Road, 314-534-3858), a popular lesbian bar. (Note: This is where we rewind to that ''Hee Haw" bit.) Regardless of our upbringings with continuous Loretta Lynn on the hi-fi, Cher and I weren't prepared for the scene at Attitudes. We weren't fazed by the men and women clad in Western shirts and line dancing in perfect little rows; it was the music. "Wait. Are they dancing to . . . 'MMMBop' by Hanson?," I screeched to my cousin. We stood awestruck, as if witnessing a train wreck. I was fascinated, but Cher guzzled her vodka tonic at record speed just as I was revved up to see the dance moves to Anita Ward's ''Ring My Bell."
As it turns out, Attitudes has been catering to a particular crowd, which has been key to most St. Louis bars' survival these days, says Tony Bossaller, who runs the helpful website www.gaystlouis.com. ''The problem is all the bars are hurting right now," he says. ''I know a few are teetering on the verge of closing. Those bars which are doing well have niche markets." Bossaller has his own picks for the city: For a mean martini, visit the Absolutli Goosed martini bar (3196 S. Grand Blvd., 314-772-0400), or dine on upscale French cuisine at the new Chez Leon (4580 Laclede Ave., 314-361-1589). For more, um, cosmopolitan adventures in night life, try the ever-popular The Complex (3515 Chouteau Ave., 314-772-2645), the piano bar Drake (3502 Papin St., 314-865-1400), and Magnolia's (5 S. Vandeventer Ave., 314-652-6500), which features a late-night diner. For the ladies, check out Novak's Bar & Grill (4146 Manchester Road, 314-531-FOXX).
To launch your big night on the town, MoKaBe's Coffee House (3606 Arsenal St., 314-865-2009) is often a good starting point. You're bound to hear anyone from Ani DiFranco to Lhasa on the sound system as a steady flow of women and men gather for strong lattes (soy, of course), sandwiches, and homemade baked goods. When the weather's nice, get here early for a seat outside and marvel at the men, their eyes forever rolling, sizing up the eye candy. It's no coincidence that the city's gay pride festival, which runs June 26-27 next year, happens in Tower Grove Park across from MoKaBe's.
Younger crowds -- and there are loads of them since the area has more than a dozen universities and colleges -- and hipsters often hang out in the Loop neighborhood, a six-block stretch of restaurants, boutiques, book and music stores, galleries, and clubs. Be sure to check out the gorgeous, renovated Tivoli Theatre (6350 Delmar Blvd., 314-862-1100) for the latest in GLBT and independent cinema. Cicero's (6691 Delmar Blvd., 314-862-0009) always has the cutest servers and best selection of beers, and nearby Fitz's Bottling Co. (6605 Delmar Blvd., 314-726-9555) is a microbrewery with tasty root beer floats. Essential reading: www.ucityloop.com.
It's a tourist trap, all right, but a trip to the Gateway Arch (11 N. 14th St., 314-655-1700) is worthwhile, as is the queasy tummy you're likely to have when swaying ever so gently in a tiny observation area perched 630 feet in the air. Tramcars, which hold five people and depart every 10 minutes, shoot you to the top in four minutes, where sprawling vistas await. For $8, you get a 30-mile view of some of the city's landmarks, such as Busch Stadium and the Old Courthouse, and the Mississippi and Missouri rivers.
From the arch, head down to the riverboats, for either a tour of the Mississippi or a leaner pocketbook. A handful of glitzy casinos are in or just outside St. Louis, and surely you'll find they're like something out of Kenny Rogers's ''The Gambler" (minus the Reba McEntire cameo). In St. Louis, you got to know when to fold 'em, and a long weekend in this Heartland oasis is plenty of time.
Outbound, on gay and lesbian travel, appears the fourth Sunday of each month. James Reed can be reached at email@example.com.