November 23, 2020
Mayda Miller is here to rip.
The Wondrous Punch at the Red Dragon was one of these things I knew about before I even moved to the Twin Cities through the Midwestern art school whisper network. Back in Louisville, where I grew up, I worked with a guy who went to MCAD and talked about them all the time, and I thought he couldn’t possibly be telling the truth about how just over the top they were. But he was right about them: they’re in a fishbowl and one will knock you right over. I don’t know of it being served elsewhere other than at the Nankin or the Red Dragon, but it really is a true Minnesota marvel of culinary engineering, along with the Jucy Lucy and the football pizza.
Oh, sure, in some cases we had to cut sections that were really interesting, but were just too much information. It’s easy to get going with a shaggy dog story recounted to you fourth-hand from a bartender who’s been dead for 60 years; you sort of fall under the spell of these guys, and think “Oh no, we can’t cut the story about the foundling they found at the back door in 1911, that’s the heart of the whole story!” On the other hand, with some of these places, I feel lucky to have gotten as much material as we did. With places like the Grotto or the Jumbo or Little Jake’s that closed a hundred years ago and don’t have much of a presence in the cultural memory, I think we included just about every piece of information we found. There was a lot missing, in some cases, so we had to find ways to weave together these little tidbits of information and dates and names gleaned from property records and obituaries and telephone directories and make it all add up to an impression of a place. But you’re right. A place like Little Jake’s and all the rest of the bars on the same block would make a wonderful book on their own.
I think Northeast bars still have that quality. A good dive bar, whether in Northeast or St. Paul or a first-ring suburb, will have that cross-generational quality. Especially in the late afternoon and early evening, when you’re transitioning from the daytime crowd to the younger crowd. Merlin’s Rest, my neighborhood bar, has that quality. With some places, especially the bars that are on the “gastropub” end of the spectrum, the multi-generational thing is even more extreme. You go to some of these places and it’s like they’ve got high chairs, with families bringing in their young kids.
Aw, I’m glad you liked the image of the Grotto, which was a bar that was exactly what it sounds like — a saloon made up to look like an undersea grotto, built near Union Depot in St. Paul. In fact, the reason we included it in the book is because the photo was so weird and unique and unlike anything else we saw. I regret we couldn’t run the color version of it! In some cases, we knew bars we wanted to include and tracked down images of them, but in other cases, we just had these photos that were so good, we had to include them. It was difficult to find much about the Grotto. It changed ownership every few years for the short time it was open, so it didn’t seem to leave much of a presence. And of course it suffered the most stereotypical of fates, in that it was torn down and turned into a parking lot in the early ’20s. I can’t say for sure it was the first bar in the Twin Cities to be turned into a parking lot, but it was certainly one of the earlier ones. I wonder if there are little fragments of Portland cement and shells buried under Kellogg Boulevard.
Yeah, there certainly are, and most of those distinctions came out of decisions made 140 years ago. The drinking geography of Minneapolis was determined by what were called the “liquor patrol limits,” supposedly the distance a beat cop could walk during a shift. Within these limits, with a few exceptions grandfathered in elsewhere in the city, you could operate a bar that served full-strength beer and liquor. Those areas were the downtown core, mostly around the old Gateway District, where there were already dozens or hundreds of bars serving liquor, and two other neighborhoods largely populated by immigrant groups politically powerful enough to push back against alcohol restrictions: Northeast and the West Bank, where you had a deeply rooted culture of drinking and socializing in bars by Germans, Eastern Europeans and rural Scandinavians. So there’s still this aspect to Minneapolis where people descend on certain parts of the city from other neighborhoods or suburbs to party, and then drive or take cabs back to their homes at the end of the night. I’ve always thought it was a failure of the local vernacular that we don’t have an equivalent term for “bridge and tunnel crowd.” In St. Paul, of course, the bars are spread throughout the neighborhoods, and if you go into them, most of the people you’ll meet live very close by. I remember going to Mancini’s with some out of town friends a few years ago, and one asked me this same question: “what’s the difference between a Minneapolis and St. Paul bar?” I said, “Here, I’ll show you,” and called over the server, who was a guy in his mid-20s. “What parish did you grow up in?” I asked. “St. Francis de Sales” he said without even stopping to think about it. And that’s it: there’s a pretty good chance your bartender or server in a St. Paul bar will have grown up somewhere nearby and can probably identify his or her specific parish. Whereas in Minneapolis, you ask the same question of your server or bartender, and the answer is more likely “Oh, I grew up in Moorhead and moved here to go to the U.”
Poor Mr. Nibs! He was the guy who opened what became Matt’s, named Clarence “Nibs” Martin. Some of our older readers may recall Nib’s, his club in the old Hub of Hell neighborhood in Seward. I don’t think that story is particularly well-known, despite the fact that (or perhaps because) the legend of Matt’s and the Jucy Lucy is so well-known. I never asked anyone at Matt’s about Nib’s, but I suspect it’s not common knowledge. As far as I can tell, though, the Jucy Lucy was invented at Mr. Nib’s a few weeks before it became Matt’s. But Matt’s perfected it, obviously. And like I said, I never asked at Matt’s. You hate to be the guy at the bar who’s all like “Well, actually, did you know…”
— Photo by Zoe Prinds-Flash