Last Call
Shutterstock / Grace Woolslayer

Last Call

A new book chronicles the heyday and decline of the Twin Cities tavern.

I didn’t grow up in a family that frequented bars, so my image of a watering hole was the bar that Archie Bunker patronized in All in the Family. If you’re of a similar vintage, you might also reference the one run by Sam Malone on the sitcom Cheers.

Kelsey’s, the neighborhood tap Archie Bunker frequented, epitomized an urban tavern of the post-Prohibition era. To me, Cheers was too bright, too convivial, too much brass, too many faux-Tiffany lamps. Too 1980s.

I’d like to tell you I outgrew my upbringing and became a tavern connoisseur, but that would be a lie. The notorious Moby Dick’s in downtown Minneapolis was a favorite of my early colleagues at the Twin Cities Reader, but as a newly legal drinker, I found it so frightening I didn’t enter a second time. I also hated cigarette smoke, so I mostly avoided bars until smoking was banned in them nearly two decades ago. At that point my peak bar years were past.

Some were made of stronger stuff—perhaps the folks at the Minnesota Historical Society, who asked local authors Bill Lindeke and Andy Sturdevant to tell the stories of some of the region’s legendary bars, many long gone, a few still alive. Their new book, Closing Time, is a compendium of a few dozen short histories of those watering holes, from Moby Dick’s to the legendary Matt’s Bar in south Minneapolis to the obscure Spot Bar on Randolph in St. Paul.

A bar is theoretically a good business. Alcohol is a commodity with a high retail markup, rarely are expensive renovations or reconcepting something customers demand, and staffing requirements are modest. Food is an afterthought (except at Matt’s). But recent decades have not been kind to the neighborhood tap as an institution. Lindeke describes them as marginal businesses.

White flight and the movement of industrial jobs out of the core cities dealt a death blow to bars like Kelsey’s and many old-line taverns in the 1960s and ’70s. Those that survived have had to contend with places like Cheers and now, the proprietary taproom—bright, loud, serving only house beers at a generous profit margin. Eats are outsourced to food trucks. And don’t forget the mixology trend, a labor-intensive approach to drinking that venerates the new and fashionable at the expense of the tried and true.

St. Paul stalwart O’Gara’s closed so a residential development could be built on its site, but then declined to reopen, citing the city’s $15 minimum wage, general consumer trends, and the difficulty competing with taprooms that make their own product rather than buying it from a distributor.

There’s the decline of men congregating at bars as an evening pastime. Imagine getting up from the dinner table and walking to the neighborhood tap for a couple hours while your spouse does the dishes and puts the kids to bed.

“There was a huge density of bars in town as late as the 1970s,” explains Lindeke. “Lake Street had [what seemed like] hundreds, and now there are, what, five?”

Pre-1980, the neighborhood bar was a place where age, class, and even races mixed. “All walks of life, really. You had a good chance to talk to someone you’d never otherwise meet,” Lindeke says. “Today that doesn’t much exist. In a brewery you never talk to someone not like you. It reinforces a lot of the trends of compartmentalization in our culture.”

One of the things that attracted the authors to the project was the opportunity to document a cultural era. “There’s an endangered quality to most of these places,” says Sturdevant, especially neighborhood and 3.2 bars. “Like [for] record stores and bookstores, the conveyor belt of history has moved on.”

Some have characterized the book as a veneration of the dive bar, which it is not. It doesn’t pander to the tiresome trend of aging icons of the upper middle class who use their occasional patronage of Liquor Lyle’s or the CC Club to signal to their social media followers they’re cool and still youthful. Most such spots did not merit a mention.

“The dive concept is a modern conception,” Lindeke says, “a created mythology,” Sturdevant notes, a place people use to associate themselves with a façade they’re trying to present to the world.

The authors say St. Paul was always a friendlier town to bars; in the late 19th century, Minneapolis Mayor George Pillsbury’s war on intemperance and the restrictive zoning codes he championed made it a tough place to run a tap. The city’s “liquor patrol” boundaries placed large swaths of residential neighborhoods off-limits to bars, concentrating them near downtown or in tiny clusters, such as Seward’s “hub of hell,” which is why there are huge tracts of south Minneapolis without a single place to drink.

The book is rich in vintage photos and surprisingly dense with text—it’s for readers, rather than a coffee table tome. Like a neighborhood bar, it’s modest and unpretentious, and it leaves you wondering: What price, progress?

Adam Platt is TCB’s executive editor.

Read more from this issue