The Godfather of First and Fifth

You can learn a lot about a city by standing in the same place for 25 years

In the middle of the night, the crater outside the Loon Bar and Cafe in downtown Minneapolis looks like something out of War of the Worlds. Workmen with miners' hats slave away into the wee hours, digging ever deeper into the intersection of First Avenue and Fifth Street North. On these cold nights, massive klieg lights swamp the darkness with movie-set glare. The intersection has been bombed out so many times over the last year or two that Tim Mahoney can't even remember how long he's been looking at the wreckage through the window of his bar. What's more, he can't remember how many times the hole has been dug up, filled in, and dug back up again by the city, the waterworks, the electric company.

They're making way for the train. Three years from now, the light rail line will pass directly in front of the Loon, shuttling hundreds of thousands of baseball fans to the new Twins ballpark, and launching the Loon into another stratosphere of success. But for the time being, the Loon—which celebrates its 25th anniversary on New Year's Day—is taking a hit. A neighborhood bar as legendary in local life as Cheers once was on TV, it saw flush times in the '80s and '90s. But the crater symbolizes the immediate present, if not future, of the oldest bar in the warehouse district.

Yeah, business is slow, but Mahoney isn't worried. He and his partners—Mike Andrews and John Stein—survived the post-9/11 chill that sent shudders through the bar and restaurant industry. And they know they'll survive the construction, partly because the regulars continue to show up in droves. Look. There are a few of them now: scruffy cooks, beleaguered bartenders, and whipped waitresses from other local joints sitting at a four-top; three veteran liquor distributors and a waitress perched at the end of the bar. Ask anyone who has worked in the biz over the last three decades—those hardy survivors of Feltie's, D.B. Kaplan's, J.D. Hoyt's, the Pickled Parrot; and now Rosen's, Old Chicago, O'Donovan's, the Hard Rock Cafe—and they will tell you that the Loon is where they come to have a post-war cocktail or meal. Here, they bask in the ruddy, red-headed glow of Mahoney, whom some of his twentysomething staffers have taken to calling "The Godfather."

At 45, Tim Mahoney (not to be confused with the local musician of the same name) is a lifelong bachelor and co-owner, with his two brothers, of an Irish bar in Sun Valley, Idaho. He'll tell you that just when he thinks he's seen everything, one of his younger staffers will confess to some late-night "social activity" that makes even the old stallion blush. In that sense, Mahoney is both gregarious and perfectly self-contained, possessed of the sort of street-level wisdom and listening instincts that are unique to barkeeps and priests.

He'll admit to you that, even though he's the manager and co-partner, "I'd rather be behind the pine, pourin' whiskey. Talkin' smart, knowing nothing.

"Like I always say," he may continue, "You can't drink all day unless you start in the morning.

"Ten years from now, I might not remember your name, but I'll remember what you drink."

Cheers. Even though it's apparent that he's uttered such one-liners a hundred thousand times, they still sound fresh coming out of his crooked smile. So belly up, Minneapolis. Belly up to Mahoney's brass-gilded bar and he'll give you an earful about the nouveau and faux thugs that he says overrun downtown after midnight. "This whole area has evolved from being the Loon Cafe 25 years ago on the corner of First and Fifth, with nothing but boarded-up warehouses around it, to it now being [surrounded by] multiple clubs, multiple bars, restaurants, Target Center, a hotel, light rail. The growth has been tremendous. We went from a small little town to a metropolis. And with that comes the problems of a big city, and the police department and City Council need to step up and do their part and make it safe."

He'll fill your glass, and if you're curious, your ears, offering yarns of Minneapolis, as seen from the center of the city. He'll tell you about the wave of people who marched from the Metrodome down Fifth Street to the Loon after the Twins won the World Series in 1987, and about the gas he had cleaning up afterward.

"All those [Twins] hung out here that whole year," he'll tell you. "They were fixtures every night. We had so much fun, because they were just guys my age, playing ball, chasing girls, living the life, and then they end up winning the World Series."

He'll tell you that San Francisco 49ers quarterback Joe Montana would come in regularly and sit at the end of the bar, that Bill Murray entertained the entire staff to the point of tears, and that Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan and his family still come in. He'll brag about the "electric night" in 1994, when a hockey-playing buddy, Tom Chorske, brought in the Stanley Cup that he'd just won with the New Jersey Devils. Everybody hoisted the cup over the Loon in the presence of virtually every luminary from the hockey communities of the Twin Cities and Mahoney's hometown of Rochester, Minnesota.

He'll reminisce about the night before Soul Asylum bassist Karl Mueller's funeral in 2005, when dozens of members of the music scene gathered for an Irish wake at the Loon, where Mueller had worked off and on for years. At this point, Mahoney will point to his most prized possession in the bar: a platinum record of Soul Asylum's 1994 hit Grave Dancer's Union. "They didn't have to do that," he'll say. "Karl was a friend, and all those guys have become friends over the years. The Jayhawks, the Fray, the Suburbs, they've all been part of this. I thought it was very cool for them to present the bar with that. It shows a lot.

"Whenever Prince did a run of shows, he would park his car out there, come in with his bodyguard and go upstairs before going to the concert. And every show, he'd drop off tickets. A guy would come in the front door and hand me tickets—all in the first five rows—and he'd say, 'Here. Make sure everyone gets these.' You don't hear about stuff like that. The goodness of those people."

He'll tell you about his dream scenario three years from now, on opening day of the Twins' inaugural season in the new ballpark, when he hopes that people who started going to the Loon 25 years ago will come in with their kids and grandkids. "The city is so exciting right now," he'll say. "You can feel it. We're the cornerstone of the Warehouse District for a reason. Over the years, what I've learned is that it doesn't matter if you're a CEO of a major company or a dishwasher. If you treat 'em all the same, if you treat 'em with respect, they'll be here forever. So hopefully we'll be here for another 15 years or so, and one of these days I'll be standing out on the street corner shaking everybody's hand like the mayor."

Or the Godfather.

"Yeah. Like the Godfather."

Jim Walsh can be reached at 612.372.3775 or jwalsh@citypages.com

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