The grand re-opening of the perfectly restored Commodore Bar & Restaurant in St. Paul takes “kicking it old school” all the way back to the 1920s, a decade-long party of illegal booze, strange dance crazes, and excellent interior design. The '20s also saw the rise of St. Paul’s literary and social power couple F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, a pair with ties to the Commodore.
The Commodore Hotel, which housed the original bar and restaurant, first opened in 1920, and within a year it was attracting the likes of the Fitzgeralds, who stayed there after getting kicked out of other temporary residences (including the White Bear Yacht Club). The Commodore is also where the Fitzgeralds lived while waiting for their daughter Scottie to be born in 1921.
With its period-appropriate cocktails, gorgeous art-deco interior, and plans for live music on Friday and Saturday nights, it’s a safe bet that crowds will beat down the joint’s doors when it opens tonight. But that doesn’t mean you have to take a direct route to get there. Instead, on a pleasant night take a detour and stroll the streets near the restaurant, visiting a few other Fitzgerald haunts along the way.
25 North Dale
Start at the former site of St. Paul Academy, where Fitzgerald was a student from 1908-1911. The school has long since moved, but the building’s exterior is more or less as it was during Fitzgerald’s time.
Technically, this is the place where he made his literary debut, as his short stories appeared in the student magazine Now and Then. He also wrote plays for the school’s Elizabethan Dramatic Club.
If you stand on the building’s front steps (it now houses offices) you can imagine yourself caught in a crush of students trying to make it to class. Take a photo with the sculpture of a school-aged Fitzgerald by artist Aaron Dyshart that sits to one side of these steps — it’s the closest you’ll ever come to taking a selfie with the famed author.
Walk half a block to Summit Avenue, turn left, go another half block, and you’ll be standing in front of the most famous of the St. Paul residences associated with Fitzgerald (it’s marked with a plaque from the National Register of Historic Places). In the summer of 1919, Fitzgerald moved in here with his parents after graduating from Princeton and finding New York City to be too expensive without a high-paying job (some things never change).
This is where he revised his manuscript for his first novel, This Side of Paradise. It was the kind of set-up most writers long for: living rent-free in a quiet, third-floor room with hours to write and meals brought on trays. When he found out that the novel was accepted for publication by Scribner’s, the story is that he ran up and down Summit, shouting the good news to anyone who would listen.
What’s most charming about this spot, beside the extra-wide sidewalks made for strolling arm-in-arm, is that many of the row houses and residences Fitzgerald saw when he gazed out his window remain intact today.
Kent Street and Portland Avenue
The next stop is St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church, located just one block over at the corner of Kent Street and Portland Avenue. This historic church has the honor of being the site of one of Fitzgerald’s more embarrassing (recorded) escapades in the city.
While home for Christmas break his freshman year, Fitzgerald got drunk at a friend’s house, and had a sudden desire to sing Christmas carols. He walked into the church during the Christmas Eve service, which was filled with the neighborhood’s elite. He then heckled the rector, and left. At the time, this was considered “un-Minnesotan” in the extreme, and Fitzgerald looked back at it later as one of his more disgraceful deeds.
Summit Avenue and Ramsey Street
Return to Summit, walk two blocks east, and you’ll come to the University Club, which served as a hang-out for Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda, when they lived in St. Paul. Legend had it that he carved his initials into the bar, but alas, this is not the case. However, the club did host the F. Scott Fitzgerald Follies each fall to celebrate the writer.
The University Club is located on top of Ramsey Hill, so don’t forget to stroll through Nathan Hale Park across the street to take in the spectacular view of the city, the High Bridge, and the Mississippi River.
Continue two-and-a-half blocks north from the University Club and you’ll arrive at the Commodore. Wet your beak with a Gin Rickey, and settle in. The restaurant’s history and period-perfect interior make it a place designed to attract mysterious strangers, couples meeting for late-night dinners, or rowdy groups of friends enjoying after-dinner aperitifs while holding forth on the most pressing question of our time: Is the novel dead?
Fun Fact: This isn’t the first time the Commodore has been restored. It was first refurbished in the 1970s, and was even listed as a hot spot in The Official Preppy Handbook in 1980, which offered the tip that Thursday was the best night to go to this “mecca of 1920’s Prep revival.”
What to Read at the Bar in the Commodore While Sipping a Sidecar:
Six Tales of the Jazz Age by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Weary Blues by Langston Hughes
Zelda: A Biography by Nancy Milford
Nightwood by Djuna Barnes
The Crack-Up by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Edmund Wilson (if you’re a sucker for an unhappy ending)
Bonus stop: If you find yourself wandering home after a nightcap at the Commodore and are up for a detour, walk to 481 Laurel Avenue to see the house where Fitzgerald was born in 1896. His first word, spoken while living here, was reportedly “up” (highly appropriate for a writer whose chief subject matter would be money and social climbing!).