Greenpoint is the northernmost neighborhood in Brooklyn, and like so many other places in the borough, it’s seen its demographics shift radically in the last 15 years.
This historically working class, mostly Polish area has become younger and more affluent. Industry has been overtaken by hospitality as the main economic engine. The enormous factory building that once churned out Eberhadt Faber pencils for worldwide distribution is now luxury housing: the Pencil Factory Lofts. Across the street is a cocktail bar-slash-date spot called, uncreatively, the Pencil Factory.
There are a lot of bars in Greenpoint run by people who aren’t from Greenpoint. Most of them close.
But in the never-ending open/close/open churn of one of the neighborhood’s main drags, Manhattan Avenue, a bar opened almost five years ago by a handful of Minnesota expats (and one guy from Ireland) has become part of the community’s very fabric. The facade of Lake Street at 706 Manhattan Ave. is pretty low-key. For its whole existence, it’s been adorned with only its name, stenciled above the door in red spray paint and on a beer label-esque logo on the door. Unless you were from the Twin Cities or acutely familiar with its urban planning, nothing about the name or the look would clue you in to its lineage. Until recently, that is.
On football Sundays, the bar swells near capacity with a Twin Cities diaspora clad in -- this being Brooklyn -- some choice vintage Minnesota Vikings swag. And a few weeks ago, as the Vikes barreled their way into the playoffs, a giant purple and gold flag with the iconic cameo started flying outside.
But Lake Street isn’t a sports bar. It’s also not “Minnesota-themed,” a term you’ll hear bandied about when people mention it. It’s a good, no-frills bar run by people from Minnesota who wanted something that combined the best aspects of their favorite bars back home. And I just so happen to be profiling it on the Most Minnesota Sports Day since Kirby Puckett scaled the left field fence to bring back a World Series home run.
Eric Odness (Moorhead, MN), Bobby Drake (Robbinsdale, MN “aka The Naughty North”), Frank Bevan (Minneapolis, MN), Rob Pope (Olathe, KS), and Stevie Howlett (Derry City, Ireland) have co-owned Lake Street since July 2013. The first four guys are midwestern musicians. Howlett is neither. But back then, he had one thing the others didn’t: New York City bar experience.
“I’ve known Bobby for 25 years,” says Bevan. “He was in a really good band back in Minneapolis called Arm. Eric, I knew a little bit. His band was called So Fox. The first time we talked, I was next to him at a urinal, and I accused him of stealing my onstage moves.” Bevan was in two Minneapolis bands, Capital!Capital and Freedom Fighters.
Bevan, Odness, and Drake all moved to NYC around 2000. They stayed in music and stayed acquainted. When Odness approached the other two about opening a bar in 2012, it seemed like a natural move. I ask Drake if he’d thought about it before Odness asked him.
“I hadn’t,” he says. “But I’d spent so much time in bars touring in my 20s and 30s. I knew a lot about them.”
(This is what you might call an understatement. Drake is the drummer for the Hold Steady, a band whose tours around their first three records in the mid-2000s were legendary master classes in the harder-than-it-looks art of making good rock and roll in a live atmosphere that borders on a barroom brawl.)
When they said yes, Odness got Howlett to sign on. He grew up in Northern Ireland, quite a ways away from the Upper Midwest. “I’m like an honorary Minnesotan at this point,” he says. The guys were also friends with Rob Pope through music. A founding member of the Get Up Kids before becoming Spoon’s bassist and another midwestern transplant, Pope had experience owning a bar, the Bourgeois Pig in his native Kansas.
The space they eventually settled on had previously been an electronics store, and it needed plenty of work. They did all of it themselves. Aside from the reverently hung portrait of Prince and the Old Dutch Chips and Pearson’s Nut Rolls that are shipped in for a taste of home, the bar doesn’t have many specifically “Minnesota” flourishes that would classify it as one of the tackier, inauthentic theme bars springing up around New York City. What really makes it a Twin Cities bar are its strong roots in rock and roll.
“Minneapolis is one of the best music cities in the world, in my opinion,” says Bevan. When I read Bob Mehr’s excellent Replacements biography Trouble Boys, one of the earliest parts that jumped out to me was that the Stinsons had a childhood home on Lake Street. The name wasn’t an intentional nod to them, but it’s one of the many ways that the music of the Twin Cities, and the area in general, is coded in the bar’s DNA.
“We run the bar like a band,” Bevan says. “It’s democratic. Everyone has to dig their heel in in different ways. When we have to make a decision, hopefully we find a compromise.”
Drake agrees. “We all play our different roles,” he says. “When we were working on it and when it first opened I was on tour a lot. But then when I got off the road I started working shifts behind bar.”
I discovered Lake Street some four years ago with my band; it was right down the street from our rehearsal space. We’d visit Howlett on his day shift before practice and close up with Drake after. We were never the only band there. There are lots of bands in Brooklyn that like a post-prac beer and shot, but few bars with such a high density of them. It was over two years before I’d downed enough to tell Drake I had one of his old drumsticks from storming the stage in a haze at a Hold Steady show in 2006. (He told me he wanted it back.)
Prior to the Vikings-centric move to start showing Sunday NFL games last season, the only times I’d seen the TVs on were for bands stopping in to watch their performances, taped earlier in the evening for a late-night talk show.
“One time, these two lads were new to the neighborhood and having a beer,” Howlett says. “The Hold Steady were on the TV playing Letterman or something, and one of them said to me, ‘Oh we really like this band.’ I kinda gestured with my elbow down the bar to where Bobby and [Hold Steady frontman] Craig Finn were sitting. They flipped out. It was like, ‘Hey, we’re really in New York now.’”
If you’re looking for a gig with a touring crew, it might not be a bad idea to bring your resume with you when you come in for a drink. Howlett notes that the bar is a big hangout for tour managers. “A lot of TMs will meet up here for drinks when they’re in town. And then every year [the ones native to NYC] have a big holiday hangout,” he says.
Frequent patron and Hibbing, MN native Leslie Hewitt says there’s another element that brings people back. Though the sound was on for the Vikings when we spoke, Hewitt says she returns every Monday with the members of her acrobatics team, the Lady Bats, for “the great bartenders, the great lighting -- but mostly the great music.” It’s true. An ear for the perfect soundtrack is as much a requirement for employment at Lake Street as the ability to pull a tap handle. Her teammate Kelly Rapinac -- also of Hibbing -- says that after getting to know him from coming in every Monday, Drake came to one of their acrobatics shows. She said Lake Street does kind of remind her of some Twin Cities bars. “But it’s not as dingy as the CC Club or Grumpy’s.” I suggest to Bevan that this should be on a T-shirt. I proceed to do a Lady Bats Shot: an Old Dutch Dill Pickle Chip chased by a shot of Tequila. It’s delicious.
The five owners took a trip together to Minneapolis over the holidays. Howlett got to shore up his Honorary Minnesotan claim when they all caught Soul Asylum and former Brooklynite and Lake Street regular Har Mar Superstar at First Avenue. They also attended the Vikes’ 38-10 drubbing of the Bears on New Year’s Day. It was Howlett’s first NFL game. He says the trip refreshed their enthusiasm for making sure that the spirit of Minneapolis was still present in the bar.
That wasn’t a problem on this Sunday. The stream of purple began as a trickle around 3 p.m., but by kickoff at 4:40 the place was at capacity. Justin Ellis, a journalist from south Minneapolis (“Washburn High School!”), had only recently moved to Brooklyn when he found Lake Street this season.
“It’s great. It’s a pack of Vikings fans that is made up of otherwise disparate groups. I love the flag flying out front. And the name has a real connection to me. As a kid, I grew up right off Lake Street.”
The first half was cheerful. The Vikings jumped out to a quick lead in the first quarter. Drinks were drunk, people were smiling and texting their friends and families back in the Midwest. Minnesota Nice was on display when the largest cheer (up to that point) was given for a woman in the stands named “Grandma Millie,” who was attending the game to celebrate her 100th birthday.
In the second half, as the tides turned away from the Vikings, and then back to them, and then away from once again — in a way that looked both familiar and terminal — the emotions of so many people in such a relatively small space felt physical. At one point, fan Charles MacKenzie-Smith had to retreat to the frigid back patio with no coat over his Jared Allen jersey to have a cigarette and watch on the outdoor television. “I just couldn’t be inside with everyone. It was too emotional.”
When Stefon Diggs scored the miracle walk-off touchdown to the stone cold shock and subsequent elation of every Vikings fan in this room — and across the country — the cheers were loud and hearty. They could have been even louder if some weren’t so speechless. When that shock wore off and fistfuls of shots were being handed out from behind the bar, a chant of “Bring it home! Bring it home!” began.
It’s a reference, of course, to the fact that this year’s Super Bowl will be played in Minneapolis. But in this bar full of people who claim both Brooklyn and Minnesota, it could have just as likely been a reference to Lake Street.
Correction: An earlier version of this story identified Eric Odness as Eric "Oddness." He is, presumably, not that odd.