80-year-old Vadnais Inn, the suburbs’ purest dive bar, to be demo’d for a wider 694 on-ramp

Bill Lindeke

Bill Lindeke

I’m certain that 99 percent of people driving by the Vadnais Inn, a gem of a dive bar in Vadnais Heights, never even see it next to the freeway on-ramp.

Tucked between the Caribou Coffee drive thru window, a billboard, and a chain-link freeway fence, the little red-and-white building sits on its pockmarked asphalt like a missing sock at the margins of attention.Yet the one in a hundred, the thirsty and curious, will find inside the doors of the little building the purest suburban dive in the metro area, one that’s literally covered in history.

Located at 3364 Rice St., at the very spot where Vadnais Heights, Shoreview, and Little Canada meet, the Vadnais Inn dates back to the 1940s. It was one of many old Rice Street bars that served automobile travellers, and it was here before the 694 freeway ring road was even an imaginary line on a highway engineer’s map.

“I’ve been here 24 years,” says owner Kris John, a thin, middle-aged woman in a pink shirt with short blond hair. “I get a lot of regulars.”

Bill Lindeke

Bill Lindeke

Kris inherited the Inn from her late husband, Butch, who bought it in the 1980s. She’s been running it on her own for the last two years.

Tragically for those who appreciate traces of pre-war suburbia, the Vadnais Inn is slated to close for good. Ramsey County and MnDOT are teaming up to redesign the on-ramp at Rice Street and Interstate 694. In place of the current traffic signals, there’ll be a series of space-hogging traffic circles. And right where the Vadnais Inn sits today, the county is planning to widen the frontage road.

Construction is scheduled to begin in early 2019, a communications manager for Ramsey County confirmed Tuesday morning.

According to county highway bullet points, the project aims to "improve traffic operations along Rice Street through the interchange area" and "prioritize the most vulnerable users to ensure that all users have equitable safety and mobility through the interchange." A third goal is to “improve economic development opportunities in underutilized sites.” Economic development means different things to different people, I suppose, and unfortunately for Kris John, it means tearing down her historic bar.

“I don’t know what to say. They’re taking my livelihood,” John sighs. “I couldn’t have fought it. It was gonna happen regardless.”

Compared to most suburban bars, where no gesture is too tacky, the Vadnais displays a perfect balance of saloon minimalism. The U-shaped bar tucked amid the thin wooden pillars reminds me of a haiku, with no wasted gesture. In back, there’s a large addition boasting a pair of pool tables, and there’s a small patio tucked outside for the smokers.

Bill Lindeke

Bill Lindeke

Best of all, the front room of the Vadnais is a living museum; seemingly every surface in the place is covered in something. Most unusually, tucked into the gaps in the vinyl veneer are hundreds of business cards advertising nearly every middle-class profession imaginable. They range from the 1980s to the present, and offer a rolodex of plumbers, carpenters, copy machine technicians, oil change drones, realtors, mechanics, and handymen who all felt compelled to add their names and their cards to the collection.

Similarly, dollar bills cover the ceiling -- a dive bar tradition, found elsewhere at places like Cuzzy’s in the North Loop and St. Paul’s Ran-Ham Lanes bowling alley. (On one that caught my eye, the letters B and R have been added to a one-dollar bill to spell out B-ONE-R.)

Inside, the Vadnais Inn has no shortage of similar wit and charm. Signs from funnily named bars from around the country. Faded 1980s-era photographs of long-gone patrons.

“This was my son when he was five years old,” Kris replies, pointing to a nearby pillar, when I ask about the photos. “He’s 22 now.”

The faded image shows a boy wearing a karate uniform, and it’s just one of the thousands of bits of history and memory affixed to the walls and thin wooden pillars that hold up the roof of the Vadnais Inn. The prices, too, seem straight from the 1980s, and the social life of the bar begins at midday, when a plastic cup of Old Style will cost you only $1. At 2 p.m., the Old Style doubles in price to $2, a fine compromise to modernity that lasts until 8.

The pull tab booth is well stocked, and the food is both solid and impossibly cheap. Wednesday is dollar taco night, the meat raffle is Thursday at 6, and a gift card raffle for money to nearby restaurants is Friday.

Bill Lindeke

Bill Lindeke

Kris doesn’t know where people will go, and admits she looked around a little bit for a similar space. But with thin margins, and so much character embedded in the walls of the old building, relocation seems like a pipe dream.

If the freeway project goes as planned, within a year, people will be speeding even more seamlessly up Rice Street and onto the freeway. Few will ever know that this new and improved traffic circle paved over an irreplaceable piece of St. Paul’s suburban history.

As I hung out last week, watching the Twins lose yet again to the Yankees, the telephone rang, and Kris jotted down a note on a pad of paper. In a booth along the wall, a man in a gray polo shirt counted quarters out of the bartop video game machines. As he got to the pile of change from a pool table, Kris’s mom appeared, and the two of them began planning the Vadnais’ final golf tournament.

“What color should the shirts be this year?”

“Red, I think.”

“What should they say?”

“The last hurrah,” Kris replies.