Rec Room Resurrection
2229 E. 35th St., Minneapolis; (612) 728-9871
Hours: 11:00 a.m.-1:00 a.m. daily; food served until midnight
Is there any future for the south Minneapolis 3.2 bar? If you'd asked me that question six months ago, I'd have said no. I'd have figured that once the current crop of 3.2 patrons died off--run into the ground from so many to-the-bathroom miles, I'd guess--that would be that.
(For the edification of foreigners: A 3.2 bar is an establishment permitted to serve only drinks that have no more than 3.2 percent alcohol in their total volume; the drink of choice is nearly always beer. In comparison, standard beer usually has an alcohol level of 5 percent or 6 percent; most table wine is between 10 percent and 15 percent. In Minneapolis nearly all bars south of 31st street are 3.2 bars, which is how lawlessness, anarchy, and inbreeding have been prevented from seeping up from Iowa. Pronunciation is "three-two"--ignore the dot; alternate pronunciations include Whizzy Bar and Leaksalot.)
Where were we? Oh yeah. Formerly, I would've said the 3.2 bar was doomed, but I wouldn't say that now, because I have seen the future, and lo, the future is the Chatterbox Pub. From outside, it doesn't look like anything, just a few dark windows and some neon on the corner of 35th Street and 23rd Avenue. But take the time to look closer; some of that neon is actually Lite-Brite. Step inside and you've entered into an entirely unique experience: A Gen X/Gen Y student-center/cruise-ship activity center/dream basement circa 1983.
Yeah, I know that's a lot of phraseology to explain. But as usual, I beg your patience. The Chatterbox is divided into two rooms: one a standard bar, the other nothing but basement. A dozen thrift-shop recliners and couches grouped around televisions, a lot of Christmas lights, a silver holiday garland wound around an oversize beer-cap clock. Not too promising. But settle down in one of the TV rings, and the transition is quickly made from basement to fantasy basement of adolescent dreams.
Servers offer you Chatterbox Ale (craft-brewed for them by Schell's, in New Ulm), root beers in white-frosted, chilled glasses, turkey sandwiches on crusty rosemary bread, and, of course, bountiful baskets of fries or onion rings. Then, as in so many of the world's fine-dining establishments, you are afforded an opportunity to peruse a second menu, a second menu you need plenty of advance training to make any sense of whatsoever. And no, there isn't a chardonnay on it. It's an Atari game list. Frogger. Asteroids. Space Invader. Donkey Kong. Tron.
A dollar gets you two games and the paddles, and the chance to conjure up memories you might not know you had. It certainly happened to me. As I sat there, strange things came bubbling out of my mouth: "Oh, the hammer isn't for now, it's for when you cycle back around in level three... What you gotta do is trap the scorpion things in the middle of the girders... The only way you'll get through this is to jump when the alligators' mouths are still open." What? When my last guy died and I reached for the reset button on the Atari 2600 game console without even thinking--well, let's just say that self-knowledge really comes at odd times, and it brings sometimes unwelcome information. Exactly how many formative years did I spend on the couch in front of the TV?
(In the Halloween spirit, I'd like to add this to the popular dialogue: The baby-boomers might have had all that hide-under-your-desk-from-the-nuclear-bombs training, but Gen X was the first razor-blades-in-the-candy generation, when playing outside unwatched was tantamount to standing on the side of the highway with a "kidnap me" note taped to your chest. No wonder so many of us feel closer to the Bradys than to the actual neighbors.)
Still, this trumps childhood, because no matter how many years I spent in front of the TV, I'd never have gotten Mom to bring me pitchers of beer and baskets of fries. That house beer, the Chatterbox lager ($1.95 a mug; $8.50 a large pitcher), is pretty good. It's an attractive brown color, has a clean aftertaste, and a nice bite of hops. Not amazing, but a significant improvement over the pale lawn-mower beer that's standard in 3.2 bars. And you've got to applaud owners Andrea Lefavor and Steve Miller for having the vision to try to improve on the formula. Miller says patrons haven't seen nothing yet: They're currently working on developing a Chatterbox Belgian White Ale, which will be served with freshly muddled whole raspberries, lemon wedges, or orange slices.
The same can-do, almost-there kudos goes for the food menu. Most of the offerings are sub sandwiches, which cost $6.95 for a really vast 8-inch offering, or $11.95 for 16 inches. They're much huger than ordinary subs, thanks to the superchewy artisanal rosemary bread that makes their hull. Fill that bread with some basic choices, such as Gardenburger, roast beef, turkey, ham, or lemon-pepper chicken breast. Add cheese--Swiss, mozzarella, or American--and then sauce (fajita ranch, honey mustard, marinara, or the mild house Parmesan-curry mustard) and toppings (the standard lettuce, tomato, and red onion as well as Chatterbox specialties such as sliced mushrooms sautéed in a garlic marinade; sliced green olives prepared in a similar manner; pickles). If you're splurging, throw on some pay-more extras, like bacon (50 cents) or spinach artichoke dip ($1). Voilà!
There are also some house-special subs, like a Pub Melt, made with chicken, mozzarella, garlic mushrooms, and fajita ranch sauce--it's an odd duck, and tastes better cold. It took me awhile to realize this, but all the sandwiches are served hot, and many of them are better special-ordered cold: Turkey with mayonnaise? Better cold. Ham with Parmesan-curry mustard? Better cold.
The sandwiches aren't bad, but--and I can't believe I'm writing this, given how much time I spend agitating for non-squishy bread--several of them would be better with a softer, more conventional bread choice, especially the burgers. I tried the Chatterbox burger ($5.95) twice and I liked it very much. The burger itself is flavorful; the meat is marinated and tossed with dried herbs, and then topped with bacon, herb-sautéed sliced green olives, Swiss cheese, and a liberal dollop of Parmesan-curry mustard. The overall effect is salty, savory, and pleasantly unusual, like some kind of gourmet fusion muffuletta-mustard-meatloaf.
There's a unique culinary vision playing out here; please use caution when picking out the potatoes that accompany all subs and burgers. The fries are a safe bet, but the garlic-dill potatoes are strange. They are neither boiled nor mashed, but somewhere between the two poles--imagine smallish bits of potato that seem to have been through a rock-tumbler and enrobed with an indistinctly herbal, buttery sauce. Mostly they reminded me of bottled salad dressing, but they reminded a friend of mine of what you can make in the dorm kitchen in the middle of the night, when the potatoes and Knorr packets lay unprotected. And here we are again! Back at the core of it all: The dorm lounge-ness of it all, the third-best-couch-where-you-can-drink-grape-juice-ness of it all. Atari generations rule!
It's enough to make you challenge a stranger to a round of Atari Video Checkers. Video Checkers, isn't that sweet? As if there were some danger of their being confused with the other checkers. As if there was any reason to play checkers on a TV screen, when half the pleasure is physically bumping the checkers up and down. And if actual checkers are more your speed, there are tons of non-Atari games behind the bar at Chatterbox too.
And that's to say nothing of the all-bar costume mega-games masterminded by soon-to-wed owners Lefavor and Miller. As I was writing this, they were gearing up for a Fifties Las Vegas-lounge murder mystery. Scripted by Miller (who plays a fat cat with unclear motives), it will involve ten costumed lead characters, one of whom plans to murder another. There will be a casino set up in the bar, and patrons will receive a stack of Chatterbox cash. Take your moolah to the casino, and try to increase it. Once you have sufficient coin, attempt to bribe the characters to divulge their motivations and histories. There are two contests: one to figure out who will get murdered, a second to figure out who did it. Customers must work together, pooling the information--and misinformation--they gather. Chatterboxers who come in costume get to participate in more depth, perhaps even gaining their own character identity, and clues to peddle. I'm sure you've heard of events like these--they're usually at some $100-a-head bed and breakfast, not at a south Minneapolis 3.2 bar.
"Yeah, that 3.2 license is something of a stigma," says Miller. "People think it means they can't get drunk or we're going to have terrible beer. But that's not us. We're a community space. We're where, the first week in December, there's going to be a Scooby-Doo mystery party. The premise is that me and Andrea are close to having to sell the bar because it's haunted. Then those meddling kids show up. You can come dressed as your favorite Scooby-Doo character or guest host. Personally, I'm hoping for the Harlem Globetrotters and Phyllis Diller."
If Miller gets Phyllis Diller and the Globetrotters, chances are they'll come holding the IDs of the typical Chatterbox customer: twenty- and thirtysomethings drawn to the Corcoran neighborhood by all that cute, affordable housing. "Sometimes it seems like everyone in here just bought a house," says Miller. "Everyone used to live in Uptown, everyone was looking to raise a family or spread out, to get access to space that isn't commercial space. That's what we are: A community space. A family room."
A family room? Suddenly, it hit me. The Chatterbox isn't a peculiar alley in the history of the south Minneapolis 3.2 bar, it's the inevitable next step. If family rooms were, for an earlier generation, a place where you smoke cigarettes around a kitchen table, it's inevitable that for the generations of the TV-room womb, the 3.2 bar is where you sit around on couches and play Atari while eating chicken tenders ($5.95). One thing though: All this thinking about 3.2 bars is making me eye today's super-scheduled Echo Boom with suspicion. Will the 3.2 bar of 2020 be where you go to eat Lunchables while you learn how to draw, improve your vocabulary, and play soccer? Stay tuned...
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